Part VI: The Return of Bob Clarke
On June 15, 1994, Bob Clarke left his post as GM of the Florida Panthers to return to Philadelphia and once again become the Flyers General Manager. After his firing by Jay Snider in the summer of 1990, Clarke had become GM of the Minnesota North Stars. Despite having some success in Minnesota, including a surprise trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, Clarke longed to return to Philadelphia. The Flyers also wanted him back in the fold, although not in a major decision making capacity. They hired him as their “Senior Vice President,” which turned out to be a largely ceremonial title, much to Clarke’s dismay. Farwell rarely came to Clarke for any important decisions. Even Clarke’s staunchest critics would admit that he is a man who is no more comfortable taking money for nothing than he is accepting what he deems lazy effort from a player. That was Clarke’s main rationale for leaving Philadelphia to take the Florida job.
In the mid 1990s, the Flyers opted for a “back to the future” management strategy. Jay Snider stepped out as team president. His father, Ed, who had primarily been working on getting a new arena built in Philadelphia, once again assumed full control as team executive. In the summer of 1994, after five straight years of the Flyers being out of NHL playoffs, Farwell was out and Clarke was back in as General Manager. Since his return to the Flyers GM job, Clarke has, on the whole, shown himself to have improved as a trade negotiator in comparison to his first go-round. The primary areas in which he still finds himself criticized are in his contract negotiating tactics, his people skills with players and media members, his NHL non-playing staff selections, and his draft record, especially as pertains to European players. The first three issues will not be discussed in this space. Instead, the focus of the rest of this article will be on analyzing Clarke’s second-term draft record.
Despite what some draft pundits may claim, it is really not fair to try to grade a team’s draft performance immediately after the selections are made. This is especially true for players taken beyond the first few picks. Nobody has the clairvoyance to know which teenage players will fill out and/or refine their skills and skating to NHL standards, let alone become impact players. The gap between a first round pick and a ninth rounder is not really that great, it is just that the lower round picks generally have more elements in their games that still need major refining. Thus, in trying to immediately project a team’s draftees, all that you really have to go on are 1) how these young players have stacked up so far against others their own age (or, in a few cases, older players), and 2) what are their raw strengths and weaknesses. This provides you with a very fuzzy picture of a possible performance ceiling for each player. Year-to-year development of each prospect is still extremely volatile, which is why post-draft grading is tough to do with any sort of reliability. You can also look at the track record of the scouts whom each General Manager places the greatest faith. Have they been on the mark with many of their previous picks? Have they come up with gems beyond the first round? Realize, however, that even the best scouts in the world are often wrong in their evaluations. Even many consensus “can’t miss” prospects have flopped.
As each subsequent year passes after a draft, the picture becomes a little less hazy. After one year, it is possible to begin tentatively assessing how many North American players seem on track to at least enter the minor league ranks after their next junior season and how many Euro picks are starting to get ice time in the top Euro leagues. After two years, it is easier to estimate their professional development time schedules. After three to four years, short-range NHL potential begins to emerge. After five years, the picture is pretty much complete of how much organizational depth a club’s draft crop created, although the jury is still out on the heights that the individual players will reach in years ahead.
Keeping this progressive evaluation framework in mind and primarily emphasizing European prospects, we will now examine to the Flyers drafts of the second Clarke era. The draft classes of 1994, 1995, and 1996 have produced precious little organizational depth. The 1997 draft has so far produced a pair of good prospects and a couple of European longshots. 1998 has the early makings of potentially being the deepest draft class Clarke has ever produced for the Flyers, with a top notch forward prospect, several promising defensemen, and a fine goaltending prospect. It is too early to make any assessments of the 1999 draft other than to say that the Flyers seemed to roll the dice and gambled a bit more than in previous Clarke-led drafts.
