Part IV: The First Clarke Administration
Although Sinisalo, Lindbergh, and Eklund blossomed during Bob Clarke’s first tenure as the Flyers general manager, they were initially drafted and/or signed to the organization while Keith Allen was still the general manager and Clarke was an active player. This was also the case for the vast majority of key North American players from the Keenan/Clarke era Flyers; including draftees Ron Hextall, Brian Propp, Rick Tocchet, Ron Sutter, Peter Zezel, Derek Smith, Lindsay Carson, and enforcer Dave Brown; undrafted rookies such as Tim Kerr and Dave Poulin (signed after playing with the Division One Rögle club in Sweden); and key trade acquisitions such as Mark Howe, Brad McCrimmon, and Brad Marsh. Thus, it was actually Keith Allen, rather than Clarke, who was the primary architect of the Flyers success in the mid-1980s. Clarke’s main contributions to the strong teams of the mid-1980s were the hiring of Keenan and the trades that brought Murray Craven and Kjell Samuelsson to Philly.
The Flyers draft pool dried up during the first Clarke tenure as general manager. This was true for both the North American and European selections the team made from 1985 through 1988. The peak players that Clarke’s first series of drafts produced were defensemen Gord Murphy and Murray Baron, forward Greg Johnson, and goaltender Dominic Roussel. With little or no front-line talent coming through the system, either from North America or Europe, the Flyers were sunk by a series of poor trades and ongoing injury woes. Within three years of the Flyers taking Edmonton to the limit in the Cup finals, the Flyers began the lowest period of their history, in which they missed the playoffs five consecutive seasons.
While the Flyers continued their European scouting operations during Clarke’s first tenure, the results were not as good as with the players Allen had signed. During the late 1980s, the Flyers refused to get involved in the initial dispersal of former Soviet players, although they did pursue some players from Czechoslovakia (which was no longer a communist country but still had yet to split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia). Although some were disappointed with the initial impact of the Russian influx into the NHL, Russian national team stalwarts such as Slava Fetisov and Igor Larionov eventually proved their worth in the NHL as well as international play. Meanwhile, the Flyer 1985 through 1989 European crop included a handful of players who have had good European league and/or international careers, but were either NHL footnotes or never made it to the NHL at all.
1986 second round pick, Jukka-Pekka Seppo, was drafted as a pure offensive specialist. Even by European league standards, he was never considered a physical player, nor did he have much of a taste for playing in his own end. Needing offensive help, the Flyers tried several times to bring him to North America. Seppo, however, always ultimately elected to stay in Finland. In the mid-1990s, Seppo finally moved on from the SM-Liiga to the German League.
1987 third rounder Martin Hostak was brought over to the Flyers with great fanfare before the 1990-91 season. Although he did not play badly overall ,the Czech forward did not provide nearly the type of scoring punch that had been initially expected. He was soon buried on Paul Holmgren’s bench, shipped to the minor leagues, and largely forgotten. Hostak has since gone on to have a strong career in Europe, primarily with MoDo in Sweden. He also played for a time with the Södertälje club and then joined Luleå HF for the 1998-99 season, tying for the team point leadership as LHF became a surprise playoff semi-finalist.
1988 12th rounder, defenseman Drahomir Kadlec, never played in the NHL but has long been a solid European league defenseman and became a frequent member of Czechoslovakian (and then Czech Republic) national teams. In the 1990s, he moved on from play in his home country extraleague to play for Kaufbeuren in the German League.
1989 second rounder Patrik Juhlin was a standout forward for Västerås in Sweden. He went on to star in the 1994 Olympics, scoring 7 goals in 7 games for gold medalist Sweden. He finally joined the Flyers in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, the same year that Clarke returned as general manager. Expected to make the same sort of immediate impact that fellow Swede, Mikael Renberg, had the previous season, Juhlin struggled to adjust his game to fit the NHL style. He entered the 1995-96 season with a chance to be their second line right winger but after a good preseason and a terrific opening night game in Montreal (one goal and two assists), Juhlin slumped and lost the job. Juhlin endured two prolonged healthy scratch stints during the 1995-96 season, and then spent most of the second half of the season fighting through a groin injury and resenting a minor league assignment to the Hershey Bears. Juhlin spent the following season with the Flyers new AHL affiliate, the Philadelphia Phantoms. Although he had a fine season for the Phantoms, the call never came for him to rejoin the Flyers. After the 1996-97 season, Juhlin left Philadelphia to sign with Jokerit in Finland, where he still plays today. Juhlin has been one of their few recent signings who has worked out for Jokerit, which has underachieved the last few seasons. The Flyers still retain Juhlin’s NHL trading rights, but it increasingly unlikely that he will ever return to North American play.
The young European player acquired during the first Clarke era who made the greatest NHL impact was arguably Czech defenseman Jiri Latl. Originally a Toronto draft pick in 1985, the Flyers acquired Latl’s signing rights in 1989. He became a starter during the Russ Farwell/Paul Holmgren years. After an apprenticeship with Hershey, Latl became a regular for the Flyers for several seasons. Latl was one of those players fans always expected to deliver more than he did. His critics often pointed to his lack of physicality and his somewhat streaky offensive production. Mobile and talented offensively, Latl was chronically plagued by shoulder and knee injuries and never was able to develop into the impact player the Flyers had originally hoped he could become. Nevertheless, in the earliest years of the 1990s, Latl was one of the few exciting Flyers youngsters worth following.
Perhaps more intriguing than any of the European prospects that Clarke and his staff chose during his first tenure were a couple of near-miss flirtations with European players who went on to become NHL superstars. Before the 1988 draft, the Flyers attempted to trade up into the top 10 of the draft, offering to sacrifice their 14th overall selection and modest additional compensation, if they could get in position to select either of two players they had targeted. The team was interested in either a young Finnish winger from the Jokerit club named Teemu Selänne or a college-bound center by the name of Rod Brind’Amour. The Flyers were not able to swing any deals and Brind’Amour went 9th overall to St. Louis, followed by Selänne going next to the Winnipeg Jets. The Flyers ended up with forgettable early 1990s bust Claude Boivin. Brind’Amour, of course, was later destined to become a Flyer through one of the best trades made during the Russ Farwell era, while Selänne became one of the NHL’s premier snipers, first with Winnipeg and then with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.
Two years later, as the Flyers began preparations for the 1990 entry draft, Clarke was asked by the Philadelphia Inquirer to assess the talent pool available atop the drafting class. After missing the playoffs during the 1989-90 season, the Flyers had the 4th overall selection in the upcoming draft. Clarke mentioned the talents of Keith Primeau, Owen Nolan, and Mike Ricci and then added that “the one our scouts think could wind up being the best of all of them is a Czechoslovakian kid, [Jaromir] Jagr.” Clarke, however, never got to head the Flyers contingent at the 1990 draft. He was fired less than 48 hours later and replaced with Russ Farwell. While there have been many legitimate complaints lodged over the draft-table assessments made by Clarke (or at least by the scouts in whom Clarke placed the strongest faith), a fair analysis of his drafting ability and European talent assessment record should also give him credit for being an early proponent of the talents of both Selänne and Jagr. Of course, this never paid any on-ice dividends for the Flyers, since neither player ended up in a Flyers uniform.
(Next Week – Part V: European Drafting in the Farwell Years)