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March 11, 2023

Firing Chuck Fletcher was the first step on a painfully long road for the Flyers

The Flyers finally made a move and an admission that were both long overdue, but it's only the beginning of a long road back to relevance.

Maybe the wakeup call was seeing the arena shrouded not in orange, or even just empty seats, but Ranger blue

Maybe it was an outright embarrassing trade deadline where the team, self-admitted sellers looking to get younger, didn't do much of either, failing to attract even the slightest offer for an obvious playoff rental that left the man overseeing it fumbling to justify the inactivity – "I don't know what to say," he muttered at one point on that deflating afternoon. 

Maybe it was the season ticket holder town hall right after, which was drowned in boos, anger, and dissatisfaction from fans who have tried to stick through it all, or finally getting talked about on local sports radio but for all the wrong reasons. 

Maybe it was the realization of a third straight season going nowhere, or the at times apparent disconnect in messaging between the head coach and general manager, or seeing young players thought to be key pieces on long-term deals regress and get benched multiple times

Maybe it was seeing a barren yet expensive roster, try as they might to be "hard to play against," get thumped on a nightly basis by the NHL's true contenders – Tampa Bay and Carolina being the two latest – or maybe it was all of the above that finally reached a boiling point. 

Either way, the Philadelphia Flyers finally made a move and an admission that were both long overdue. 

Chuck Fletcher was fired as the general manager and president of hockey operations Friday morning, first reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer then officially announced by the organization soon after, and on what's to follow, Comcast Spectacor chairman and Flyers governor Dave Scott said in the release:

“Flyers fans deserve a better team than what they’ve seen on the ice over the past few seasons, and a clear plan to return this team to Stanley Cup contention. We know that this will be a multi-year process, and we are committed to doing it right, because we want to put this franchise on a path toward winning the Stanley Cup, period.   

“In the coming days, we will begin the process of re-structuring our Hockey Operations Department by separating the President and General Manager positions.  We view this as a critical opportunity to not only re-establish the standard of excellence that our fans expect, but also to bring new energy, accountability, and strategic vision to our organization."

No more delusion. No more denial. Time for a rebuild.

And while the recognition, at long last, is an important first step, that's what it is, the first step. One on what's going to be a long, painful road ahead.

Former Flyer Danny Brière, who was an assistant to Fletcher and has been rising through the executive ranks for the past several years, will serve as the interim GM to close out the season and this will very much be his audition to see where he could land within the new front office structure. 

But the change can't begin and end with a search for a new GM and president, or just by plugging Brière alone into one of the two openings. 

The Flyers' front office needs a clean slate and a new, forward-thinking approach to the game, because the reality is that the team's problems extend well beyond Fletcher and were festering long before his arrival in 2018 – even though his decision-making did contribute to them significantly.

Per The Athletic's Charlie O'Connor, the hockey operations department is going to be significantly restructured over the summer, and that may very well include decisions on longtime voices behind the scenes in franchise alumni Bobby Clarke, Bill Barber, and Paul Holmgren – each of which is notorious among Flyers fans for brash, short-term fixes rather than any long-term sustainable outlook. 

In other words, a mentality to building a team that just straight up doesn't work anymore in the salary cap era and one that began the Flyers' decline into a decade-plus of mediocrity ever since Chris Pronger took that stick to the eye all the way back in 2011. 

They got away from it for a bit when Ron Hextall took over in the back half of the 2010s to focus on piling up prospects, but his approach didn't work out either (Pittsburgh's learning all about that now). He was patient to a fault – with former coach Dave Hakstol and a reluctance toward major trades and signings – and in the end, his drafting didn't leave the team in all that better of a spot.

When Fletcher was brought in to replace him to swing the Flyers back into a "win now" approach with the old core of Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek, his immediate moves did yield results. The hiring of Alain Vigneault, the signing of Kevin Hayes, and the acquisition of Matt Niskanen did initially work and had the Flyers off to their best season in years, but then COVID happened, and whatever magic they had that season just up and vanished with that Game 7 loss to the Islanders in the Toronto bubble. 

From there, and as desperately he tried to sell the idea that the team could still be competitive, they crumbled. 

While some of the reasons for it were totally out of Fletcher's control – Niskanen's retirement after the 2020 season, Nolan Patrick's migraine disorder, Oskar Lindblom's cancer diagnosis, major neck surgeries for Cam Atkinson and Joel Farabee, Sean Couturier's lingering back issues, and the acquisition of Ryan Ellis only for him to disappear with a mysterious (likely career-ending) series of lower-body injuries – just as many of his calls didn't help – trading Shayne Gostisbehere for nothing and buying out Lindblom solely to clear cap, huge overspends on the trades and signings of Rasmus Ristolainen, Tony DeAngelo, and Nic Deslauriers that tied up said cap, no push in the Johnny Gaudreau sweepstakes, and when it became clear a rebuild was on the horizon, the James van Riemsdyk trade failure at the deadline. 

Now Giroux and Voracek are both gone, and aside from maybe Carter Hart and Travis Konecny, all that's left is a lineup full of depth players and grinders with no real game-changing talent, where the only way they can win is to outhustle and outwork every single opponent, and that just isn't feasible to maintain night in and night out. 

There are pieces, sure. Cam York is on the path to developing into a steady NHL defenseman, Tyson Foerster and Elliot Desnoyers were in the lineup Thursday night against Carolina and they're both prospects the Flyers do believe they hit on, and Cutter Gauthier may bring a boost over from Boston College soon. 

But they're not saving the Flyers themselves, nor is any player currently on the payroll, nor is the lack of any second-round pick the next two years because they got traded away. 

"This team needs to be built and it needs to be built from the footers," head coach John Tortorella said way back in December, even while Fletcher was trying to dance around the idea of a rebuild at the time. "We're not even in the foundation, we're in the footer position as far as I'm concerned to just try and build this foundation the proper way."

He knew that when he took the job and has consistently been vocal about it throughout this season, even when the rest of the organization was struggling to come to grips with it, and based on his name being the one attached to the letter sent to season ticket holders on the state of the team last month, he'll at least be around to stick it out.

"I get people asking me 'How you doing?' and this and that with the losing and stuff like that. I love the opportunity that we have here to build something from, really, the ground up," he said a few months back. "When you're having some pain, and you're gonna go through a lot of pain, but when you start feeling that pain, do you change your thinking and panic and readjust how you're gonna go about it? That's the important part for us in this organization, is to just stay with it."

But now the Flyers are at a point where they have to figure out what "it" is.

They finally, fully recognized that they have to, that a rebuild is the only way forward. 

But it's going to be a long, painful road ahead. 

Though maybe one that has some glimmer of hope.

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