In 1994, Clarke had very short pre-draft prep time after his hiring, so he largely took a backseat role and leaned heavily on his scouts to guide the selections based on the priority lists compiled while Farwell was still the general manager. That is why 1994 is considered by some to be the Flyers last “Farwell” draft even though Farwell was no longer with the team when the selections were made. Unfortunately, the 1994 draft class has not worked out well, at least not within the Flyers organization. Seventh round pick, Colin Forbes, traded to Tampa Bay shortly before the 1999 trade deadline, was the lone draftee from the Flyers ’94 crop who has ever played a game in the Flyers NHL roster. With 10th rounder Andre Payette now out of the organization’s plans after a couple of unremarkable minor league seasons, the Flyers entire 1994 draft crop is now either out of the organizational depth charts entirely or are unlikely to be signed. Nevertheless, the 1994 Flyers draft produced some interesting players, including 1998 Hobey Baker Trophy finalist Ray Giroux. Now with the Islanders organization, Yale graduate Giroux had a solid AHL rookie season in 1998-99. The other players of intrigue selected by the Flyers in 1994 were their European picks: Alexander Selivanov, Artem Anisimov, Johan Hedberg, and Jan Lipianski.
The best know of the Flyers 1994 European draftees, Selivanov has had an up-and-down NHL career, including some off-the-ice problems. Coveted by the Tampa Bay Lightning, all it took was one phone call for Lightning General Manager Phil Esposito to land the solidly built 23 year old right winger whom the Flyers had selected in the fourth round. He offered Clarke a 1995 fourth rounder (which had originally been a Flyers pick that was traded to Tampa for scrappy role player Rob DiMaio). Clarke agreed. Disliking the reports on Selivanov’s work habits, plus with Patrik Juhlin set to join the team and with Mikael Renberg coming off a tremendous rookie year, Clarke believed Selivanov’s rights were expendable. The early NHL returns on Selivanov suggested that the Flyers had been duped by Tampa and Clarke had let a fine young sniper get away without even taking a serious look at him. Selivanov, who later married Esposito’s daughter, put up double digit goals as a rookie during the 1995 lockout season. He followed that up with a thirty goal campaign plus 2 goals (including an overtime game winner) in the Lightning’s 6 game loss to the Flyers in the first round of the 1996 playoffs.
With Juhlin having failed to plug the second line right wing hole and the Flyers receiving sporadic production from recent trade acquisition Pat Falloon, Clarke’s critics took him to task for having gift-wrapped Selivanov to Tampa. However, the grumbling has largely been muted in recent years. Selivanov’s effort and intensity have come under serious criticism over the years and he has rapidly descended from rising star, to inconsistent enigma, to a headache the team was desperate to unload. Once Esposito was fired as Tampa GM and replaced by Jacques Demers, it was only a matter of time until Selivanov’s ticket out of town was also punched. One season later, the Lightning were ready to show Selivanov the door. Enter the Philadelphia Flyers once again.
The Flyers were having a similar problem trying to unload Alexandre Daigle, whose career had taken an even more dramatic nosedive than Selivanov’s. Meanwhile, the Edmonton Oilers were trying to find a taker for Andrei Kovalenko. The Flyers talked about a Daigle-for-Kovalenko deal, but impending restricted free agent Daigle indicated that he had no interest in playing in Edmonton. Thus, the trade became a three-way deal; Daigle ended up in Tampa, Kovalenko came to Philly, and Selivanov went to Edmonton. Other than a game in which he scored a hat trick, Selivanov has failed to revive his career in Edmonton. Kovalenko, meanwhile, was shipped to Carolina for veteran defenseman Adam Burt after 13 forgettable games with Philadelphia.
If Clarke now feels vindicated about dumping Selivanov, he has to be disappointed in what has happened to defenseman Artem Anisimov. The Flyers had no first or second round picks in 1994, so third rounder Anisimov was their first overall select. For a time, it looked like Clarke had drafted his first real gem for the Flyers. In Russia, Anisimov was frequently partnered with 1994 Anaheim first rounder Oleg Tverdovsky. Tverdovsky was the offensive gunner of the pair and Anisimov was the defensive stalwart. An extremely aggressive hitter, he was also well-regarded for his positional play. By 1995, Anisimov was rated as a four-star prospect by the Hockey News. The general consensus was that Anisimov could someday be the type of NHL defenseman who plays against the top scorers on the opposition. Since that time, however, Anisimov’s stock has crashed. A serious knee injury knocked him out for the equivalent of a full season-plus, and he has never been able to regain his old form. Today, Anisimov plays on the second pairing of the Ak Bars club in Russia and is considered an average league player.
