VOORHEES, N.J. — Initially, Flyers general manager Daniel Briere was set to meet with the local media on Wednesday morning primarily to discuss the team at the midway point of the regular season: What’s gone right, what could be better, and how Briere’s approach to the upcoming trade deadline might have changed, considering his overachieving team is currently in a playoff spot. That sort of thing.
But recent headlines over the preceding 18 hours changed all that.
Shortly before Tuesday’s home game with Tampa Bay, the Flyers released a statement saying goalie Carter Hart would be taking a leave of absence due to personal reasons.
So Briere led off Wednesday’s media availability with a brief statement where he referenced a report from The Globe and Mail in Toronto that said five members of Canada’s 2018 world junior hockey team have been told to surrender to London, Ont., police to face sexual assault charges.
“We are aware of this morning’s press reports on a very serious matter. We will respond appropriately when the outcomes of the investigations are made public,” Briere said. “The NHL has been very clear that teams should refer all investigation-related questions to them. In the meantime, members of the organization, including Flyers players, will not be commenting any further. That’s all we can say at the moment.”
Briere declined to answer in detail any other questions related to Hart. But he did address the Flyers’ goalie situation.
“At this time, this week, Sam Ersson and Cal Petersen will be our two goalies,” he said.
In 26 games this season, the 25-year-old Hart, in his sixth NHL season, all with the Flyers, is 12-9-3 with a .906 save percentage and 2.80 goals-against average.
“Carter Hart was having a very good season up to this point,” Briere said.
Briere expressed confidence that Ersson can handle a bigger workload but also cautioned about putting too much on the 24-year-old’s plate even though he’s seemingly having a breakthrough season, pushing Hart even before this week’s developments.
Since Nov. 18, Ersson is 16-10-4 with a .921 save percentage and 2.08 goals-against average. His save percentage and goals-against average are both fourth in the league among goalies with at least 10 games over that span.
“Sam Ersson has really taken a big step forward,” Briere said. “We’ll have to protect him as much as we can. He’s still developing, he’s still a good young goalie, and getting better and better. So we’ll have to be careful, but we’re excited that his play and that he can carry us moving forward until we know a little bit more on Carter’s situation.”
Briere has been steadfast since he was introduced in the summer as the full-time general manager that he’s focused on the future. That hasn’t changed, but he did admit that he’s been pleasantly surprised by the Flyers to this point.
Headed into Wednesday night’s games, the Flyers are in second place in the Metropolitan Division with 56 points (25-17-6), while their .583 points percentage is sixth in the Eastern Conference. A playoff berth is well within their sights.
“Going into the season I’d be lying if I told you that I expected us to be in a playoff spot 48 games in,” he said. “I would have been ecstatic if you said that to me before the season. But at the same time, I also didn’t believe the reports or the predictions from experts that had us finishing in the bottom three in the NHL.”
Does that shift his thinking leading up to the March 8 trade deadline?
“No. We’re still thinking about the future,” he said. ”What’s happening right now is great, because our young guys are acquiring a lot of experience, having the chance to play in some really meaningful games. It’s going to keep going for at least the next couple months. This is a great experience. I’m really excited about that. But again, we keep an eye on the future. We’ve said from the beginning we wanted to build a team that was going to be a Stanley Cup contender for years to come, and not just one in, one out, one in, one out, like has been going on. The eye is still on the future.”
That means, of course, that the Flyers are not going to be selling off high-end assets for rentals.
“The one thing that I won’t be doing is I won’t be trading prime assets just to make a run,” Briere said. “I’m not going to trade first, second round picks. You could come back at me (and say), ‘You traded Cutter Gauthier.’ … That was a different situation. We felt we were acquiring a great player in return in (Jamie) Drysdale. If there’s a hockey trade that we feel makes us better down the road… But we’re not going to trade assets just to make a playoff run.”
Conversely, Briere does have some trade chips at his disposal, whether that’s defensemen Sean Walker and Nick Seeler, both of whom could be targeted by teams looking for extra blueline depth, or guys like Rasmus Ristolainen or Morgan Frost, who have also been listed on various trade boards.
But there’s really no rush from where he sits, it would seem, as Briere indicated that he’s still unsure what the demand will be for certain players he might be willing to move before the deadline.
“A lot of it will depend on the marketplace,” he said. “We’re not going to make trades just to make trades. If there’s something that makes sense that we feel makes us better for the future, we’ll strongly consider it.”
What’s encouraging to Briere is that so many of the team’s young players have taken steps this season. He mentioned defensemen Cam York and Egor Zamula by name but added he could “go on and on” about others on the roster, too.
He indicated that credit for that goes to the players themselves, of course, but also coach John Tortorella and a support staff of respected veterans in the dressing room.
“Kind of like everybody else I had the perception that John Tortorella was more of a coach that was good with the veterans. What I’m realizing, that’s not the case at all. He’s actually excellent for the young guys,” Briere said. “He gets them at a young age, he can still mold them, and kind of build them the way they should be, to be the ultimate pros. That’s what I’ve been really impressed with.
“You look at how our young guys are developing under him. I think that’s a combination of him and the veterans that we have around. Good veterans, good pros that understand what we’re trying to build here. I’ve been really happy with both the veterans and John Tortorella. And his coaching staff, too. … They’ve done a tremendous job.”
Briere’s biggest challenge ahead of the deadline might be acquiring more assets without upending the culture or discouraging a tight-knit group that may feel it deserves a chance to see what it can do down the stretch or in the postseason.
But no one ever told Briere this job would be an easy one.
“I love the challenge — the challenges,” Briere said of serving as general manager so far. “It’s really exciting. It’s great that our players are going through this already. Probably earlier than we expected.”
(Photo of Cam York: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)