The NHL community has learned to expect the unexpected when the Philadelphia Flyers are involved.
Heading into the 2005 entry draft, league-wide speculation had the Flyers working on a blockbuster deal with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to obtain the second overall pick and, thus, the rights to draft local product Bobby Ryan (Cherry Hill, NJ).
General manager Bob Clarke, a longtime family friend of Ryan, ultimately abandoned the prospects of such a deal, refusing to part with such organizational centerpieces as forwards Jeff Carter and Mike Richards and defenseman Joni Pitkanen.
Continued talks with Anaheim GM Brian Burke, however, did result in the shrewd trade of little-used tough guy forward Todd Fedoruk in exchange for a second round pick next year, the first of several moves the Flyers made to stock up for the 2006 draft.
With Ryan out of the picture, the consensus opinion was that the Flyers would turn their attention to selecting a defenseman – a perceived organizational weakness – with the 20th overall selection. Clarke and company had a surprise up their sleeves, however, opting to trade the pick to Florida for the 29th overall selection and another second rounder in 2006.
The Flyers successfully gambled that the player who topped their list at that point – Windsor Spitfires (OHL) forward Steve Downie – would still be available at the end of the first round. The selection of Downie, who was ranked 73rd among North American skaters on the Central Scouting Service’s final report, was perhaps the biggest surprise of an eventful first round.
Including Downie, the team selected six players in total – three forwards, two defensemen and a goaltender – in a draft that was widely considered to be a crapshoot after the first five selections.
With this in mind, the following is a review of each of the newest members of the Flyers organization.
Steve Downie, RW (Windsor Spitfires, OHL)
1st round, 29th overall
Ht: 5’10 Wt: 192 lbs. Shoots: Right
Born: 4/3/87 in Newmarket, Ontario
The Flyers have always put tremendous stock in players deemed to be of high character. As was the case with Jeff Carter in 2003 (11th overall), the team opted to select the gritty and ultra-competitive Downie over a slew of more highly-ranked prospects, catching the entire NHL off guard in the process.
In Downie, the Flyers gain a player seemingly cut from the organization’s own cloth, a player, perhaps not coincidentally, who partially patterns his game after his mother’s all-time favorite player, Bob Clarke himself.
“Steve is just a real good two-way, hard-working, hard-nosed kid,” explained Flyers assistant general manager Paul Holmgren. “He put up some pretty good numbers this year in Windsor, and we like his character and aggressiveness. We think he’s going to get better and better as an offensive player.”
After appearing in 49 games as a rookie with Windsor two season ago, Downie saw his stock skyrocket in 2004-05. He finished third on the Spitfires in scoring with 73 points (21 goals, 52 assists) and 179 PIMs in 61 games, and was the driving force in helping the team come all the way back from a three-games-to-none deficit to Carter and the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the first round of the OHL playoffs.
For his efforts, Downie, who is the highest-drafted Windsor player since Florida drafted defenseman Ed Jovanovski in 1994, was named Spitfires season MVP.
“You win with kids like this,” said one excited OHL scout, prior to the draft. “He took a team as a 17-year-old and was the force that made all the rest of the kids on that Windsor team honest. He’s got good skills and sees the ice well. He was Windsor’s best player as a 17-year-old!
“He shouldn’t be from Ontario. This kid is a Western boy; he’s all heart and soul. He should be [playing in] the WHL. You get the odd guy like this out here, but he plays so hard, he should be in the ‘Dub.’ He’s so strong on his skates and he’s so determined.”
Added another league scout: “[Downie is] one of the grittiest, nastiest players in the [OHL]. He’s a bit of a rat. He’ll do anything to win. He competes game in and game out and he has talent. And he’s skilled. He’s not a tall guy, but there is no doubt in my mind that he’s going to overcome his lack of size.”
Obstacles are nothing new to Downie. In fact, the roadblocks he has faced thus far in his hockey career are nothing compared to the well-documented hardships he has faced in his life away from the rink.
At the age of seven, on the way to an early-morning hockey practice, Downie was involved in an automobile accident that cost his father his life. Downie walked away from the incident physically unharmed, and, despite enduring such a tragic loss, went on to help his mother and brother run the family farm in Ontario.
