In terms of overall strategy and execution, the 2006 NHL Entry Draft represented a radical departure from the norm for the Philadelphia Flyers.
The most noticeable difference from previous draft outings was in accordance with the league-wide trend of selecting smaller, faster “skill” players at all positions.
After years of stocking the system with big — and, in many cases, slow and plodding — prospects, general manager Bob Clarke made it clear that the organization would alter its methods to better fit the landscape of the “new” NHL.
The result saw the team draft 10 players with an average size of roughly just 5’11, 182 lbs. This included only one player above 6’0 (right winger Andres Nodl) and one player over 200 lbs. (defenseman Dennis Bodrov).
The team’s first round selection, right winger Claude Giroux, is listed at 5’10, 169 lbs., certainly not the “typical” dimensions one would formerly associate with a top Flyers draft choice.
Another surprise was the drafting of four European-based players.
The Flyers had all but completely shied away from selecting non-North American talent in recent years. This, coupled with the new CBA rules that allow for teams to retain the rights to European draftees for only two years (as opposed to the previously indefinite restrictions), led many to assume that the team would proceed as usual.
But, Clarke and company caught observers off guard by selecting a pair of Russians (Bodrov and right winger Andrei Popov), and one player each from the Czech Republic (goaltender Jakub Kovar) and Finland (defenseman Joonas Lehtivuori).
If you count Austrian native Nodl and Swiss-born goaltender Michael Dupont — both of whom have already crossed the Atlantic to continue their development — the Flyers actually used more than half of their picks this year on European players.
The Flyers did continue their recent trend of drafting players from the NCAA ranks, nabbing two players coming off of solid sophomore campaigns (forwards Jonathan Matsumoto and Jon Rheault) and a pair of college-bound prospects (Nodl and defenseman Michael Ratchuk).
But, perhaps most astonishingly, the team selected just two players from the CHL ranks this year (Giroux and Dupont, both from the QMJHL). The last time the Flyers declined to pick a player from either the WHL or OHL was in 2000 and 2003, respectively.
The team has now drafted 10 players out of the Q, including four goaltenders, over the past five years.
With such changes in drafting philosophy, it is clear that the Flyers are making widespread efforts to restructure their farm system as a means of keeping up with these ever-changing times in the NHL.
Claude Giroux, RW — Gatineau Olympiques (QMJHL)
1st round, 22nd overall
Ht: 5’10, Wt: 169
Regardless of the way his career turns out, Giroux will likely always be remembered as the player whose name Bob Clarke momentarily forgot at the drafting podium. “That’s OK,” the young forward insisted afterward with a hearty smile, as the flustered and obviously embarrassed general manager apologized vehemently. “It’s a tough name to pronounce.”
And so, in typically unroutine Flyers fashion, began the tale of the organization’s latest top draft choice. Giroux, as assistant GM Paul Holmgren noted, would likely not have been a first round pick in years past, due mainly to his diminutive size. However, with his speed, quickness and creative playmaking flair, he is a player viewed as a perfect fit for the style of the new NHL.
“Claude was in the group of players that we had targeted that would hopefully be available when our pick came up,” said Holmgren. “He is a skilled, intelligent and competitive player, and we’re tremendously happy to have him in the organization.”
Giroux, who was ranked 38th among North American Skaters in the Central Scouting’s last report, saw his stock rise dramatically during the second half of the 2005-06 season. Though he made an immediate impact upon joining the Gatineau Olympiques (QMJHL) at the start of the campaign, he seemed to get better and better as his rookie season wore on.
The Hearst, ON native wound up leading all first-year players in the Q in scoring, finishing a very impressive 13th overall in the league with 103 points (39 goals, 64 assists) in 69 games. He was a slam-dunk selection for the circuit’s All-Rookie team, and is already being considered at least as a top contender for a spot on Team Canada’s roster at the 2006-07 World Junior Championships.
