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Monday, September 25, 2023

Briere counting on Couturier, Atkinson can returning to form to help troubled team

VOORHEES, N.J. — The least anticipated Flyers season since the Spectrum’s roof blew away will start in less than a month, and Danny Briere has a warning: Be careful before writing it off.

“I read the predictions,” he said. “I see where everybody is picking us to be – last, or in the bottom three of the NHL. I don’t know exactly where it is going to go, but I hope the players use that as motivation. We hope and we believe that they are better than what the predictions are. But at the same time, these guys are in control of that now. It’s their turn. It’s their turn to prove everybody wrong.”

Briere was at the Flyers Training Center Tuesday, two days before the veterans report to camp, and if nothing else, he was showing his hockey character. He was the 5-foot-9 centerman who always played larger, typically produced big goals in big spots, and never doubted that his side would defeat the other side. So, in his first full season as the Flyers’ general manager, he is feeling it again, no matter the greater organizational plan for at least another year.

The Flyers are rebuilding, from Dan Hilferty leading from the executive suite down to ice level, where the Wells Fargo Center is said to have been properly redecorated for 21st Century major-league sports.

Keith Jones is the new president, Briere secure as general manager, the offseason actions of them all obvious. That is, they were OK going a little young. It’s why they traded Ivan Provorov, moved Kevin Hayes, bought out Tony DeAngelo and spent the seventh overall pick in the draft on a player who may or may not spring from Russia for another three years.

A Flyer for long enough to know better than to endeavor to fool fans who can sniff out a rebuild from 100 meters, Briere has been careful not to raise his confidence to the smothering level. Even Tuesday, when pressed, he would not advise budgeting for playoff tickets. But when?

“I’m not putting a timeline on that,” he said. “I’ve said it before: The players will. Everyone develops at their own rhythm. We’ll see how they go. We have our own idea, but we don’t want to put that out there.”

So he will resist. But what he will put out there are Sean Couturier and Cam Atkinson, two of the franchise’s most accomplished and versatile forwards, who combined for exactly zero shifts last season. Couturier is ready after two back surgeries, and Atkinson no longer has a pain in the neck. With Atkinson at 34 years old and Couturier being 30, they can be expected to show some rink rust. But both were close to returning late last year and have been skating and playing at full speed. Atkinson has a shooter’s instincts and Couturier is one of the better two-way forwards in club history. Both can help on the power play, on the penalty-kill and in the faceoff circle. And both give John Tortorella some depth of experience among his top six forwards.

“Obviously, on the ice that’s a big change,” Briere said. “Without them, we put a lot of stress on guys like Noah Cates and Morgan Frost last year. I’m sure it was great for their development, having to face top-six players or centers all year long. But it will be nice to give them a little bit of help, strengthen that position and let them breathe a little bit. It’s going to be great for their growth as well.”

In short, that’s the Flyers’ plan – to add just enough experience, through better health or short-term contracts to veterans such as Marc Staal and Ryan Poehling – to boost developing players who were rushed a little last season. That’s a tough sell to a fan base conditioned to expecting a breathless chase for that Hat Trick in ’76. But Tortorella, who has a history of program-building, was able to shed two players he could barely stand in DeAngelo and Hayes and is one year closer to the kind of roster he prefers.

“We feel Torts did an amazing job last year, creating the culture that needs to be in place to win,” Briere said. “He is going to keep going in that direction and keep building that structure. That is how we are going to evaluate things, more than just on-ice success.”

It’s about where the Flyers are at this point in their history. They have a good coach, some good players, Carter Hart as a sturdy goaltender and some youth in the pipeline. They also have low expectations that could be way off and a general manager determined to say so.

“We are not taking any games,” Briere said. “We are not losing on purpose. We are going to do things for the future, but at the same time we expect these guys to win every game.

“I hope they know that.”

If they didn’t before, they have been warned.

Contact Jack McCaffery at [email protected]

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