“We knew about Steve’s tragedy as a young boy that he went through,” said Holmgren. “We did a lot of background work on him. We actually had him into Philadelphia. It was just a quick, two-hour visit. We sat with him, talked with him, and he’s a wonderful young man. He just loves to play the game, and that’s what really shows when he’s on the ice. He just wants to play and compete.”
The Flyers generally are very guarded about their true feelings toward even the most highly-regarded of their prospects, traditionally avoiding high public praise or the practice of comparing newly drafted players to former and/or established NHL stars.
Holmgren made an exception, however, on this occasion.
“There are some areas he’s got to get better in, but typically, kids that work hard and compete that hard, they make themselves into good players,” the former Flyers forward said of Downie. “He’s not much different than a young Rick Tocchet, in terms of where Rick was as an 18-year-old.
“That may be a tough act to follow, but there are some similarities.”
Oskars Bartulis, D (Moncton Wildcats, QMJHL)
3rd round, 91st overall
Ht: 6’2 Wt: 184 lbs. Shoots: Left
Born: 1/21/87 in Ogre, Latvia
With the expected full-time graduations of Pitkanen and Dennis Seidenberg, both catalysts of the Philadelphia Phantoms’ Calder Cup championship run this spring, the Flyers’ farm system is suddenly lacking in quality blueline depth.
Given this, it is somewhat surprising that Clarke and his staff opted to use just one of its draft picks this year on a defenseman. Regardless, the rearguard they selected – 18-year-old Oskars Bartulis – was rated very highly on the team’s overall chart and is regarded as a potential high-end sleeper prospect.
Bartulis enjoyed an excellent debut season in the QMJHL with the Moncton Wildcats in 2004-05. He quickly established himself as a steady force on the blueline, and went on to register an impressive 24 points (5 goals, 19 assists) and 55 PIMs in 62 games, en route to being named to the league’s all-rookie team.
“Oskars is a big defenseman,” said Holmgren. “He skates well and moves the puck really well. Coming over to North America and playing, he made the adjustment fairly fluidly. He’s a good puck mover, gets involved in the play, and I think, over the next few years, he’s going to develop into a nice young player.”
The Flyers’ first ever Latvian-born draftee, Bartulis is actually a converted defenseman who previously played center during a brief stint with CSKA Moscow’s second-tier squad in Russia.
He possesses good puck skills and excellent defensive instincts, especially considering his age and general lack of experience at the position.
Like most players his age, Bartulis has a lot of filling out to do and must work on his overall strength level. Consistency is also an issue, but he appears to be a very coachable talent and, thus, should improve over time in that regard.
“He was a centerman, he didn’t play much defense until recently,” explained Moncton general manager Allan Power. “We thought we were getting a centerman and we ended up with a defenseman, which was a good hole to fill. And he’s doing very, very well for a guy who didn’t play, who might have played defense for a couple of months before showing up to training camp here [last August].”
Don Matheson, a regional scout for the Boston Bruins, watched Bartulis closely in the QMJHL this past season. He shared his thoughts on the young defenseman in an interview with Hockey’s Future prior to the draft.
“Every team is going to have their own opinion,” he said. “But [Bartulis is] a 17-year-old rookie who presents pretty well in the league. He’s presenting as a kid who makes pretty good decisions with the puck. He’s not overly big right now. Physical strength is certainly an issue; he’s got to develop that to a much greater degree than he has so far. I think for sure he’s going to fit somewhere in the first part of the draft.
“Where he fits, could well end up being decided by how well he plays under pressure in the [future] with a lot of ice time over a series of a short period of time. I think that he’s not overwhelming in physical stature, but thinks the game pretty well and brings some things to the table. To what degree, that’s to be decided.
“I think he’s adapted well [to defense]. If you didn’t know he had been a forward the way he reads things and plays the position you would think he had been a defenseman for a long time, quite honestly. That’s an attribute perhaps to the way he thinks the game. But I think the jury is out as to where he sits, but every team is going to make its own mind up.”
