Flyers’ Fans Starting to Feel a Draft

PHILADELPHIA, Pa – The Philadelphia Flyers have been a bit of an enigma this season. In recent days, they have looked like playoff contenders with a solid 2-1 win over the Boston Bruins Saturday night and a come-from-behind win against the Washington Capitals on Sunday at the Wells Fargo Center in South Philly. The problem, however, is that the Flyers have put the Philly faithful in a bit of a quandary.

Very rarely does a fan want their favorite team to lose, but their participation in the ongoing playoff race conflicts directly with the Flyers’ future needs. While they are only four points out of eighth place (33 points) and 12th in the 15 team conference, the Flyers are also now tied with Tampa Bay (27th overall) for the league’s fourth-worst record. Only Calgary (30), Colorado (28), and Florida (28) have fewer points than the Flyers at the time of this writing. That means if the season ended today the Flyers would have the fourth overall pick in this year’s NHL Entry draft. When you’re a fan that sees the potential of getting the top player in the draft you can understand a fan’s dilemma.

For a pre-draft primer, it might be a good time for Flyers fans to visualize who might make the Flyers roster next season. The good news for Philadelphia is if you’re going to miss the playoffs, this might be a good season to miss it for a couple of reasons. For one, the lottery has changed in that every team that misses the playoffs will be have a shot at the top pick. That may or may not be a good thing, depending on what position you’re sitting in.

The other is that this might be the best draft in years given its overall depth. In fact some think this might be a two-round-deep draft, meaning that most teams will be likely to hang on to their top picks rather than trade them away like Flyers GM Paul Holmgren is prone to do every draft.

For once, the Flyers need to show some patience and not only keep their top pick but acquire another. Former GM Bob Clarke saw how good the 2003 draft was shaping up that he was entered the draft with two first round picks that turned out to be Jeff Carter (11th overall) and Mike Richards (24th overall). Paul Holmgren needs to do the same. He has needs all across the board, not only on his current roster but in the farm system as well. Here is a brief analysis of where the Flyers currently stand talent wise.

Left Wing

Allowing Jaromir Jagr to walk in free agency and trading James van Riemsdyk did not do the LW position any favors. Virtually all of the team’s offense is coming from the center and right wing positions. Why Holmgren felt he could allow the position to crumble is a bit of a mystery considering that they have no blue chip prospects waiting in the wings.

If the Flyers can get up into the top two positions the Flyers would be nuts to pass on Jonathan Drouin who scored 41 goals in 49 games for Halifax (QMJHL), scored two goals in a four-game sweep on Saint John and is considered no lower than the third-best player in the draft. If there is a knock on him, it is that he’s only 5’ 11”, but he is a human highlight reel.

The Flyers might have bigger holes on defense and would love to be in a position to draft defensemen Sean Jones but if the Flyers end up taking Drouin, you can bet there will be a ton of Drouin Jerseys sold with the Flyers logo on the front. He has star quality written all over him.

Center

Despite not as much production from their centers as in years past, second year centers Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier had something to do with that. Still, fans and media are asking the Flyers to show some patience. Schenn has 20 points with six goals and is fourth on the team in points. Couturier’s issues are a bit of a mystery, but in this writer’s opinion, coaching is part of the problem.

Couturier was a goal scorer in juniors finishing 5th in points with 96 two seasons in a row in 2010 and 2011. With the drafting of Scott Laughton last season it might make Couturier expendable in a trade. That said the Flyers should move Couturier up to a scoring line since Laughton is considered more of a two way player than Couturier is but the way Laughton is playing in the OHL playoffs for Oshawa, leading the league in playoff scoring with 12 points that idea could change as well.

If the Flyers intend on not buying out, aka using the new amnesty clause, Danny Briere’s contract and bring up back they should move him back to his more natural center position. Claude Giroux has been better but he has worked out nicely in center as well and could move to RW along with his right handed shot. Max Talbot and Zac Rinaldo fill in on the 4th line well and but Rinaldo is only a mild help on offense and Talbot is a clutch player.

