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Carchidi: Will Flyers be Tempted to Copy Fla.’s Odd Rebuilding Method?

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Philadelphia Flyers GM Danny Briere at news conference Tuesday in Voorhees. Flyers trade talk.
Danny Briere is building through the draft, but Florida GM Bill Zito has used a different method to get the Panthers to the Cup Finals.

In a news conference last week, the Philadelphia Flyers’ head honcho, Dan Hilferty, said he was studying the Eastern Conference champion Florida Panthers and how they were built.

The inference: Hilferty wanted to see how far away the Flyers were to becoming a Stanley Cup contender.

The reality: A long way away, despite a positive 2023-24 season.

That said, the Panthers (not too long ago) were the definition of mediocrity. Like the Flyers.

Now they are one win from the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

So, yes, fairly quick turnarounds are possible.

Brilliant GM moves

At the root of Florida’s success is Bill Zito. The Panthers have made amazing strides since  Zito became their general manager in 2020.

Two years later, the Panthers had the most points (122) in hockey– after collecting just 79 points the previous season.

Three years later, they were in the Finals.

Four years later, they are back in the Finals and knocking on the door for a championship.

If Philadelphia Flyers general manager Danny Briere is going to follow Zito’s blueprint, he will have to make some one-sided trades and shrewdly sign some free agents when the team gets cap relief after the 2024-25 season. Briere is rebuilding the Flyers through the draft, but Zito has shown there is another method that also works.

Surprisingly, the Panthers’ emergence wasn’t done through the draft. It was done via wise trades, free-agent signings (many for low-priced but effective defensemen) or adding players that were placed on waivers.

Few homegrown players

Only three of the Panthers’ full-time regulars this season are homegrown: Aleksander Barkov, arguably the NHL’s best two-way player, star defenseman Aaron Ekblad, and third-line center Anton Lundell.

The Flyers, of course, don’t have anyone close to the talented Barkov or Ekblad.

While Barkov and Ekblad are great pieces to build around – maybe Matvei Michkov and Cam York will have that distinction some day – the main reason for the Panthers’ success has been their uncanny ability in the trade market.

Look at the Panthers’ key players and most came in trades, including forwards Matthew Tkachuk (88 points this season), Sam Reinhart (career-high 57 goals this season) , hard-nosed Sam Bennett (20 goals), valuable left winger Eetu Luostarinen, and veteran Vladimir Tarasenko. Zito also acquired second-pairing defenseman Brandon Montour, who was plucked from from Buffalo for just a third-round draft pick three years ago; he has been averaging about 24 minutes per game in the playoffs.

Reinhart was a good player in Buffalo; he has become a great player in Florida, averaging 40 goals in his three seasons with the Cats.

The free agents and waiver pickups have been just as impressive.

Bob leads the way

Heading the list is former Flyer Sergei Bobrovsky. The player known as “Bob” hasn’t always lived up to the seven-year, $70 million deal he signed in the summer of 2019, but he is back to the form that won him two Vezina Trophies and he has been superb in this year’s playoffs.

Carter Verhaeghe was a much less-costly free agent, but he has played a major role for Zito. In 2020, he signed a two-year deal for $1 million annually. He had been in 52 games with Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay the previous season, recording a modest nine goals and 13 points.

But Zito, a Milwaukee native, knew the 6-foot-2, 180-pound winger had excelled in the AHL, and his talent has blossomed with the Panthers. He has a total of 76 goals over his last two seasons, placing him 14th in the NHL.

Underrated defenseman

Gustav Forsling was picked up on waivers from Carolina in 2021 and he has become Ekblad’s ultra-reliable partner on the top defensive pairing. Talk about striking gold on a penny stock. Forsling(10 goals, 39 points)  had an NHL-best plus-56 rating in the regular season and has been just as good in the playoffs.

Last summer, Zito worked more magic by signing free-agent winger Evan Rodrigues, who has been a hero in the Finals after collecting 39 points and a plus-26 rating in the regular season. It was money well spent — four years at $3 million per year.

Other free agent signings gave Florida valuable pieces, including Dmitry Kulikov (one year, $1 million) and Oliver Ekman-Larsson (one year, $2.25 million), players who usually form the third pairing; second-pairing defenseman Niko Mikkola (three years, $2.5 million per season); backup goalie Anthony Stolarz (one year, $1.1 million) and fourth-line center Kevin Stenlund (one year, $1 million), who chipped in with 11 goals. Stolarz, a New Jersey native and a former Flyer, was one of the NHL’s best backups, going 16-7-2 with a 2.03 GAA and .925 save percentage.

Having a standout goalie like Bobrovsky has made Zito’s turnaround easier, but the GM deserves lots of props for orchestrating a remarkable turnaround. He has given other GMs — like Briere — a different kind of blueprint for success.

Sam Carchidi writes a weekly column for Philly Hockey Now. He and Jeff Hare are working on a TV series on the Flyers’ glory days, tentatively called “Bullies.” Carchidi can be reached at samcarchidi55@gmail.com.

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