Giroux will return to play at least one more season of junior hockey in Gatineau, where he will have a chance to work on shoring up his defensive game and adding strength and muscle to his smallish frame. But, there is no questioning his desire and competitive nature, aspects that have seen the young forward compared often to former NHL great Doug Gilmour.
Holmgren won’t argue with that assessment, but views Giroux in a slightly different, though no less flattering light.
“Our scouts have drawn the comparisons to Scott Gomez,” he explained. “He was small in junior but [like Giroux], has such tremendous hockey sense and tremendous skill to go along with it.”
Andreas Nodl, RW — Sioux Falls Stampede (USHL)
2nd round, 39th overall
Ht: 6’1, Wt: 196
A very intriguing blend of size, speed and raw ability, Nodl rebounded from a disastrous debut season in North America by emerging as an impact player for the Sioux Falls Stampede of the USHL in 2005-06. His performance not only put him on the map as a legitimate NHL prospect, but also helped him earn a ticket to play at St. Cloud State next season.
Nodl may have received the biggest break of his career when, as a member of Austria’s undistinguished and overwhelmed entry at the 2003-04 WJC in Finland, he met and struck up a friendship with fellow countryman Tomas Vanek.
It was through this connection with the then-University of Minnesota star and Buffalo Sabres prospect (5th overall, 2003) that Nodl arranged to cross the pond, and continue his development in the states while working toward an NCAA commitment. He ultimately joined Vanek’s old USHL team in Sioux Falls, but success did not come immediately.
In fact, Nodl endured a confidence-shattering rookie season with the Stampede. Hampered by a variety of injuries, personal issues and difficulties in learning the English language, he notched a disappointing 16 points (7 goals, 9 assists) in just 44 games.
But, with a new season came another opportunity, and Nodl managed to turn things around in his sophomore try with the Stampede. He would go on to lead the team in scoring with 59 points (29 goals, 30 assists) in 58 games, establishing himself as a force in the USHL and drawing the attention of a number of NHL scouts.
Overall, Nodl’s all-around game showed tremendous signs of improvement during his two-year stint in the USHL. However, there are times when he didn’t appear to be giving his maximum effort, as if he isn’t entirely aware of how good he really is. These issues may be some residual from the loss of confidence he suffered in 2004-05.
Nodl has a powerful stride, evidence by his winning the Fastest Skater award at this year’s USHL Skills Competition. He also possesses the offensive awareness to slow the game down and make plays. A good playmaker, Nodl is an even better shooter. The release and power of his wrist and snap shots are pro-caliber already, and his slapshot is heavy and very accurate as well.
Michael Ratchuk, D — U.S. National Dev. Program
2nd round, 42nd overall
Ht: 5’10, Wt: 175
Just three selections after acquiring Nodl, the Flyers drafted another college-bound prospect in Ratchuk. A product of the United States National Team Developmental Program, the Buffalo native has committed to play at Michigan State next season.
Ratchuk worked his way up the USNTDP ladder, attending USA Hockey Selects 14, 15 and 16 camps, before ultimately going on to play for the U-17 and U-18 national squads. He is regarded as an offensive defenseman, with great skating ability, tremendous top-end speed and a good head for the game.
The brother of former Colorado Avalanche draftee Peter Ratchuk (26th overall, 1996), Michael is best known for his ability to handle the puck while starting or leading a rush. He is very proficient at moving the play out of his own end quickly, and loves to stickhandle up through the neutral zones and into the opposing zone.
Ratchuk finished with an impressive 26 points (11 goals, 15 assists) and 50 PIMs in 47 games with the U-18 team this past season.
Though not known as a physical rearguard, per se, Ratchuk will engage contact and does not shy away when he is challenged. He plays a high-tempo game, with a lot of energy, emotion and constant movement.
Ratchuk, like so many defensemen drafted this year, is on the diminutive side, and will need to work on increasing his strength and stamina as he aims for an eventual pro career. These will be issues that will be addressed during his time at Michigan State.