By the time the 9th round of the 1994 draft came around, the team’s priority list was getting thin. Among the few players left whom any Flyers scouts had seen and assessed as a potential NHL draftee were two Swedish players that had been watched by Inge Hammarström, a forward named Tomas Holmström and a goaltender named Johan Hedberg. Holmström, a childhood friend and frequent teammate of Flyers player Mikael Renberg, was a slow skating but gritty power forward. Hedberg was a sometimes brilliant, sometimes awful young goalie. Deciding that Hedberg had the greater upside and played the more important position, the Flyers opted for the goaltender over the forward. Holmström ended up sliding to the Detroit Red Wings in the 10th round and, after playing a major part in the Swedish championship won by Luleå HF in 1996, has become a valuable powerplay role player for the Red Wings, occasionally seeing time on scoring lines.
Hedberg, meanwhile, took a couple of years to begin to emerge as a prospect. By 1996-97, he was arguably the best Swedish-born goaltender playing in the Swedish Elite League. Hedberg was selected as a backup goalie to NHLers Tommy Söderström and Tommy Salo at the World Cup of Hockey in 1996. He then went on to have a fine season in Sweden and the in-season tournaments, including the famous Izvestia tournament. With the Flyers experiencing goaltending problems over the second half of the 1996-97 season, the team expressed an interest in bringing Hedberg over to compete for an NHL or AHL job in training camp. Hedberg, who had grown up idolizing Pelle Lindbergh, went on Swedish television wearing a National Hockey League Player’s Association t-shirt. He announced his intention to leave the Swedish league and join the Flyers, or at least to apprentice for awhile with their AHL farm club and then move up to the big club.
From that point onward, the Flyers relationship with Hedberg took a nosedive. Tendering a minor league contract offer to Hedberg, Clarke was livid at the counter-proposal that was put on his desk. Expecting to be in the competition for an NHL job, Hedberg was looking for NHL level money. At that point, Clarke immediately closed down the negotiation and told Hedberg’s agent that he and his client could go to hell. The Flyers then re-signed both Garth Snow and Neith Little. A sheepish Hedberg admitted that he had badly overestimated his bargaining position. He then signed an IHL contract with the Detroit Vipers.
Hedberg went on to have a fine IHL rookie campaign in 1997-98 and earned a backup goaltending berth on the Swedish Olympic team. After the season, he signed a lucrative long-term deal to return to Sweden to play with Leksand IF. The contract contained an NHL out-clause after one year. Traded by the Flyers to San Jose before the 1998-99 season, Hedberg has exercised his out-clause and will participate in the Sharks upcoming training camp. While he is probably getting too late of a start to ever have a chance to become a top notch NHL keeper, the athletic Hedberg may still make for a serviceable NHL backup.
Unlike Selivanov and Hedberg, Flyers 1994 11th rounder Jan Lipiansky actually did get to make an appearance with a Flyers affiliated team; albeit a brief one. The offensively gifted Slovak left wing/center was assigned to the Hershey Bears for the 1994-95 season. Homesick and unhappy, Lipiansky returned home to Bratislava after 7 scoreless games in the American Hockey League. Although he continued to be an above-average offensive performer in Europe and gained some national team experience, the book was already pretty much closed on Lipiansky as an NHL prospect. The Flyers renounced his rights in 1998.
