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June 24, 2024

Matvei Michkov's early arrival is a sign that the Flyers are on the path to contention

The Flyers were ready to wait and are still going to need time to build out the rest of the team, but Michkov is reportedly on his way, in the first real sign that they can get this right.

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Matvei-Michkov-Flyers-NHL-Draft-2023-Nashville.jpg Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports

Matvei Michkov will be stepping onto the ice in a Flyers uniform real soon.

Matvei Michkov sat at the dais with a smile from ear to ear, wearing the Flyers jersey and hat, and surrounded by a swarm of cameras and recorders. 

It was last June down in Nashville at the NHL Draft. The Russian phenom, who some believed to be the second-best prospect in the class behind Chicago's top pick Connor Bedard, instead slid down to seventh overall and Philadelphia. 

But he couldn't have been happier about it. 

When Michkov met with the local media for the first time – speaking through a translator – he talked about the honor in wearing that jersey, how after meeting with Danny Brière and the rest of Flyers management during the pre-draft process, that Philadelphia was where he wanted to be.

And then he talked about how he couldn't wait to get to the Flyers. He talked about winning the Stanley Cup with them.

But "wait" was the big keyword there, because for Michkov, Brière, the organization, and Flyers fans across the board, it was always going to be one – from the second his name was called on the draft stage last summer. 

It's just on the path to ending much sooner than initially thought.

Michkov, who was already signed to a three-year contract with SKA St. Petersburg in Russia's pro Kontiental Hockey League (KHL) and expected to fulfill it, instead negotiated an out from the club with his representation after one season, with the intent to depart for North America, the NHL, and the Philadelphia Flyers, word broke early Sunday

The Flyers were lining themselves up for a long-term rebuild at the time they took Michkov and were fully willing to wait out the contract as it was if, in the end, it meant eventually getting a goal-scoring, game-changing level star. They weren't going to be ready to seriously compete within the next few years anyway. 

But they'll definitely take him now that he's reportedly on his way, even if they still have a ways to go in building out the rest of the team. It's a start, and a massive organizational win for a franchise that hasn't had all that many in the past decade or so, but moreover, Michkov's arrival ahead of schedule serves as one of the first signs that the Flyers could actually get this rebuild right. 

"For us, it doesn't change," Brière said late last week at the Flyers Training Center in Voorhees during his media availability ahead of the 2024 draft, fighting to hold back a smile that says a whole lot more now than it did just a few days ago. "If they tell us he's coming on September 1, we'll jump on it. The mindset for us is still we're going into next season without him. He has two years left on his contract. If something changes from today until then, we'll certainly be happy. But I don't have much news on that. We read what's going on and we hope for the best."

And for once – after the deep fall into mediocrity and apathy that started with Ron Hextall and was only left worse off by Chuck Fletcher, after the fallout with former top prospect Cutter Gauthier and his resulting trade to Anaheim, after the sensitive and extremely serious Carter Hart situation, the arduously long and baffling road to finally getting Ivan Fedotov, and every other strange, tough-luck thing to seemingly always happen to this franchise – the Flyers finally got the best. 

Brière, in his first draft as the Flyers' full-time GM, took a massive gamble on Michkov last summer. Of course, the talent and star potential were there, but so was that KHL contract that concerned other teams and Russia's touchy and still ongoing geopolitical climate, which scared other teams further – and that the Flyers already knew all about with Fedotov.

But Brière rolled the dice on greater that night late last June at the risk of it taking years to finally see the payoff – if at all. Now the Flyers are being rewarded for it. Their next star – potentially – is coming over. 

"It's not just me. We believe, and we've said it to our fans, it's going to be a process," Brière said after taking Michkov with 2023's seventh pick. "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 it looks like they're not going to have to wait as long as they thought they would to find out.

Michkov began the 2023-24 KHL season with SKA St. Petersburg, but played little, which became a point of 'extreme frustration' until a "mutual decision" was reached to loan him to HC Sochi within the same league to get him regular minutes. 

In 47 games from there, we went on to post 19 goals and 22 assists for 41 points, which kept him on a similar pace to established Russian NHL stars Alex Ovechkin and Artermi Panarin as they were building up to their respective jumps to North America, and all the while, he was creating highlights that very quickly captured Flyers fans' attention over social media. 

Back in Philadelphia, the Flyers of here and now ended up making a surprise playoff push, though it ultimately stalled out in the home stretch of the season with skaters that just looked out of gas. 

Notably behind the scenes, however, Brière managed the infamous trade of Gauthier to Anaheim and then the sudden, late-season acquisition of Fedotov in near-complete silence, which set a precedent for how the first-year GM would navigate delicate situations. 

At his end-of-season press conference, in a couple of interviews after, and during his pre-draft media availability last week, Brière – along with president of hockey ops Keith Jones and Flyers governor Dan Hilferty – kept anything on Michkov close to the vest, making sure to note that his KHL contract was still in place and that the Flyers were being respectful of that.

But rumors had been flying in the past couple of months since the Flyers' season ended.

At the end of April, in an interview with Russian sports outlet Match TV, SKA St. Petersburg chairman Alexander Medvedev discussed the awareness that Michkov is an NHL star in the making, the Flyers' desire to bring him over, acknowledgment of a good relationship between the two clubs, and a hint toward some sort of decision on Michkov's immediate future by the end of June. 

Soon after, Michkov posted a couple of workout videos of himself in Flyers gear with the fan base already on its toes – a social media trend that would continue through the proceeding weeks.

Then, on May 19, another report came out of Russia from news outlet Sport-Express stating that Michkov's KHL contract would be terminated so that he could go play in Philadelphia, with the caveat that SKA St. Petersburg would retain his KHL rights in the event that he came back. 

That report carried no guarantees at the time, though, as the Flyers were not allowed to interfere with KHL matters and only knew so much about the situation themselves. The onus was on Michkov and his representation to find a way out of his Russian contract to clear the way for a sooner-than-expected path to the NHL. 

But the smoke was heavy reaching the midway point of June, which meant there was fire, and that Brière and the Flyers were working in silence once again. 

Then on Sunday, reports came in that Michkov was indeed lining up to get to Philadelphia and join the Flyers.

So now a crucial piece to their future is on his way, expecting to be ready to play – years ahead of schedule – at a Wells Fargo Center that could be packed for the first time in a long, long time in a few short months, and with the intentions Michkov stated nearly 12 months ago with the biggest grin on the draft floor.

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

The Flyers won't be ready to do that just yet, but it's a start. A big one.

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