“He’s got big hands, we think he’ll grow,” explained Holmgren. “But, he can really skate and really handle the puck, and he likes to throw his weight around.”
Denis Bodrov, D — Lada Togliatti (RSL)
2nd round, 55th overall
Ht: 6’0, Wt: 185
Bodrov made the most of every opportunity he was presented with this past season, turning in a solid rookie stint in the Russian Super League with Lada Togliatti, and showcasing his skills to the world as a member of Team Russia at the WJC.
The RSL, perhaps the most defensive-oriented major pro circuit in the world, is not an easy league to break into, particularly for young rearguards. But, Bodrov proved to be up to the task, making the transition relatively easily, in fact, from Samara of the Higher League.
The 19-year-old had his fair share of struggles, but generally played with a great deal of poise and composure, keeping his game simple and effective. In 37 games with Lada, he tallied 4 points (2 goals, 2 assists) and 42 PIMs. His -11 rating is a bit misleading, as it was more a byproduct of the team’s defensive struggles in general this year.
Bodrov’s stock appeared to be on the rise before the New Year, but it rose considerably as a result of his steady, two-way performance at the WJC in Vancouver. There, he displayed his emerging puck-moving ability and effectiveness in all game situations.
He proved to be a valuable player in special teams situations, in particular, and was a solid overall contributor to a blueline that helped Russia make it all the way to the gold medal game against Canada. Bodrov finished his WJC run with a very respectable 3 assists, a +3 rating and 2 PIMs in 6 games.
With a solid outing on the biggest stage of junior hockey competition under his belt, the next logical step is for Bodrov to work toward establishing himself as an RSL regular with Lada. He’s well on his way after his encouraging rookie season last year, but will now have to prove that he can handle an increased workload and more responsibilities than before.
Jonathan Matsumoto, C — Bowling Green (NCAA)
3rd round, 79th overall
Ht: 6’0, Wt: 184
Matsumoto followed up a brilliant freshman season at Bowling Green with an even better sophomore outing in 2005-06, finishing second on the team and eighth in the nation in scoring with 48 points (20 goals, 28 assists) in 36 games.
A very creative, playmaking center who uses and sets up his linemates extremely well, the Orleans, ON native is now viewed as a top offensive threat in the NCAA ranks. Matsumoto’s best asset is his ultra-keen hockey sense. Combining his smarts, skills and workhorse mentality, he has essentially developed himself into a legitimate NHL prospect — a notion many scouts and observers would have likely shrugged off two years ago.
If there’s anything that holds Matsumoto back from being considered a better NHL prospect than he is, it’s his average-at-best skating ability and foot speed. He does not possess that initial burst is generally associated with pro hopefuls, though he will display decent straight ahead speed once he gets a head of steam going.
But, it should also be noted that Matsumoto is an extremely diligent player both on the ice and off. He works very hard to overcome his shortcomings and correct the flaws in his game, and will likely have improved his overall skating ability to some degree by the time he finishes his collegiate career.
He will also likely rank among Bowling Green’s all-time leading scorers, assuming he stays through his senior season, and will continue to evolve as one of the top point-producers in the NCAA.
“Jonathan is a young guy that truly brings out the little kid in the game of hockey,” explained Bowling Green head coach Scott Paluch, in a recent interview with Hockey’s Future. “That’s something we love about him, and it’s contagious. He brought that from day one. Jonathan is a very good offensive player with a really creative offensive mind.”
Joonas Lehtivuori, D — Ilves Tampere, (SM-Liiga, Jr.)
4th round, 101st overall
Ht: 5’11, Wt: 167
One of only two Finnish defensemen drafted this year, Lehtivuori is a strong-skating, puck-carrying defenseman who has been reared in his hometown Tampere system since the tender age of five.
