A European History of the Philadelphia Flyers – (Part 5 of 7)

By Bill Meltzer

Part V: European Drafting in the Farwell Years
New Flyers General Manager Russ Farwell inherited a mess from Clarke in 1990. The team had a paper-thin farm system and, on the big club, little front forward talent remained, the blueline was shallow and, with Ron Hextall battling ongoing groin injuries, the goaltending was at most adequate. Farwell immediately set about a rebuilding program that he intended to be primarily accomplished at the draft table, relying on his own knowledge of Canadian junior hockey and his strong contacts in North America and overseas. Inge Hammarström was hired to revive the Flyers foundering European scouting program, including their first full-scale forays into Russia. Hammarström and North American scout Bill Dineen became two of Farwell’s most trusted advisers at the draft. Given his short preparation time, Farwell did a marvelous job at the 1990 draft, the first of several good drafts he ran. While the on-ice results were modest during Farwell’s tenure (no playoff appearances), his draft and trade moves assembled much of the nucleus of the Flyer’s revival in the middle and latter part of the 1990s.
The player that Farwell coveted the most at the 1990 draft was Czech center Petr Nedved, whom Farwell knew well from their time together in Seattle of the Western Hockey League. When it became clear that Nedved would be gone before the 4th pick came up, Farwell tried to finesse a deal. The Vancouver Canucks, however, also had their hearts set on Nedved and were not interested in moving down. Vancouver quickly snapped up Nedved the second overall pick after Quebec took power forward Owen Nolan. After Keith Primeau went third overall to Detroit, the Flyers had a tough decision to make. Should they go conservative and select Mike Ricci or roll the dice and take Jaromir Jagr? Ricci was widely touted as the “safest” pick in the draft and future captain material. Agreement was almost unanimous that Ricci could immediately step into the NHL and be an above average player. However, some questioned his skating ability and few believed he could ever become an Art Ross Trophy caliber offensive performer. Jagr, meanwhile, had explosive offensive potential. On the downside, he spoke no English and his immediate availability for the NHL was unknown.

Farwell opted for the conservative approach this time around and selected Ricci, letting Jagr slide to Pittsburgh Penguins in the 5th overall spot. While many today consider Farwell’s esteem for Nedved and selection of Ricci over Jagr assessment blunders, the Flyers at least landed a solid player in Ricci, who was later a cog in the deal that brought Eric Lindros to Philadelphia. Farwell’s best work at the 1990 draft, however, came after the first round. In one fell swoop, he began the process of repairing some of the damage to the organization’s depth. In all, the Flyers 1990 draft produced nine players who at least made an appearance in an NHL uniform, six of whom became regular NHL starters for at least one full season, four of whom became above-average players in the league, and one of whom became an impact forward in Philadelphia.

The player who became the impact forward in Philly and by far the best of the once-promising European lot the Flyers took in the 1990 draft was a skinny winger from the small northern Swedish town of Piteå. Selected by Farwell on the advice of Hammarström, the player’s name was Mikael Renberg. Renberg’s frame soon began to fill out and his play improved steadily each season. Before the 1990-91 season, he transferred from Division One Piteå HC to Luleå HF and rapidly became one of the top young wingers in the Swedish Elite League and at the World Junior Championships. The Flyers offered him a contract before the 1992-93 season, but he turned them down, saying that he did not yet feel ready for the NHL. Renberg’s decision to wait an extra season proved sound as he made an immediate impact on the Flyers, scoring 38 goals and breaking Dave Poulin’s team record for points by a rookie. More than just a one-dimensional sniper, Renberg showed himself to be a gritty battler along the boards and a dedicated backchecker. Renberg quickly played his way onto the Flyers first line, shifting from the right side over to left wing in order to play with Eric Lindros and Mark Recchi.

Intense and self-critical on the ice, Renberg was a bit shy and quiet off the ice when he first arrived to North America. However, he soon grew more comfortable and became a popular off-ice figure among teammates and fans alike. During the first year of Clarke’s return as Flyers general manager and Terry Murray’s first season as Flyer coach, the famous Legion of Doom line was born as the Flyers won the Atlantic Division and made it to the sixth game of the Stanley Cup semi-finals. Mikael started out strongly in the first half of the 1995-96 season as well, but had the second half of his season ruined by a torn abdominal muscle. Ever since then, Renberg has battled yearly injury problems, which often seem to crop up just as he is hitting a groove. Nevertheless, he had a strong second half in the 1996-97 season, as the Flyers made it to the Stanley Cup Finals before being trounced in four straight by the Red Wings. Renberg played well in the early rounds of the 1997 playoffs before being slowed by an ankle problem that required off-season surgery.