Jeremy Duchesne, G (Halifax Mooseheads, QMJHL)
4th round, 119th overall
Ht: 6’0 Wt: 201 lbs. Catches: Left
Born: 10/17/86 in Silver Spring, Maryland
The 2004-05 campaign proved to be a tale of two halves for Duchesne.
The young netminder began the season, his second in the QMJHL, with the anemic Victoriaville Tigers and struggled mightily while playing in a backup role to Josh Tordjman. It quickly became obvious that Duchesne, regarded as one of the league’s top draft-eligible goaltending prospects, was in desperate need of a chance of scenery.
The Halifax Mooseheads took a chance on Duchesne in January, essentially acquiring the lanky netminder to provide insurance for San Jose Sharks prospect Jason Churchill, should he falter.
The move proved to be a prophetic one. Churchill indeed fell into a slump, and Duchesne seized the opportunity. He ran off a tremendous 12-0-2 regular season run with the Mooseheads, and did not lose a game with the team until the second round of the playoffs.
Duchesne led Halifax all the way to the QMJHL finals, where the team ultimately fell to Sidney Crosby and the Rimouski Oceanic in four straight games.
“Simon Nolet and our other scouts had a chance to watch [Jeremy], and he just kept getting better and better as the year went on,” commented Holmgren. “He’s a typical French goalie, butterfly style with good size. He’s a very quick reflex goalie that covers the bottom of the net.”
Duchesne, the son of former NHL forward Gaeton Duchesne, plays a very sound positional game. He is solid and not flashy, but does tend to give up juicy rebounds on occasion. He has been lucky in Halifax to have a strong defense around to clear these rebounds, which, perhaps, was his main problem in Victoriaville.
He will have to work on corralling these rebounds in the future, because his defense will not always be as strong.
Duchesne was born in Silver Spring, Maryland, which is actually only about a 45-minute drive southwest of Philadelphia. He owns dual citizenship, and stands to make a strong run at earning a roster spot for Team USA for the 2006 World Junior Championships.
With the promotion of Antero Niittymaki to the NHL and the organization’s decision not to offer contracts to QMJHLer David Tremblayand NCAA netminders Bernd Bruckler and Dov Grumet-Morris, Duchesne immediately becomes the No. 3 goaltending prospect in the Flyers system.
He ranks only behind recently-signed former Prince Albert Raiders (WHL) keeper Rejean Beauchemin, who will debut for the Phantoms in the fall, and Martin Houle, who will likely play at least one more season with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles in the “Q.”
Josh Beaulieu, C (London Knights, OHL)
5th round, 152nd overall
Ht: 6’0 Wt: 180 lbs. Shoots: Left
Born: 1/10/87 in Windsor, Ontario
Like Downie, Beaulieu is a prime example of the type of player the Flyers look to develop. A big, aggressive forward who plays with a chip on his shoulder and a team-first mentality, the Windsor, Ontario native continued to emerge as a steady two-way forward for the Memorial Cup-winning London Knights last season.
Beaulieu has already developed a reputation as a player opposing skaters hate to line up against, a relentless competitor who takes the body at any opportunity and plays with reckless abandon. Beaulieu is not presently viewed as an offensive threat, though he does possess decent playmaking skills and strong overall hockey sense.
After splitting the previous season between the Junior B Strathroy Rockets and fourth line duty in London, Beaulieu joined the Knights full-time in 2004-05. He started out slowly in his sophomore season, spending time on the fourth line or the checking line. The more he played, however, the more confidence he displayed, and his overall performance improved accordingly.
By midseason, Beaulieu had become a fixture in the Knights’ lineup. He started seeing time on the second line in the later stages of the regular season, quite a feat on a team that is considered to be among the CHL’s best ever.
“He didn’t get a chance to play much, but when he did, at the World Championship break, when a lot of kids on his team were gone, he got a chance to play more and he really stepped it up,” said Holmgren. “He didn’t play as much later on, but now we think he’s going to develop into a nice, hard-working two-way player.
“We think his puck skills are going to get better and better with more playing time. He’s a real hard-working, aggressive kid. We believe his skills will get much better with more playing time.”