After experiencing a dramatic on-ice revival in the lockout season and looking forward to having a first round selection for the first time since the Lindros trade (utilized to select goaltending prospect Brian Boucher), Clarke headed into the 1995 draft with a definite plan in mind. Having won a core of big, strong players that wore down the opposition, the Flyers would gear their future drafts toward developing other players from that same mold. Small finesse oriented forwards and smaller defensemen became devalued in favor big frame power players. There was also a general downturn in the number of Europeans that the Flyers selected in the early draft rounds; only once since 1995 have the Flyers taken a European player before the fourth round. Even in the one case (Dainius Zubrus) where the Flyers made a European player an early round selection, the player was playing in Canada at the time of the entry draft. Moreover, the European players Clarke eventually selected and decided to hold onto were players who generally fit into the mold of being at least six-feet tall, powerful skaters, and willing to battle along the boards.
Among the Flyers five European selections in 1995, only one made it to the NHL. Dmitri Tertyshny, the first of three Flyers 6th round picks, was a largely unheralded Russian League defenseman when he came to the Flyers prospect camp in 1998 and opened eyes with his smooth skating, defensive positioning, and ability to pass the puck. Beating the odds, he ended up making the Flyers opening night NHL roster and stayed with the big team the entire season. Although he experienced the typical ups and downs of a rookie defenseman and his mastery of English was progressing slowly, Tertyshny seemed to have a bright future ahead of him. Tragically, we will never get to find out how good Tertyshny would have become. On July 23, 1999, Tertyshny died in a horrifying boating accident in Kelowna, British Columbia.
None of the other Flyers 1995 European draftees has become a standout prospect (neither have the North American draftees outside of first rounder Boucher). Big Slovak winger Radovan Somik’s career in the Slovakian Extraleague has been fairly unremarkable. Shortly after being drafted by Philadelphia, the rights to 6th rounder Martin Spanhel’s rights were traded to Buffalo in the three way deal that sent Pat Falloon to the Flyers. Spanhel, an offensive specialist, has not made it to the NHL. Fellow Czech Martin Streit is an opposite sort of player, defensively responsible but offensively bland. Finally, 8th rounder Ruslan Shafikov, is an above average offensive player in the Russian League but has failed to win a spot on the Russian national team. He was at the Flyers 1998 prospect camp but was not tendered a contract.
The Flyers had only six selections in the 1996 entry draft. Three years after the draft, the fate of this draft class looks rather bleak. Of the six picks, only two players have- or will- been signed to Flyer contracts, and only controversial prospect Jesse Boulerice still remains in the system. The class of ’96 featured three North Americans and three Europeans.
In ascending order of importance among the Flyers ’96 European picks, there was left winger Roman Malov, goaltender Per-Ragnar Bergqvist, and right winger Dainius Zubrus. Malov transferred from Russia to the Ontario Hockey League after being selected by the Flyers. Although he did not play all that badly in the OHL, he was far from a standout and the Flyers dropped his rights. Bergqvist was drafted largely because he had outplayed Brian Boucher head-to-head at the 1996 World Junior Championships in the USA. Although stuck behind Johan Hedberg with Leksand IF, some thought that his long-range potential was better. Given a chance to seize the Leksand starting job after Hedberg departed for North America, Bergqvist bungled the opportunity and ended up out of the Swedish Elite League altogether. After a one year exile to start for Vålerenga in Norway, Bergqvist will return to Sweden next season, serving as the backup goalie for Färjestad BK. Although the Hockey News still rates him as a two-star prospect, the rating is probably too generous at this point for the now 23-year old keeper. That brings us to Zubrus.
The early career of Dainius Zubrus has been a case in point of the perils of rushing players to the NHL, even if they are physically mature. Zubrus left his native Lithuania as a teenager to develop his skills in Canadian junior hockey. However, he ended up in a dispute with Laval, the Quebec Major Junior League team which held his draft rights. Awaiting a transfer, Zubrus went off to play Junior A hockey in Ontario. Big and strong, with tremendous leg drive and an arsenal of spins and dekes, Zubrus overmatched many Junior A opponents. He was also too skilled for most of his linemates. Zubrus’ main strategy was to get the puck, lug it up the ice himself, and finesse his way to the net. If trapped along the boards, Zubrus was strong enough to hold off the opposition (sometimes even two players at once) and eventually spin out with the puck on his stick. These staggering natural tools immediately attracted NHL scouts to him. Although considered a hard scouting read because of his lack of major junior experience, most NHL teams still projected Zubrus to fall somewhere between the middle of the first round and the middle of the second round of the NHL draft.