The Ilves of his age group is particularly strong and Lehtivuori was there to win both Jr. C gold in 2004 and Jr. B gold in 2006. This stock has risen more recently, with very strong national team performances in 2005-06, from junior Euro Hockey Tour to the Viking Cup and the U18 WC (from which he returned with a silver medal.”
Lehtivuori’s greatest strength is how he moves the puck. However, unlike a typical power play quarterback, he isn’t that often involved in scoring, which sometimes shows in his point totals. When facing strong opposition, he is mainly supporting the offense and carrying the puck in all zones, and he is very valuable as such, truly showing the value of a puck-moving defenseman.
Although one would think that the new NHL is a blessing for a defenseman as small as Lehtivuori, that isn’t quite the case as he may struggle to stop a forward without resorting to obstruction. His impressive hockey sense still keeps him inside the play when on the defensive.
Finland hasn’t sent a finesse defenseman to the NHL since Lehtivuori’s idol Kimmo Timonen, so Lehtivuori’s career path is difficult to picture in a world where the expiration of draft rights draws players to North America at an early age.
Otherwise, he would likely have developed in Finland until becoming a star there. Lehtivuori is a long way from the “big time” and his development is hard to predict, but the potential to become a second-pairing NHL defenseman is there.
Jakub Kovar, G — Budejovice (Czech, Jr.)
4th round, 109th overall
Ht: 6’0, Wt: 176
Interestingly enough, Kovar was born on the same day as Lehtivuori. No team, in fact, has selected back-to-back players who share an exact birthday since the Vancouver Canucks drafted the Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik, second and third overall in 1999.
All trivia aside, Kovar is a pick that can be likened to the Flyers’ drafting of Finnish goaltender Ville Hostikka back in 2003 (6th round, 193rd overall). Like Hostikka, Kovar is a relatively obscure player in the European junior ranks. He possesses a decent physical makeup and solid fundamental skills, but simply has yet to be properly tested, or given a chance to adequately prove himself.
That will come with time, of course, but exactly when is anyone’s guess. Hostikka, for instance, will finally be making his major pro debut in SM-liiga next season. Kovar may be one, two or three years away from moving up to the Czech Extraliga. But, he’s in a good program with Budejovice, and will be brought along at his own pace.
Kovar appeared in only 19 games for Budejovice’s top junior team, but posted very solid numbers — including a 2.23 GAA and .925 save percentage, to go along with two shutouts.
A rangy specimen with a thin frame, Kovar obviously has a good deal of filling out to do. He has the ability to cover a lot of ground with his size and quickness, but is often guilty at this point of playing too far back in his net. Whether he learns to better challenge shooters or develops a more unorthodox style, as we have seen with several Czech goaltenders in recent years, remains to be seen.
For now, however, experience is the key for the Pisek native. As long as he remains healthy and proves he can handle the workload, he will likely play in at least twice as many games next season.
Jon Rheault, RW — Providence College (NCAA)
5th round, 145th overall
Ht: 5’10, Wt: 202
One of the few bright spots on an otherwise offensively-challenged Providence College squad this past season, Rheault (pronounced “Row”) enjoyed a stellar sophomore campaign. Much like Matsumoto with Bowling Green, the Deering, New Hampshire native injected a refreshing sense of energy and provided much-needed offensive contribution to a team that struggled mightily most every night.
The Friars wound up finishing a very disappointing seventh in Hockey East, but Rheault’s contributions and the overall strides he made in his game over the course of the season certainly did not go unnoticed by NHL scouts.
The 19-year-old forward finished the campaign as the team’s third-leading scorer for the second consecutive season. He saw his point total increase, however, from 19 (11 goals, 8 assists) in 26 games to 30 (16 goals, 14 assists) in 35 games.
Rheault is a gifted offensive player with the capability to create and finish plays. He is a very good skater with speed and moves well through traffic. He is intensely competitive with an energy level to match, and is a fierce battler for the puck.
