Two years removed from a 2010 Stanley Cup Finals which saw the Chicago Blackhawks triumph over the Philadelphia Flyers, the products of the Flyers' 2003 Draft class finally stood atop the NHL world; only they stood there for the Los Angeles Kings. Right before the draft last year, Philadelphia was buzzing with rumors, speculation, and enough chaos to send shockwaves through the NHL. The end result, following what in hindsight appears to be a successful weekend at the podium, was a collection of four young forwards that had a tremendous impact on the Flyers' 2011-12 season: Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Sean Couturier, and Brayden Schenn. The two stars that had once defined their organization, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, were on their way out of town and to an eventual Stanley Cup with Los Angeles.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Brayden Schenn, C
2. Eric Wellwood, LW
3. Erik Gustafsson, D
4. Marc-Andre Bourdon, D
5. Jason Akeson, RW
6. Nick Cousins, C
7. Brandon Manning, D
8. Ben Holmstrom, C
9. Blake Kessel, D
10. Niko Hovinenl, G
Last summer, their forward depth was re-established as one of the youngest, deepest, and most talented groups in the NHL. They also now had their goaltender with the addition of Ilya Bryzgalov. Unfortunately for the fans in Philadelphia, the same defense that had once made Micheal Leighton a viable NHLer in 2010 was now a memory. With Chris Pronger's career in jeopardy in the press box and Kimmo Timonen starting to show signs of wear, the Flyers' other defensemen did not handle the pressure well enough to make it deep.
The young core of Braydon Coburn, Matt Carle, Andrej Meszaros, and the new addition, Nicklas Grossmann, was not able to handle the rigors of the NHL postseason as well as the organization would have liked. Though injuries were involved, the Flyers are not likely going to just sit back and hope for a better performance in the future.
That said, there are far worse defensive cores in the NHL. Though General Manager Paul Holmgren will be kicking tires across the NHL and the draft board to find defenders, the secret to better defensive success will rely on much more than just the blueliners. A more mature and consistent effort from the young forward core will go a long way to take some of the pressure of the defensive group. Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov could stand a better performance as well.
Meanwhile, Erik Gustafsson, Marc-Andre Bourdon, and Brandon Manning all showed some significant progress during the 2011-12 season. Philadelphia should be proud of their efforts, and the future looks bright. It may even make some more expensive defensemen on the roster expendable. Even so, with Timonen starting to age and Pronger on the shelf for the foreseeable future, the Flyers still lack a true number one guy
Last summer's additions of Voracek, Simmonds, Couturier, Schenn, and Matt Read have joined forces with Claude Giroux and James vanRiemsdyk to create a scary looking core of young forwards that is unlikely to drastically change any time soon. With Eric Wellwood's emergence, Jason Akeson tearing up the AHL, and Nick Cousin's explosion in the OHL, Paul Holmgren can theoretically just ignore the position in the upcoming draft. The fact that the Flyers develop forwards well cannot be ignored though.
The organization still lacks top end talent on the blue line going forward. Meszaros, Coburn, Grossmann, and Carle represent great young defensemen that can handle heavy workloads at the NHL level, but the Flyers will still need to replace Pronger and Timonen. Though Erik Gustafsson, Marc-Andre Bourdon, and Brandon Manning represent very capable defensemen, their ceilings are no higher than the four defensemen the Flyers have now who are just entering their primes. This draft, one heavy on blueliners, is a chance for the organization to get a real impact defenseman.
The Flyers always go by a specific model of Best Player Available, but where they lean varies on a number of things. They have stayed away from drafting goaltenders high in recent years and for good reason. They also lean towards forwards since they do a very good job at developing them, but that does not mean they will shy away from defensemen. The Flyers drafted Luca Sbisa in 2008, Joni Pitkanen in 2002, and Jeff Woywitka in 2001, but had Sean Couturier not fallen to them at the 8th pick last year, it is likely they would have picked defensive prospect Dougie Hamilton. If Paul Holmgren sees a group made up of skaters all with similar potential, upside, and character, he will not hesitate to pick a defenseman based on need as long as a player from another position does not stand out above the rest.
There is buzz that the Flyers like a specific defenseman in particular to the point where they may mount an attack to grab him earlier than the 20th pick. Whatever the case may be, there is not much Paul Holmgren could do to shock anyone. There are plenty of quality defensemen available in the draft, and should the Flyers stand pat at 20, Slater Koekkoek of the Peterborough Petes is right up their alley. He can eat up minutes, he has size, he can skate very well, and he is a smart defensive player. A torn labrum sidelined him this past season, but that will not scare many teams away. He is one of the more balanced defensemen available in the first round.