Flyers Entry Draft Preview

By Bill Meltzer
As the 2000 entry draft approaches, the Flyers are stocked at the goaltending position. 1995 first round selection Brian Boucher is coming off a stellar rookie season and waiting in the wings are highly touted 1999 first rounder Maxime Ouellet and SM-Liiga rookie of the year Antero Niittymäki. The Flyers depth in goal allowed the organization to trade yet another well-regarded prospect, Jean-Marc Pelletier, to Carolina as part of the Keith Primeau deal.

Moving out from the goal line to the blueline, even with Andy Delmore and Mark Eaton likely to stick for a full season with the Flyers in 2000-2001, there remains a decent pool of young defensemen in the farm system, although there are no likely #1 or #2 defensemen to be found. It is possible that the Flyers will use the 28th overall selection to take a defenseman. The Flyers like their defensemen big. The franchise has little or no interest in small defensemen, at least at the NHL level; the smaller blueliners the team has drafted or signed as rookie free agents tend to either be traded before turning pro (Mike Crowley, Ray Giroux) or converted to wingers (Dan Peters). However, there has been increased emphasis on finding mobile defensemen for the organization. Because most of the defenders who have been drafted by the Flyers in recent years tend to be big punishing types (Jason Beckett, Jeff Feniak, etc), the organization has signed undrafted rookies such as Delmore and Eaton to provide some speed on the blueline.
While there are needs on the blueline, it is up front where the Flyers system is the thinnest. Most people expect the Flyers to draft a forward in the first round, although the organization generally adheres to a “best available player” strategy in the first round. With young Simon Gagne now firmly entrenched on the NHL roster, there are no likely impact forwards in the pipeline, although Tomas Divisek or Vaclav Pletka could surprise.

The Flyers draft tendencies have been fairly predictable during Bob Clarke’s second tenure as Flyers general manager. They typically make bold first picks, going for the player they feel has the greatest upside, regardless of position (Boucher in ’95, Dainius Zubrus in ’96, Pelletier in ’97 (second round), Gagne in ’98, and Ouellet last year). The organization then tends to get conservative in rounds 2-3, typically going for big defensive defensemen or grinding forwards. Outside of Zubrus, who played junior hockey in Ontario, the Flyers have not made a single European selection before the middle rounds since Clarke resumed full control of the drafting table in ’95 (he returned to Philly shortly before the 1994 draft but, because of short preparation time, the draft was largely influenced by outgoing GM Russ Farwell and the staff Farwell had assembled). The latter half of the draft, however, tends to be heavy in European selections. Much has been made of Clarke’s so-called anti-European bias. While the dearth of European players on the Flyers roster and the absence of early round European selections would seem to confirm people’s suspicions, it would be more accurate to say Clarke’s prejudice as a general manager is actually toward a specific playing style rather than against players of certain nationalities. He tends to favor players who regularly scrum along the boards, crash the net, and willingly take hits to make plays (even if they are not themselves big hitters) over those whose styles are predicated upon smooth skating and crisp passing. Although an ever-increasing number of European players are well-suited to the “small ice” style, the majority of prospects who feature the style that Clarke prefers are still the North American players.

This may be the year that Clarke’s Flyers finally select a European born and trained player with their first selection, especially if they go for a defenseman. If available at #28, Russia’s Anton Volchenkov, Finnish back Tero Määtä, college D Ron Hainsey, and Peterborough Petes defender Kurtis Foster are all tabbed as reasonably “safe” picks. All but Foster offer mobility and only Hainsey is considered deficient physically. While the Flyers usually tend to be brave with their first picks, their second pick in the 2000 draft does not come up until #93. This might make a conservative approach to the first round more appealing than usual. If they decide to roll the dice on a defenseman, huge OHL Czech import Libor Ustrnul is an intriguing possibility. It seems unlikely that even if suddenly hot Leksand IF prospect Lars Jonsson still remains on the board when the Flyers turn comes up at #28 that the Flyers would be the team to select him. The basis for this opinion is that Flyers chief European scout Inge Hammarström was lukewarm toward Christian Bäckman in 1998 and Jonsson is considered an even greater wildcard than Bäckman.

If the Flyers decide upon a forward with their first selection, potentially available players who may interest the Flyers include opt-in Ramzi Abid, college freshman Krys Kolanos, Russian Ruslan Zainullin, Czech import Tomas Kurka, and Rimouski Oceanic center Thatcher Bell. If Brad Boyes slips lower than the Hockey News and the CSB project, he may be an attractive option for his playmaking ability. Meanwhile, Alexei Mikhnov and Seattle Thunderbirds center Shane Endicott certainly have “Flyer size” but Mikhnov has not had wide exposure and Endicott is a pure project player whose potential lies more in his size than his actual production to date.

It is important to remember that the purpose of the draft is not so much to find an impact player (although that is, of course, the big hope, especially in the first round) but to create organizational depth with several players who eventually contribute at the pro level or who can be traded to fill immediate needs on the NHL team’s roster. Until 1998, Clarke’s drafts during both tenures as Flyers general manager failed- without exception – to significantly increase organizational depth. The 1998 crop, however, seems to be a deep one (with Gagne having already made an NHL impact and Niittymäki, Divisek, Beckett, and Bruno St. Jacques, among others, knocking on the door of becoming useful North American pro players). It is still too early to determine how last year’s picks will shape up on the whole.

The Flyers scouts may find themselves hard pressed to create depth out of this year’s entry draft. The Flyers only have six picks in the nine round draft. They do not pick in the second round (Carolina owns the pick as part of the Primeau deal), the fifth round (the selection went along with Dave Babych to Los Angeles for Steve Duchesne on trade deadline day 1999), or the ninth round (the recent deal with Chicago for Mark Janssens). The Flyers pick 28th, 93rd, 125th, 194th, 226th, and 258th.