He has demonstrated that he can drive hard to the net as well as wreak havoc around it. Rheault is able to finish his checks and doesn’t shy away from the physical side of the game. He is an opportunistic player. Rheault possesses a terrific wrist-shot and shoots the puck often. He also has fine passing skills.
One area where Rheault will need to improve is getting more involved on the defensive side of the game. He could be more assertive against opposing players in the defensive zone.
Michael Dupont, G — Baie-Comeau Drakkar (QMJHL)
6th round, 175th overall
Ht: 6’0, Wt: 175
For the fourth straight year, the Flyers looked to the QMJHL to draft a netminder, this time securing the rights to Swiss native and Baie-Comeau starter Michael Dupont with their second-to-last pick, overall.
The team selected current Halifax Mooseheads starter Jeremy Duchesne last year, along with Martin Houle (now with the Philadelphia Phantoms of the AHL) and David Tremblay (whose rights have since been relinquished by the organization) in each of the past two drafts.
Dupont has starred for the struggling Drakkar, essentially, since he was selected by the club with the 52nd pick of the 2004 QMJHL draft. He made the team directly out of camp, and wound up splitting time with veteran Loic Lacasse, for whom he was originally expected to serve as backup.
The starting role was officially handed over to Dupont during the 2005-06 season, when Lacasse was traded to Drummondville. Dupont would go on to appear in 48 games, compiling a 19-24 record, 3.68 GAA and .890 save percentage for a sub-par defensive club.
The Drakkar backline is expected to be very thin once again next season, so Dupont will continue to have his work cut out for him. The 18-year-old netminder is positionally sound between the pipes, but lacks quickness and superior lateral ability.
He possesses a decent glove hand and good reflexes, but must rely mainly on his ability to anticipate plays and improvise, especially when the defense breaks down in front of him. He has solid rebound control, and handles the puck adequately.
Andrei Popov, RW — Traktor Chelyabinsk (Rus. High League)
7th round, 205th overall
Ht: 6’0, Wt: 187
The fact that Popov slipped so far after being ranked ninth among European skaters in CSS’s final report certainly says a great deal about his struggles during the second half of the 2005-06 season.
At any rate, the undeniably talented Russian forward represents a low risk/high reward scenario for the Flyers as a seventh round pick. In the weeks leading up to the event, in fact, Popov was still being projected to go anywhere from the second or third round to the end of the draft.
On the ice, Popov has shown flashes of brilliance in almost every respect. He boasts excellent offensive skills and awareness, and has the prototypical makeup of a future power forward. He still has to work on his skating and defensive play, but has shown steady improvement in those areas at times over the past few years.
The biggest concern about Popov is his desire, and willingness to put it all together and become a consistent threat. Too often, he plays well for long stretches, then appears to coast.
Popov is the product of Chelyabinsk’s Traktor hockey school. The young forward has spent most of his career thus far in that city. He has also been a member of Russian regional team Ural for 88-born competition since the squad’s inception.
He made his High League (Russia 2) debut during the 2004-05 season, instantly making an impact with the club and earning significant playing time. He followed that up with a decent, though generally disappointing sophomore season with Traktor, in which he tallied 16 points (8 goals, 8 assists) in 37 games.
The true blow to Popov’s stock came as a result of his underwhelming performance at the U-18 WJC, where, save for a multi-point performance in an 8-0 thrashing of Belarus, he was virtually invisible. Such a disappearing act on a stage where careers are often made or broken did not sit well with many NHL scouts and observers.
Popov certainly has the ability to develop into an NHL-quality threat, but he must begin to prove that he is serious about wanting to improve and establishing himself as the player he can be. Look for him to earn a spot with Chelyabinsk’s top team based on his talent level alone, in the near future.
How he handles such an opportunity will be interesting to watch.
Sergei Balashov, Eugene Belashchenko, Pekka Lampinen, Phil Laugher, D.J. Powers, Sean Ruck and Kevin Wey contributed to this article. Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.