By virtue of the trade that sent Dmitri Yushkevich to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Flyers owned the 15th overall pick of 1996 draft. Loving Zubrus size and strength, they rolled the dice and selected the Lithuanian youngster. Not lacking in self-confidence and already comfortable with speaking English, Zubrus announced to reporters that he played a style that was a cross between “Eric Lindros and Sergei Fedorov.” He also added that he believed that he was capable of fast tracking to the NHL despite his lack of major junior play. Few knew it at the time, but that is exactly what Zubrus did.
Zubrus’ skills were way ahead of any other player at the Flyers summer camp. The Flyers decided to keep him on for the NHL preseason. With most of the Flyers top players unavailable due to the World Cup of Hockey, Zubrus and other players had the opportunity to receive much more individual attention at practice and more ice time in the early pre-season games. Once again, Zubrus turned heads. In his first pre-season game, he had a nifty assist on the game-tying goal. In his third, he scored an overtime game winner against Florida on a reverse spin-o-rama near the net that flummoxed John Vanbiesbrouck. Suddenly, talk had begun that Zubrus might be ready for the NHL immediately.
Asked about the subject by the Philadelphia press, Flyers coach Terry Murray stated adamantly that Zubrus would not be with the team on opening night. He opined that Zubrus would be better served by playing in major junior (a transfer to Val d’Or had already been arranged) than sitting in the NHL. Clarke, however, was intrigued. He was quoted as saying that Zubrus just might be able to pull it off; he was already a man physically and he had a good head on his shoulders. Both men wondered if Zubrus would eventually wind up being a center rather than a right wing; he liked to gravitate to the middle of the ice, anyway, and he had the puckhandling skills and strength to adapt to the position. For the time being, however, he would remain a winger.
When opening night came around against Florida, Zubrus was in the Flyers starting lineup. It seemed that someone, perhaps Clarke, had convinced Murray that Zubrus was ready for the NHL. Zubrus even scored a goal in the game, albeit on a fluky deflection out of the corner. Several games later, he scored a beautiful goal against Washington. A bit later, he went end to end to score a goal in Ottawa. While those were the only early season goals that were forthcoming, it seemed as though Zubrus would bring fans out of their seats once a game with a tremendous (but non-scoring) shift. Murray placed Zubrus on the third line with defensive stalwarts Joel Otto and Shjon Podein. The hope was that their defensive work habits would rub off on the youngster. They did. Fears that Zubrus would be a defensive liability proved to be unfounded.
Two of the most memorable points of Zubrus’ first NHL regular season came in late December and late January. First, he strung together back-to-back spectacular games in Edmonton and Calgary. This marked the first time Zubrus had shown game-long dominance. Then, in January, Murray broke up the Legion of Doom line, putting Renberg on the Otto line and Zubrus with Lindros and LeClair. The extent of Zubrus’ good play during this second stretch has become rather exaggerated over time. He scored a soft goal against the Washington Capitals, but was otherwise quiet. Next, he played an excellent game on national television against the New York Rangers (which is the one game people recall). Finally, he was pretty much invisible in a 1-1 tie against Buffalo. That ended the experiment. Renberg was returned to the first line and went on a second half tear that brought his dismal first half stats up to a respectable level. Zubrus returned to the third line and played well defensively but sporadically on offense. Later, with Lindros out with an injury, Zubrus spent his second short stint of the season at center, filling in as the first line center between LeClair and Renberg. Zubrus gave a respectable accounting of himself in those games.