In the summer of 1997, Renberg was traded to Tampa Bay in the disastrous deal that secured the services of Chris Gratton. A little over a year later, Clarke traded to bring Renberg back to the Flyers and returned Gratton to Tampa. Playing on the Flyers second line this time around, Renberg had two significant productive streaks, two lengthy droughts, and a pair of injuries; a separated shoulder that kept out him for nine game in December and January and a broken rib that slowed him during the playoffs. The Flyers hope to resign him as a restricted free agent this summer. A healthy and productive Renberg would go a long way toward helping the Flyers once again make a deeper run in the playoff.

The other European picks that Farwell made in 1990 were Viacheslav Butsayev, a highly regarded Russian center who was destined to become a frustrating enigma and then a journeyman; Swedish national team and Djurgården goaltender Tommy Söderström, who overcame health problems to show promise his rookie year, but then faded amidst constant struggles with his concentration and consistency; Finnish defenseman Toni Porkka, who never made it higher than the Hershey Bears before returning to Finland to play for Lukko and, later, heading to the German league; and Patric Englund, a forward from AIK in Sweden, who has never become much more than an average European league player.

Taken on the whole, 1990 did not turn out to be a stellar European draft group beyond Renberg. However, Söderström did have his good rookie year in Philadelphia and was later the trade bait that brought Ron Hextall back from exile, while Butsayev teased for awhile with flashes of brilliance, including a hat trick game and some eye-popping displays of strength on the puck and lateral mobility. For whatever reason, Butsayev has never been able to consistently turn his raw tools into any sort of consistent production.

While 1990 was an important draft for the Flyers, the destiny of the club in the ’90s was largely shaped by the events that occurred on the next two draft days. Both days were filled with controversy and confusion. Ultimately, the careers of Peter Forsberg and Eric Lindros would become permanently intertwined in hockey history and countless fan arguments would be born. Because the Lindros trade story has been told many times, most of the details will only be briefly recounted here.

Lindros, the first overall pick of the 1991 entry draft refused to put on a Quebec Nordiques jersey. He subsequently refused to negotiate a contract with the Nordiques and sat out the NHL season demanded to have his rights traded to another team.

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Flyers had the sixth pick in the first round. Before the draft, MoDo center Peter Forsberg was rated as the 18th best prospect by the Central Scouting Bureau. Most experts, including The Hockey News expected Forsberg to be chosen late in the first round or early in the second round. Three people at the Flyers draft table had something else in mind, however. Flyers scouts Hammarström and Dineen urged general manager Russ Farwell to select Forsberg with the Flyers first round pick. The rest of the Flyers scouts reportedly wanted defenseman Richard Matvichuk (who, as it turned out, has turned out to be a solid NHL contributor in his own right).

The Forsberg contingent finally convinced Farwell to go with their man and the Flyers selected “Foppa” with their first round pick; the first time the organization had selected a European with their first selection.

The immediate reaction was one of shock. Many thought that the Flyers had botched the pick and should have taken either Matvichuk or Patrick Poulin instead. Even the Philadelphia television news media, which typically all but ignores the NHL entry draft, saw fit to question the Forsberg selection the next day. All that Farwell said in reply to the Forsberg critics was that time would prove that the Flyers were right. Soon, Forsberg was considered the best player in the world outside the NHL. Within a year, nobody questioned the wisdom of the pick anymore. Later in the 1991 entry draft, the Flyers nabbed Russian defenseman Dmitri Yuskevich and veteran Russian forward Andrei Lomakin, both of whom became regular starters for the team. Lomakin was a very serviceable player for a few years in Philly before the aging veteran went to Florida in the NHL Expansion Draft. The talented but enigmatic Yushkevich enjoyed a strong rookie campaign in Philadelphia followed by several uneven seasons with both the Flyers and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Of late, however, Yushkevich has finally seemed to become a more consistently reliable player.

Forsberg, meanwhile, was not destined to be able to join the first NHL team that believed in him. On draft day 1992, the Flyers consummated (or so they thought) a trade that sent Ricci, Hextall, Steve Duchesne, Kerry Huffman, the rights to Forsberg, two first round picks, and $15 million in cash to Quebec in exchange for the rights to Lindros. Nordiques owner Marcel Aubut then proceeded to prove correct the Lindros’ suspicions about the way he ran his organization; Quebec traded Lindros for a second time on the same day, attempting to back out of their handshake deal with the Flyers and accepting what they believed was an even better offer from the New York Rangers. The dispute ultimately ended up in the hands of an independent arbitrator, Larry Bertuzzi, who ruled that the Flyers had made an enforceable trade for Lindros.

