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June 29, 2023

With Matvei Michkov, the Flyers gamble on different, on greater

Michkov might end up as one of hockey's premier goal-scorers, but it's just going to take a few years for him to come over. The rebuilding Flyers, however, can wait.

The Philadelphia Flyers can wait. 

If it means having a game-changing goal-scorer in a few years' time, they can absolutely wait. 

After months of having his status shrouded in mystery, with the teams picking 4-6 having likely passed up on him partially because of it, the Flyers took the stage down in Nashville Wednesday night and GM Danny Brière took the NHL Draft's biggest swing. 

At seventh overall, the Flyers took 18-year old winger Matvei Michkov, a Russian phenom who was arguably the most talented player in the draft not named Connor Bedard going in and carries a goal-scoring prowess that has drawn comparisons to one of the game's all-time greats in Alex Ovechkin. 

The upside is tremendous – potentially game-breaking even for a franchise that has lacked that level of true star power for a long time now – but it's a big risk too.

Because of a contract signed with the Kontinental Hockey League's SKA St. Petersburg that runs through the next three seasons, and because of an overall unstable situation in Russia causing concern over the country's prospects across the NHL as well, the earliest Michkov is expected to be available for a jump to North America is in 2026. 

That's quite a long time from now, and though Michkov, who was grinning from ear to ear at the podium in his new Flyers jersey and hat after being selected, said he wants to come over as soon as possible, he ultimately isn't sure when that will be. 

But the Philadelphia Flyers can wait. At only just the start of what is now, without question, going to be a lengthy rebuild, they can absolutely wait. 

"I know what everybody knows, that he has a three-year contract with St. Petersburg," Brière said after the first round came to a close. "That's the timeline we were told and we'll deal with that. That's not something that scared us to have the chance to take a player of his caliber at pick No. 7."

The Flyers don't make this kind of pick under Chuck Fletcher. They don't make it under Ron Hextall either, and definitely not with Paul Holmgren at the helm. 

If it was same old, same old, they probably would have walked away with Ryan Leonard Wednesday night instead, a very good player out of the U.S. National Development Program in his own right, but a much safer option that would have fit more into the stereotypical Flyers mold. 

But Brière, Keith Jones, and the rest of the Flyers' only recently restructured front office, didn't go for safe. They took the gamble on different, on greater, and on a plan that everyone could begin to see upon Michkov's selection.

The organization met with Michkov twice in the leadup to the draft and both times they were blown away by the Russian prospect's personality and competitive drive, Brière said. The belief in his talent was always there, but those interviews were the final push the Flyers needed to take a serious run at him and feel comfortable enough to do so if he was still available. 

Michkov was genuine, Brière felt, about wanting to play in the NHL, about wanting to win a Stanley Cup, and about wanting to be a Flyer. 

"We had a good feeling, and again, seeing the talent level of this player, we don't have anybody like him in the organization," Brière said. "We felt it was something – we talked for how many years now? About how we needed to bring more skill, more talent to our team. This was a great opportunity to hopefully develop a player that can play that role for us."

"It felt like we were talking the same language," Michkov said of those interviews via a translator, grateful for where they soon led him. 

The Flyers were worried, however, that he wouldn't still be there at No. 7, and Brière admitted to exploring trade options beforehand to move up the draft board and ensure that they could get him. They came up empty though, so they had to just sit and bank on the chance to pick Michkov falling into their lap, which – thanks to passes from San Jose at 4, Montreal at 5, then Arizona at 6 – it luckily did. And once the opportunity arose, "it was an easy decision," Brière said.

Now the Flyers are banking on Michkov eventually coming over and being "a difference-maker" in a few years – Brière didn't want to throw the "superstar" label on him prematurely – they're banking on nailing the next couple of drafts in the meantime, and banking on what's clearly going to be a long, grueling process working out and going into overdrive once their new top prospect is ready to make the jump. 

It's a major gamble for sure, but one made on the Flyers' part with astounding patience and, above all else, purpose.

"It's not just me. We believe, and we've said it to our fans, it's going to be a process," Brière said. "That we weren't going to turn this around overnight, that it would take time. I think he's a clear example of that. We took a big swing, but we hope that this turns out to be a home run. Time will tell. It's a little early, but we feel when he's ready to come, he can really be a difference-maker. 

"That's the risk we were willing to take to wait a little bit to hopefully have a difference-maker on our hands."

And if the reward is getting the kid who was equal parts exhilarated, confident, and emotional – a mix that this city loves – after putting that jersey on Wednesday night as their next star, then the Philadelphia Flyers can wait. 

They can absolutely wait. 

"I guess that means we're gonna start winning when I get here," Michkov said.

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