Flyers 2006 draft preview

By Al Alven

Flyers Top 10 Prospects

1. Alexandre Picard, D
2. Stefan Ruzicka, RW
3. Ryan Potulny, C
4. Steve Downie, C
5. Freddy Meyer, D
6. Ben Eager, LW
7. Rejean Beauchemin, G
8. Randy Jones, D
9. Martin Houle, G
10. Matt Ellison, LW

The Philadelphia Flyers have done very well in restocking their system and preparing for the future over the past half-decade, transforming what was a virtually barren farm at the turn of the century into a thriving developmental pool in short order.

However, with highly-regarded prospects like defenseman Joni Pitkanen and forwards Jeff Carter and Mike Richards now established as NHL regulars, the team’s organizational depth chart once again appears to be lacking in depth.

The team took the essential first steps toward “reloading” its feeder stock at last year’s entry draft, tabbing a pair of intriguing players – forward Steve Downie (1st round, 29th overall) and defenseman Oskars Bartulis (3rd round, 91st overall) – with their first two selections.

These players join a list headlined by Alexandre Picard and Stefan Ruzicka, both of whom made their full-time pro debuts with the Philadelphia Phantoms (AHL) in 2005-06, and Ryan Potulny, who signed with the Flyers after wrapping up a stellar NCAA career at Minnesota.

The upcoming 2006 Entry Draft will serve as the next phase of the replenishment process.

Team Needs

Stylistically, general manager Bob Clarke is still trying to figure out where his team fits in with the landscape of the “new” NHL.

Last summer, the Flyers threw a boatload of money at big, slow-footed free agent defensemen Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje, while the league-wide trend was to go with more fleet, finesse-oriented players in anticipation of a more wide-open game.

The post-lockout era, obviously, did not pan out — or at least, start out — the way that Clarke had envisioned it would. But the Flyers’ main undoing in 2005-06 came down to health, as the team was decimated by a variety of ailments throughout the campaign.

Almost every veteran player on the roster missed significant time, necessitating a steady stream of call-ups from the AHL and increased responsibilities for several of the team’s rookies and other youngsters.

While health and stability will be the main concerns heading into 2006-07, at least one more scoring threat, a mobile defenseman or two, and a general infusion of speed throughout the lineup are the top personnel priorities.

And, as usual, the Flyers will enter the season with many questions in goal. Veteran Robert Esche and sophomore Antero Niittymaki will once again battle for the top spot, barring a move over the summer.

Organizational Strengths

While the Flyers presently lack quality depth at just about every position throughout their system, the organization does boast a handful of solid, albeit unspectacular, upstarts waiting in the wings.

With the talented stable of potential stars the organization has assembled at the NHL level, the hope is that this “second wave” of talent will evolve into a quality supporting cast in the years to come.

The team recently inked 2005 first round pick Steve Downie to a contract, after a season in which the controversial forward emerged as an elite player in the OHL and turned in a dominating performance at the WJC.

Downie is joined by Ryan Potulny, who became the first Flyers prospect ever to lead the NCAA in scoring this season, rugged Ben Eager and enigmatic (but offensively gifted) Stefan Ruzicka as intriguing forward prospects in the system.

The organization’s de facto top prospect, Alexandre Picard, a smooth, steady performer coming off of a solid freshman season with the Phantoms, leads the way among defensemen.

He is joined by Freddy Meyer and Randy Jones, longtime Phantoms who earned contract extensions after strong performances with the Flyers in 2005-06.

Each of the aforementioned players are far from “sure things” at the NHL level. But, collectively, they represent a diverse mix of styles, and a potential base of quality complimentary role players for the organization.

Organizational Weaknesses

Though injuries played a huge role in shaping the Flyers’ fortunes, the 2005-06 version of the team struggled mightily to establish an identity. In the end, they were never quite able to do so.

The same could be said, in many ways, about the organization’s farm system at this time. In recent years, the Flyers prospect crop possessed several “definable” elements, but this is no longer the case.

At present, the ranks are thin and there are many more question marks than answers. There are many more puzzles and curiosities than “sure things” now that the likes of Pitkanen, Carter, Richards and R.J. Umberger have moved on to the next level.

Downie and Potulny, for instance, enjoyed tremendous success at the major junior and collegiate levels, respectively. But, observers seem split on the chances of their games translating to the NHL game in an impactful way.

Similarly, Picard, though rock solid fundamentally, does not possess any one quality that sets him apart. Thus, projections of his potential at the NHL level have been tempered, even by the scouts who lauded his offensive capabilities early in his junior career.

The Flyers also have a pair of talented minor league netminders in Rej Beauchemin and Martin Houle, but both have a long ways to go to establish themselves as “NHL ready,” let alone as much as future backups in the big league.

Overall, the Flyers system appears to have a little bit of everything at the present time… except for bona fide, top-end talent.

And, while there is nothing wrong with that, the many question marks that arise as a result will persist for the time being.

Draft Tendencies

The Flyers tend to follow a fairly straightforward drafting strategy, employing the “best player available” approach in the early rounds, then focusing more on particular positions and organizational areas of need in later rounds.

Generally, the drafting committee adheres to a themed game plan. For instance, in both 2003 and 2004, the Flyers used seven of their 11 picks on forwards. In 2001 and 2002 combined, nine of the 16 players taken were defensemen.

In 2005, with only six picks, the Flyers selected a balanced compliment of players — three forwards, two defensemen and a goaltender.

Having focused mainly on replenishing their forward stock in recent years, the Flyers are now likely to refocus their efforts on adding quality blueliners, and likely at least a pair of goaltending prospects.

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 only nine netminders, each no earlier than the fourth round.

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 Carter (11th overall) over several more highly-touted prospects in 2003.

The team’s first picks in each of the last two years, Rob Bellamy (2004, 92nd overall) and Downie, are other examples of this preference.

In terms of geographical tendencies, the Flyers have long been known as a team that favors North American talent over European prospects. The bulk of the Flyers picks will almost always come from the Canadian junior ranks, though the team has shown more of a tendency to draft U.S. collegiates in recent years.

Over the past three years, the Flyers have used just two of their 28 combined picks on players who were planning on continuing their development in Europe — 2003 draftees Kevin Romy (4th round, 108th overall) and Ville Hostikka (6th round, 193rd overall).

Considering the revised rules that allow for NHL teams to hold the rights of European players for only two years after they are drafted (as opposed to the previously unlimited restrictions), don’t be surprised to see the Flyers shy away from selecting players across the pond altogether.

Hockey’s Future staff mock draft result: Carl Sneep, D, Brainerd.

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.