All of this is now the stuff of hockey legend. What is not quite as well known outside of Philadelphia is the thought process that went into Jay Snider and Farwell putting together the package for Lindros; specifically, the inclusion of Forsberg. When the Flyers were contemplating trading for Lindros, they realized that there still had to be a few other nucleus players left after the trade. Any trade for Lindros was going to put a huge dent into the organizational depth that Farwell had been working for the last several years on rebuilding; the Flyers would pretty much be back at square one again, albeit with a teenaged franchise player in hand plus whatever frontline talent was spared in the trade. In forming their list of trade untouchables in the Lindros negotiations, the Flyers had four main candidates: recently acquired right wing star Mark Recchi, and centers Brind’Amour, Ricci, and Forsberg. There was no way they could hang on to more than two of them and still be able to land Lindros.

It was decided that although Ricci was a nice player, he was expendable in any deal that brought the likes of Lindros to the Flyers. Additionally, the organization was high on Slava Butsayev at the time and hoped that he could eventually become a solid NHL contributor in his own right. So Ricci was made available.

The only decision to be made on Recchi was whether his inclusion would carry so much weight as to be the main selling point for Quebec to trade Lindros’ rights to the Flyers without the team having to give up much else of value. That was unlikely given the rapidly escalating bidding war for Lindros. Moreover, Recchi himself had come to the Flyers at a steep price; to get Recchi, the Flyers essentially had to deal to the Pittsburgh Penguins all of the remaining elements they needed to win their second consecutive Stanley Cup. Rick Tocchet, Kjell Samuelsson, and Ken Wregget all had gone to the Penguins in the deal for Recchi. Finally, Recchi seemed like a tailor-made linemate for Lindros; a legitimate first line winger who had the skills, smarts, and ice vision to gel perfectly with Lindros. Thus, it was very quickly decided that Mark Recchi was not up for discussion in any Lindros trade.

That left the Flyers an extremely tough decision: Brind’Amour or Forsberg. The Flyers already knew they had a solid two-way NHL player in Brind’Amour. They were also virtually certain that Forsberg would be a major impact player when he was ready for the NHL; they also knew, however, that Forsberg would not be available for at least another season. Ultimately, the deciding factor was immediate team need. The Flyers desperately needed the help that Brind’Amour could give them right away. Farwell said later that had Forsberg been ready to come to the NHL in 1992, there was a strong chance the Flyers would not have pursued Lindros at all, and hung on to Forsberg, Recchi, Brind’Amour, and Ricci. Alternatively, they also might have been more receptive to the idea of including Brind’Amour in a Lindros package. Instead, the Flyers winced, gritted their teeth, and very reluctantly parted with the rights to Forsberg to be able to trade for Lindros.

With the Lindros double trade controversy occupying most of their energies on draft day 1992, the Flyers brain trust had one of the worst days of drafting that the organization has ever had. It was the nadir of the Farwell drafts. Only one of their 11 picks (which included a pair of first round selections) ever so much as suited up for a regular season NHL game; the underachieving Jason Bowen. The Flyers first pick, the seventh overall pick, was Ryan Sittler, son of Hockey Hall of Famer and former Flyer Darryl Sittler. The Flyers, by their own admission, were not prepared to make a selection when their pick came up, having thought they had traded the pick to Quebec as part of the Lindros deal. As a result, they hastily opted for a “Mike Ricci Revisted” approach and took Sittler, dubbed the “safest” pick in the draft by The Hockey News. Quebec did not want Sittler, which is why Lindros arbitrator Larry Bertuzzi awarded Flyers prospect Chris Simon to the Nordiques as additional compensation for Lindros. Sittler, plagued by early career injuries (including a serious eye injury) turned out to be a marginal minor league talent and has never gotten close to playing in the NHL.

The Flyers European picks in 1992 turned out to be an equally dismal lot. Second round pick Denis Metlyuk never made the grade. Fifth rounder Vladislav Boulin got off to a very promising start in the Flyers minor league system and then wrecked a knee. He was never the same again and faded from NHL prospect to AHL scratch before playing briefly in the IHL. He then headed to play in Austria after minor league contract talks fell through with the New York Islanders organization. Sixth rounder Roman Zolotov was a serviceable defenseman in the Russian league but never advanced to the point of being a serious NHL prospect. Ninth rounder, Jonas Håkansson was a high scoring player in the junior system of Swedish club Malmö IF. Malmö is operated largely as a Swedish version of the New York Rangers; the bulk of the playing time goes to high-priced veterans purchased from outside the organization. Håkansson was never able to crack the Malmö senior roster and was sent to a Division One team called Pantern in order to get more playing time. As it turned out, Håkansson could not hack it in Division One play and his stock crashed rapidly. He never saw Elitserien play, let alone a North American pro contract.

