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The Philadelphia Flyers are suddenly one of the hottest teams in hockey, yet to lose in the month of December and sitting in second place in the Metropolitan Division.
They’re also in the midst of an openly-announced rebuild. Or are they?
Plans can change quickly for a club, especially one exceeding expectations to the degree that the Flyers have through two months. And it’s the person at the top — first-year general manager Daniel Briere — who is driving those plans.
On Saturday morning, prior to the team’s 5-2 victory over the Colorado Avalanche, Briere sat down with PHLY to discuss the state of the team, whether Briere plans to change course due to the team’s fast start, and what it all means for their likely approach to the March 8 trade deadline;
Today is Part 1 of the interview, which is accessible to all. Part 2 — which will largely focus on specific players — will run on Tuesday, and will be available to Diehard PHLY members only.
PHLY: Your team currently sits second in the Metropolitan Division in terms of points, and this is after an offseason when the front office and ownership made it clear that the organization is rebuilding. Are you surprised with the performance of the club thus far?
I think our players have really stepped up, and played extremely well. I think they’ve really responded to playing as a team, which is so exciting to see.
I’m not surprised. I mean, this is so tight. It’s not like we’re 10 points ahead (and in) a playoff spot. Everything is so tight, it could change really quick. I’m not surprised that we’re in the race. I thought that’s about right where we could be. But it’s exciting.
I think part of the culture that we’re trying to bring in here, is a competitive team that has a chance to win every night. And for our players to learn to play those types of games, and not going into games thinking that you don’t have much of a chance… it’s really tough to get out of that silo once you fall into that.
We’ve seen so many teams over the years, they deplete the team, and then it’s just hard because the culture is to lose games, and it’s really hard to get out of that. We didn’t want to do that. But I give credit to our coaching staff and our players for how well they’ve played this year.
PHLY: Who, in your mind, have taken the biggest leaps this season in terms of how you viewed them heading into the year?
I almost have to go through the whole team. Obviously, Travis Sanheim, I think I have to start with him. And I was hard on him in the offseason. After the season, I challenged him, because I knew how good he could be. We had seen it the year before.
‘Okay, last year was an off year,’ (you heard, but) I really challenged him. The way he came back, the demeanor that he came back with, the time that he spent the offseason to prove to us that he was a top-end defenseman? I gotta give him a lot of credit for that.
Sean (Couturier) and Cam Atkinson coming back from missing a lot of time, both of them. I would say it’s been impressive there with those guys. Sean Walker obviously is a name that we didn’t know much about. We knew he would help us this year. But he’s really stepped up his game.
When you look at his trajectory to two years ago, he missed a lot of time, had surgery. You see that a lot, where you come back the following year after surgery — I remember Claude Giroux kind of went through a little bit of a lull after he had his (core muscle) surgery – and it takes almost a full year to get out of that. This is the year after now (for Walker). His game is just… from Day 1, it just keeps getting better and better.
I could go down the list of so many guys that are playing well. We didn’t expect Tyson Forster and Bobby Brink to play as well as they have as well. Yeah, I almost want to give you a list of close to the full team if I could.
PHLY: Obviously, the fast start has people wondering about whether the Flyers are indeed still rebuilding, like you said over the summer. Are you still committed to a future-focused rebuild?
Yes. We’re going to do the right thing for the future of this organization. I think we’re still in that stage. We have a lot of young players. We have a chance to build something special. I want to make sure that we get out of that thing, the last probably 10 years, where we’re always on the cusp. One year, we make the playoffs barely. The following year, we miss the playoffs barely. We’ve got to get out of that area.
What we’re trying to do is build a team that’s going to be a contender for a lot of years, not just for one year. I’ve been impressed with what the guys are doing this year. But we have to be realistic, that if there’s something that’s going to help us for years to come, you have to consider that as well.
PHLY: I guess, as a follow up to that, do you envision a scenario where you would consider buying at the March 8 deadline?
I would say no at this point.
Things can always change, things can vary. But at the moment, I would have to say no.
At the same time, they’re playing so well together, I think they love each other. The players would probably, ideally for them, they would just want to keep the same team, and keep proving to everyone that they are ready to win. You have to be careful with that as well. But we’re not in a place to be getting rid of assets in the timeline of this organization.
PHLY: That leads into my next question. Let’s say it’s the end of February, and the Flyers are either in a playoff spot or just a couple points out – very much in the mix. Maybe you’re not necessarily going to spend assets for short-term upgrades. But would you view it as, we’re going to keep this team together because they’ve earned the right to stay together? Or does that not factor into your thinking because you’re so focused on the future?
It’s a little early to say that. Just like there could be a player that we feel could help us without losing real assets that we have to consider, that’s a possibility. It’s a little early to say that. But we want to be careful at the same time and always keep in mind the plan, and what we want to do moving forward, and build a team that’s going to be good and a contender for years to come – not just for one year.
PHLY: Talking long-term now – what do you think this team lacks most, in terms of getting to the stage of being a true Stanley Cup contender?
High-end skill. We’ve talked about that. Now we do have some of that coming in the organization, but they’re not necessarily on the team. We’re not built like the Avalanche is built here, where you have your high, high-end guys. We have to do it by committee.
Depth is critical for us to have success. It’s a tough question at this time. And things can change fast also. Center depth through the organization is something that we have to look at. Our top-four defensemen in the organization we have to look at as well. We have a guy like Oliver Bonk coming up, but we have to be realistic. Oliver is playing this year in juniors, gonna have another year of juniors. He’s probably gonna need a year in the minors possibly, unless he was ready.
But defensemen take a lot of time to develop. We see the perfect example with Travis Sanheim and Cam York. It takes time for defensemen, and that’s something that we’re aware of. We want to keep developing in the overall scheme of the organization.
PHLY: You mentioned the need for high-end talent. I know from the start – from your very first press conference as interim GM – you made it clear that this was a rebuild, not a tank. But there is an argument to be made that if high-end talent is the biggest need, the best and most efficient way to get it is to draft high. You guys are looking like you’re a lot better than expected – you’re not necessarily looking like you’re going to draft high. How do you get that high-end talent without drafting in the top-10?
Well, we did draft high the last two years. So that would be the start of it. But like I said, when you’re not spending $12 million on a player, or even two like Edmonton does… Colorado has three or four high-end guys. We’re not going to be built that way. So depth will be important to us.
That’s kind of what we’re doing. You see it up front with some of our young guys kind of starting to come. We have so many young guys. Probably won’t have to pay the $12 million (for a guy), but we’ll pay to have the depth and be able to match Line 1 to 4 with teams.
PHLY: The trade rumors have already begun to kick into high gear, as you’ve probably seen. You see reports on TSN and whatever. Do you think it’s likely that you’d be involved in a trade well before the deadline, or is this mostly tire-kicking at this point?
I think it’s mostly tire-kicking. But again, I’ve said it from Day 1: we’re open for business, we’re listening. It’s our job to verify what’s out there. And if there’s something that makes too much sense, you have to consider it.
Now the way we’re playing, I don’t have to force a trade, I don’t have to force something to make it happen. That’s kind of the beauty of it. So I’m not out there trying to force a move at all. But if someone calls and they have a need, and they’re willing to pay high for it, we have to do the right thing for the organization.