Flyers 2004 entry draft preview

By Al Alven

Flyers Top 10 Prospects

1. Jeff Carter, Center
2. Mike Richards, Center
3. Antero Niittymaki, Goaltender
4. Patrick Sharp, Center
5. Stefan Ruzicka, Right Wing
6. Rosario Ruggeri, Defenseman
7. Bernd Bruckler, Goaltender
8. Alexander Drozdetsky, Right Wing
9. David Tremblay, Goaltender
10. Ben Eager, Left Wing

As the NHL moves into an era of unparalleled uncertainly, so to do the Philadelphia Flyers. After falling just one game short of reaching the Stanley Cup finals with a roster loaded with aging stars, sweeping change could be on the horizon for the organization.

The first stage in what could turn out to be a full-blown youth movement will be the upcoming NHL Entry Draft in Carolina. General manager Bob Clarke and his staff have drafted well in recent years, restocking their farm system with several promising youngsters and using other selections as assets in key trades.

The Flyers had the luxury of using early first round selections in each of the past two drafts. Due to trades, however, the team is without a first, second, or third round pick this year.

Team Needs

The Flyers are a team at the crossroads.

In head coach Ken Hitchcock’s second season at the helm, the team overcame several injuries to key performers and ultimately fell just one game short of reaching the Stanley Cup finals.

While the team as currently constructed could conceivably return and compete next season (if there is one), the general consensus in Philadelphia is that the window of opportunity has closed for this aging club.

A number of changes are expected this offseason, as a youth movement of some order finally appears to be in the cards for one of the NHL’s big market franchises. That said, the immediate general need for the Flyers at this point is simply youth at every position.

Acquiring or working younger players into the lineup will be difficult, however, as the team’s roster is currently loaded with high-priced, tough-to-move veteran players.

The Flyers are in better shape up front and in goal than they are on the blueline. There, Kim Johnsson (28), Danny Markov (27) and Joni Pitkanen (20) figure to be the young leaders of unit that is now officially under reconstruction.

System Strengths

All things considered, the Flyers’ farm system is probably in the best shape that it’s been in for years.

At the top end, there is Pitkanen. Taken with the fourth overall pick of the 2002 draft, the 20-year-old Finn is coming off of an up-and-down rookie season that included flashes of brilliance at times. He was named to the league’s all-rookie team on Thursday, and is still considered by many to be a franchise player in the making.

The organization is not very deep in quality defensemen after Pitkanen (more on that below), but is well-stocked with promising forwards. The system’s real strength is down the middle, with 2003 first round picks Jeff Carter (11th overall) and Mike Richards (24th overall) in the fold.

Both had terrific seasons with their respective OHL teams and strong performances at the world junior championships for Team Canada. Carter and Richards could challenge for spots on the Flyers roster next season. If the NHL does not operate, however, they will be ineligible to play in the AHL due to age requirements and will have to be returned to juniors.

Fellow 2003 draft pick Stefan Ruzicka (3rd round, 81st overall) exceeded expectations in 2003-04 with an eye-opening rookie season at Owen Sound. The emergence of the talented Slovakian right wing gives the Flyers a potential future star at a position where the organization is otherwise quite thin.

Robert Esche developed into a solid starter goaltender for the Flyers this season, but he has plenty of competition waiting in the wings. Antero Niittymaki, likely to move up to the big club as a backup next season, had a brilliant second North American season with the Phantoms in the AHL. He is expected to challenge Esche for the starting role.

Also, Bernd Bruckler had a great junior season at Wisconsin, smashing a number of school records. David Tremblay emerged as one of the best goaltenders in the QMJHL, leading the Gatineau Olympiques to the league title and an appearance in the Memorial Cup Tournament. And, unsung Rejean Beauchemin led the Prince Albert Raiders to their first appearance in the WHL playoffs in four years in just his first season as a starter.

System Weaknesses

With the promotions of Pitkanen and Dennis Seidenberg to the NHL level and the trading away of Jeff Woywitka and Jim Vandermeer, the Flyers system is suddenly lacking in quality defensive prospects.

QMJHLers Rosario Ruggeri and Alexandre Picard head up a rather underwhelming list of young blueliners, which also includes Randy Jones of the Phantoms. Ruggeri will make his AHL debut next season, while Picard will spend one more season at Halifax. Jones, who appeared in five games with the Flyers in 2003-04, still has a ways to go in his development.

Nikita Korovkin, a 2002 draft selection (6th round, 192nd overall) was not signed by the June 1st deadline and, thus, is now a free agent. The Flyers once held the Russian defender in high regard, but soured on his conditioning and inability to put on muscle in his final year in the WHL.

A lack of offensive wing depth is also an issue for the organization. After the aforementioned Ruzicka, there just isn’t much there.

Ben Eager, acquired in the deal that sent Mike Comrie to Phoenix, appears to have the tools to make it to the NHL. Some observers view him as a potentially late-blooming power forward in the John LeClair mold, but such a projection can only be classified as extremely optimistic.

Talented Alexander Drozdetsky continues to elicit conflicting projections from observers. Some see the Russian right winger as a potential scoring line player in the NHL, while others vehemently argue that he does not possess the physical attributes or desire to effectively compete on the North American stage.

It may all be a moot point, however, as Drozdetsky has yet to show definitive interest in crossing the pond. Once dubbed “the next Igor Larionov” by Flyers chief European scout Inge Hammarstrom, Drozdetsky may be nothing more than a lost cause for the organization at this point.

Fellow Russian winger Konstantin Rudenko (Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, RSL) had a solid season, as did Mathieu Brunelle (Trenton Titans, ECHL) and Colin Shields (University of Maine, Hockey East) at their respective levels of play. All three, however, appear to be longshots to play in the NHL.

Draft Tendencies

The Flyers tend to follow a fairly straightforward drafting system, generally targeting players that address organizational weaknesses. Often, the team’s yearly selections focus heavily on a particular position or area of need.

The team will employ the best player available approach in certain cases, particularly when a given scout has a strong feeling about an available player. But, generally, the drafting committee follows a themed game plan. Last season, the team used seven of its 11 picks on forwards. In the previous two years combined, nine of the 16 players taken were defensemen.

Three times in the mid-late 90s, the organization used its first pick on a goaltender (Brian Boucher in 1995, Jean-Marc Pelletier in 1997, and Maxime Ouellet in 1999). Since then, the Flyers have drafted seven netminders, each no earlier than the fifth round. The team added goaltending depth with its final three selections in the 2003 draft.

When it comes down to making individual selections, the Flyers put tremendous stock in adding character players to the organization. This was the determining factor in the team’s decision to draft Jeff Carter (11th overall) over several more highly ranked prospects last year.

Clarke, of course, has the final say on all selections. His roots in life and hockey are in Western Canada, an area the Flyers always scout thoroughly. The team drafted three players from the Western Hockey League (WHL) last year.

The Flyers have also seemingly gotten over their reputation as a team that prefers to draft predominantly North American talent. If there ever was a European bias, one quick scan of the team’s current NHL roster, recent draft picks and organizational depth chart will reveal that it no longer exists.