The Flyers bounced back from the debacle that was their 1992 draft with a good 1993 class, which featured European selections as their first four choices. The first three, Janne Niinimaa, Vaclav Prospal, and Milos Holan, have had star-struck careers. The fourth, Russian winger Vladimir Krechin, never made it to the North American pro ranks.

Having no first round selection (now owned by Quebec and used to take goaltender Jocelyn Thibault), the Flyers first pick came 36th overall. With this pick, Farwell selected Janne Niinimaa from Finnish Division One team Kärpät Oulu. Since then, Niinimaa has experienced extreme highs and lows in his Finnish, International, and NHL careers. In stretches of several games at a time, he will play at an elite level. Far too often, however, he has gone into prolonged horrendous slumps on the heels of his flashes of brilliance. That was okay when Niinimaa was an SM-Liiga rookie with Jokerit and, three years later, an NHL rookie with the Flyers. But he is now going into his fourth NHL season and has shown no more consistency now he did as a rookie. Niinimaa, traded by Clarke to Edmonton at the 1998 trading deadline, is entering a crucial year in career. He could still become a star but the doubters are starting to outnumber the believers.

Niinimaa has spent much of his career rocketing up the prospect charts and playing on winning teams. He won a pair of Finnish league championships with Jokerit, reached the finals another year, won various European club team tournaments, captained a medal winning Finnish World Junior Championship team, became the youngest regular defenseman on the Finnish senior national team, won a World Championship gold medal, and played in the World Cup of Hockey. After his NHL arrival, he was a heralded rookie on the Eastern Conference champion 1986-87 Flyers. In 1998, he won an Olympic bronze medal with Team Finland. In a remarkably short time, Niinimaa has partaken in playing for almost every major team honor a player can win. That is why Niinimaa’s continued inability to break down his wall of individual performance inconsistency has been all that much more frustrating to those who follow his career. The talent is there. The will to improve is there. Even the team honors are there. But consistent star status is still not there.

The Flyers second overall selection in the 1993 draft, Vaclav Prospal, took a much less glamorous road to the NHL than Niinimaa. While Janne quickly got a taste of championship parades, parties with the elites of hockey, five-star hotels, and backstage passes to meet his favorite rock bands, Prospal was toiling in the American Hockey League and riding buses. Drafted as a standout from the Ceske-Budejovice junior team, Prospal elected to come over to North America immediately after being drafted, rather than play first in the Czech Extraleague. Arriving in Philadelphia at the age of 18, Prospal was rail thin and unable to speak more than a few words of English when the Flyers assigned him to the Hershey Bears. His English improved rapidly but his overall game did not come along as quickly. Branded as too slow and too weak, Prospal was nevertheless praised for having outstanding ice vision, remarkable passing touch, and lateral shiftiness. His stats improved each but his skating and strength were still not to the Flyers satisfaction. By the time Clarke was back in place as Flyers General Manager and the Flyers had moved their AHL affiliation from Hershey to the newly created Philadelphia Phantoms, the team had all but written off Prospal as a potential NHL player.

One man in the organization still believed strongly in Prospal’s potential; Phantoms coach Bill Barber. Barber rode Prospal harder than any other player on his team, never letting him take shortcuts. Suddenly, Prospal’s talents began to bloom. He quickly grabbed the AHL point scoring lead and never looked back. By midseason, he was running away with the Sollenberger Trophy race. Once a floater who made no contribution if he was not getting points, Prospal also developed a gritty and chippy style to go along with his playmaking wizardry. Prospal began to charge full speed ahead at even the biggest opponents, often winding up on the seat of his pants, but never giving up on the play.