In the playoffs, Zubrus played well against both Pittsburgh and Buffalo. With Renberg hobbling with an ankle problem, Murray put Renberg on the second line with Brind’Amour and Zubrus on the first line with Lindros and LeClair. Once again, many people recall this as a smashing success. It really was not. Zubrus played one great game and two good ones in the five game Rangers series. Zubrus (as well as LeClair) were then all but invisible in the Cup Finals. While it was Lindros who took the heat for not scoring until the final seconds in the Finals, he at least had numerous great shifts and created quite a few scoring chances that were not finished. LeClair (and Renberg) shared a single series highlight. With Renberg placed back on the first line for game one, LeClair finished off a beautiful play set up by the Swedish right winger. The goal put the Flyers back within a goal heading into the third period, before Steve Yzerman cemented the game with a 60 foot drive past an unscreened Hextall in the first minute of the third period. Zubrus, meanwhile, really did not have a highlight moment in the Cup finals.
Nevertheless, the Flyers traded Renberg in the offseason, both in order to acquire Chris Gratton and also because they were willing to gamble that Zubrus was ready to be a full-time first liner in the NHL. The risk was enormous. While Zubrus had wonderful tools and had shown flashes of brilliance, his offensive skills were still extremely raw. After one year in the NHL, he still essentially played the same offensive game that did at junior A. He did not utilize his linemates when he had the puck, trying to beat the entire defense himself. He rarely took advantage of his great strength by taking a direct route to the net with the puck, preferring to try to stick handle around defenders. Even if Zubrus progressed in refining his game during his second season, the odds were slim that he would be able to produce at a first line NHL level. Just to match Renberg’s point totals from the 1996-97 season, Zubrus would have had to triple his rookie output. Only the likes of Mark Messier and Jaromir Jagr have been able to progress at a rate like that from their rookie to sophomore campaigns. It was extremely unfair to expect the nineteen year old Zubrus to live up to those sorts of standards. The NHL is a place for performance. Skill refinement is what junior hockey and the AHL are for. That is why very few teenagers, Zubrus included, belong in the NHL even if they are not overmatched physically.
Since his rookie year, Zubrus development has largely stagnated. Defensively and physically, he’s fine. But, offensively, he still plays the same unrefined attacking style he brought with him into the NHL. His game advanced little in 1997-98 or 1998-99. In the process, Zubrus was criticized by Clarke for resisting coaching and by Flyers fans for failing to meet their lofty hopes for him. Finally, the Flyers traded him to Montreal late in the 1998-99 season, re-acquiring Mark Recchi. Now twenty one, there is still plenty of time for Zubrus to begin to mature on the ice and go on to be a star. He seems, however, to have been held back by the ultra-accelerated program the Flyers put him on in the first two years of his career. If Zubrus himself bears a brunt of the responsibility for the drop in his stock, the majority of the blame still lies with the Flyers for expecting too much too soon. The Flyers 1997-1999 draft classes have not featured any players who were simultaneously as naturally skilled and as physically mature on draft day as Zubrus. Thus, everyone who is still in the system is still in a year-by-year development process. The most projectable player in the system is 1998 first rounder Simon Gagne. His skills came a long way last season. He is, however, still somewhat physically immature. On the whole, the early returns on the 1997 draft class are mediocre. There are solid prospects in Jean-Marc Pelletier and Russian defenseman Mikhail Chernov, a potential role playing type in Todd Fedoruk, and a pair of interesting European longshots in small Finnish offensive defenseman Marko Kauppinen and talented but erratic and injury prone Swedish defenseman Pär Styf. The 1998 draft has so far shaped up to produce a deep class: it features, apart from Gagne, several good defensive prospects, a Czech center named Tomas Divisek who starred at the World Junior Championships and an exciting Finnish goaltending prospect named Antero Niittymäki. In the Flyers most recent draft, the team only had 6 picks in the entire draft and none in rounds two or three. After goaltender Maxime Oullet, the Flyers opted for quite a few European project players, including a relatively obscure Russian left winger named Konstantin Rudenko whose raw skills had Flyers scouts raving. They also selected a pair of Czech offensive specialists, center Pavel Kasparik and winger Vaclav Pletka. Pletka, incidentally, played very well on a line with Divisek at the most recent World Junior Championships. Time will tell how many players from 1997-1999 Clarke drafts will evolve into NHL players.
(Next Week – Part 7: Euro Draft Statistical Breakdown