Beaulieu is following a recent trend of prospects for the Knights. He was broken in slowly and then given a lot of ice time as he developed. Because of this, he quickly moved up the list on a number of scouts’ books. He has proven he can hold his own in a fight, developing into one of the better middleweight fighters in the OHL.
Beaulieu will be expected to step up and become more of an offensive contributor for the Knights next season. He will likely be a fixture on the one of the team’s top two lines, and will be a guy counted upon to do the dirty work in the trenches.
It is difficult to project Beaulieu’s pro potential at this point, but the Flyers seem to believe that he has the ability to develop into a fourth-line energy guy who will play solid defense and provide the team with a big hit (or the ability to drop the gloves) when a lift is needed.
John Flatters, D (Red Deer Rebels, WHL)
6th round, 174th overall
Ht: 6’1 Wt: 203 lbs. Shoots: Left
Born: 6/17/87 in Calgary, Alberta
Clarke, Holmgren and the rest of the Flyers brass rarely miss on opportunity to praise Red Deer Rebels head coach Brent Sutter, who they believe has long been the top bench boss at major junior level and an elite developer of young talent.
Hence it comes as no surprise that the Flyers have once again dipped into the Rebels organization, this time opting to select rugged but raw defenseman John Flatters with their fifth selection.
Flatters follows a long line of Red Deer players who have been joined the Flyers farm system in some capacity over the past few years, including defensemen Jeff Woywitka, Jim Vandermeer and Wade Skolney, and forwards Colin Fraser, Jeff Smith and Pete Vandermeer.
“[Flatters is] real raw,” commented Holmgren. “He’s a Western Canadian boy who likes to initiate contact. [He’s a] good skater. He’s another kid who didn’t get a chance to play a lot as a 17-year-old, but we really like the Red Deer situation.
“It’s hard to find a better coach than Brent Sutter there, and we feel he’ll really develop under him.”
Much like his teammate Pierre-Paul Lamoureux, Flatters makes his presence known with his physical play and with his fists if necessary. The 6’2 203 lbs Calgary product appeared in 53 games as a WHL rookie with Red Deer and notched just two points, but had 117 minutes in penalties to go with them.
Flatters played a lot in games where the tone shifted towards the violent and hard-hitting end of the spectrum, especially down the stretch as the Rebels jockeyed for playoff seeding.
“He’s tougher than Lamoureux,” explained one WHL scout before the draft. “He’s more raw, but likes to hit. He goes out of his way to hit sometimes, which gets him in trouble with [coach Sutter]. He plays a physical type of game. He’s mistake prone, but I still like him as a late-rounder.”
Added another league scout: “Like Lamoureux, [Flatters] always likes to play hard and physical in the corners or in front of his own net. His skating needs to improve too, but this is a guy who comes to play every night and will win battles for you.”
Flatters is another player who will be counted upon to help fill the hole left when Dion Phaneuf turns pro next year, especially when it comes to the area of toughness and defending his teammates.
Matt Clackson, LW (Chicago Steel, USHL)
7th round, 215th overall
Ht: 6’1 Wt: 203 lbs. Shoots: Left
Born: 6/26/85 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
If this year’s Flyers draft class had an overall theme, it would undoubtedly be that of character and toughness. It is fitting, then, that the team used its final selection on Matt Clackson, an aggressive forward from the Chicago Steel of the junior tier I USHL.
The only of the six players selected by the Flyers this year from outside of the CHL, Clackson is the son of former NHL tough guy Kim Clackson. His younger brother Chris, 18, also plays for the Steel.
Clackson finished second in the USHL last season with 270 PIMs. No other Chicago player finished in the top 20. When it comes to physical play and dropping the gloves, few players in the league are more feared and respected than the burly Pittsburgh native.
Clackson appears to be an extreme NHL longshot at this point. He is tough, but does not possess any standout skills, and remains a raw, unpolished commodity.
He finished seventh on the Steel in scoring last season with 25 points (10 goals, 15 assists) in 56 games.
Clackson will begin his NCAA career at Western Michigan in 2005-06. His pro chances will likely be more assessable after he completes his freshman campaign.
Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.