Clarke remained skeptical of Prospal. As callups were made throughout the first three quarters of the 1996-97 season, Prospal was never among the selections. Asked why, Clarke said that he thought Prospal was too slow to play on the Flyers scoring lines, too small to withstand NHL punishment, and not sound enough defensively to be an effective checking liner. Finally, injuries to centers Lindros and Dale Hawerchuk led the Flyers to give Prospal a look late in the 1996-97 season. He has never returned to minors since. Prospal startled the Flyers staff with how aggressively he now played and how well he clicked on a makeshift line with Brind’Amour and Pat Falloon. Flyers coach Terry Murray quickly came to like the exuberant Prospal, as did all of his teammates. Even Clarke had to admit that the rookie impressed him with 5 goals and 15 points in 18 games. Prospal then proceeded to play impressively in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, collecting 4 points in fairly limited duty as the Flyers took out the Penguins and the retiring Mario Lemieux in 5 games. Things were finally looking up for the little Czech center they called “Vinny” (because his teammates in the minor leagues had trouble pronouncing “Vaclav” correctly).

Unfortunately, Prospal seems to be forever destined to have to struggle for his keep in hockey. Just as he was drawing praise for the lift he had given the team late in the regular season and the Penguins series, Prospal fell into the boards and broke his left wrist during a team practice session before the second round series with the Buffalo Sabres. He was lost for the rest of the playoffs. Prospal worked through his disappointment by dedicating himself to preparing to solidify his roster spot for the next season. Once again encouraged by the team to add more muscle, Prospal spent the summer working out rigorously.

Prospal’s hard work paid off in a fine preseason and a quick start to the 1997-98 season. All of the arrows seemed to be pointing upward again when Prospal hit another snag. Shifted for a time from center to right wing, Prospal fell into a slump that continued even when he was moved back to his preferred position. The points stopped coming and, despite admirable effort, Prospal was also having defensive problems. Clarke opined to the Philadelphia newspapers that perhaps Prospal had added too much upper body bulk over the season and it had affected his already less-than-blazing straight ahead speed. Prospal was incredulous; here he had been told constantly that he needed to bulk up and after he had worked hard to follow their wishes, management was now saying he should not have done so. Although Clarke readily admitted that Prospal had only done what was expected of him, the story was somehow incorrectly spun in some circles as though Clarke was criticizing his player for being out of shape. Even those who had the facts straight had a hard time following Clarke’s logic in speaking out in the first place. By virtue of saying that Prospal skating was adversely affected by his offseason regiment, Clarke made the Flyers upper level management seem either hopelessly foolish or hypocritical and tyrannical.

Prospal muddled through the tough times and played his way back up from a fourth line demotion. Once again starting to hit his stride on the ice, he was delighted to learn that he had been selected as a member of the Czech Olympic Team for the upcoming Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. There was truly no NHL player who was more humbled and honored by his Olympic selection than was Vaclav Prospal. Cruel fate then intervened on Prospal yet again. Playing a game in Ottawa in early January, 1998, Prospal was battling along the boards with former Hershey teammate Lance Pitlick. Suddenly, Prospal’s leg buckled and got pinned at an odd angle as he fell to the ice. He had snapped tendons. So much for playing in Nagano.

The often brutal nature of the hockey business was hammered into Prospal once again later that same month. Over the NHL All-Star Break, Prospal received a phone call from Clarke, telling him that he had been traded to the Senators along with Pat Falloon in exchange for Alexandre Daigle. Prospal did not even have the slightest suspicion beforehand that he was about to be dealt; his name was not even circulating in any of the lockerroom trade gossip. Flyers players were reportedly furious with Clarke over the way the well-liked Prospal had been treated by the organization. Clarke admitted that those grumbling about the deal had some grounds for a legitimate beef and he could understand why Prospal himself might feel bitter. However, while professing his personal admiration for Prospal, Clarke maintained that he had no choice but to make the deal in order to attempt to fill the team’s gaping hole at right wing.

Prospal’s plight in Ottawa have not always been smooth sailing, either. Although generally a regular starter in the Senators lineup, he has not put up the points at the pace many would like to see from him. On the other hand, his defense play has continued to improve and his chippy, enthusiastic style of play has kept him around in the NHL. The Senators recently re-signed Prospal to a new deal.

The Flyers third pick in 1993, Prospal’s countryman Milos Holan, proved to be an outstanding powerplay defenseman in the AHL and had a cup of coffee with the Flyers NHL team. Deemed too small and one dimensional by Clarke and Terry Murray, Holan was confined to the minors again and then dealt to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in the trade that brought Russian veteran Anatoli Semenov to the Flyers late in the lockout shortened 1994-95 season. After some impressive point work on the Ducks powerplay, Holan was the top contender to become their full-time first unit quarterback on the powerplay in 1995-96. Sadly, Holan never got the chance. Diagnosed with a treatable form of leukemia, Holan later underwent a life-saving bone marrow transplant.

(Next Week – Part VI: The Return of Bob Clarke

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