Not to be outdone is the fact that the Flyers have Nic Cousins waiting in the wings who was third overall in the OHL in scoring for Sault Ste. Marie. That leaves the Flyers with a glut of centers. A trade for a d-man or a left winger could be in the offering if Briere comes back next season. He only has two years left to go on his contract but his cap hit is high despite his salary coming down to roughly half his cap hit.

Oh, it gets better. Looking at where the Flyers currently are in the standings, taking one of the top centers in the draft is highly likely, especially when you consider that the Flyers have never met a center they didn’t like. Flyers fans could have Drouin’s linemate Nathan MacKinnon who is as NHL ready as Drouin is. Not only would be a great selection, but so could the Ottawa Generals Sean Monahan who had 31 goals in 58 games.

The problem with wanting MacKinnon is that he should be taken either 1st of 2nd overall but no lower than third. Still, the Flyers might want to consider going European. The name on everyone’s lips is Alexander Barkov, a 17-year-old “man child” currently playing in the Finnish Elite league. The problem with that of course is that he is Russian and when was the last time the Flyers took a Russian that high in the draft. If you have to think about it, you already know that answer.

If I were running the Flyers and drafting at number four, I’d take Barkov ,but knowing the Flyers if they wanted a center, and they kept the pick, they’d probably take Monahan or Swedish center Elias Lindholm. Not bad choices, mind you. Still, if the Flyers take a center someone is getting moved either on the currently roster or in the system.

Right Wing

This is definitely the strength of the team. With Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Vorecek, Giroux, Briere, Matt Read, and Mike Knuble, the Flyers are deep and versatile. That is where the good news ends for the Flyers at RW. Like left wing they have no blue chipper on RW to hang their hats on. The goods is, for now they don’t need a prospect to step in anytime soon. If I were the Flyers I’d move Vorecek to the left side of the ice along with his left handed shot where it is needed most. It makes no sense to keep him on the right side with a huge hole on LW staring the Flyers in the face. Even if you moved Briere that would still leave Simmonds, Giroux, Read, and Knuble. Not a bad right side of the ice.

Draft wise, Valeri Nichushkin is the top rated player but like Barkov he’s a Russian but like Barkov the Flyers might want to drop their collective egos and take someone that ISS considers the second best player in the draft. He will probably be sitting there when the Flyers pick but who knows. If I am advising the Flyers id wait until the lower rounds to address it since this is not a high priority position.

Defense

This is easily the Flyers’ biggest need going into the off-season, much less the draft itself. Kimmo Timmonen is solid if nothing else and for some unknown reason the Flyers decided to give him $6 million next season despite the salary cap going down, oh, about $6 million. Don’t get me wrong, he is still a good player but no longer an All-Star and he will turn 39 next March. Sorry but I’d have cut ties and gone younger, cheaper, and faster. Those are three things the Flyers are none of these days on the blueline.

Luke Schenn has been a horse on defense and is easily the only D-man worth keeping at this stage of the game. The draft, free agency, and trades will have to address the situation quickly unless the off-season helps heal some bumps and bruises (see Andrej Meszaros and Braydon Coburn for details). Unless Chris Pronger has a major turnaround health wise his hole will be tough to fill. Still, if the Flyers want to draft a big defenseman this is the one to do it in especially if you are in the top ten.

The big prize is Sean Jones, who has Flyers fans drooling at the thought of him in a Flyers jersey. The Flyers might get lucky if they finish even as high as second overall since Florida doesn’t have someone to go along with Jonathan Huberdeau except for Shawn Mattias. Still, the defensively challenged Panthers, unless they feel that they have some prospects who are NHL ready, should take Jones first overall.

The thing about the Flyers is, as mentioned before, they have a glut of centerman and could use Couturier as part of a package to swap picks with Florida and take Jones. Lord knows that Holmgren loves making trades at the draft so don’t think that this can’t happen. Add Matt Read into the pot and you just might have a trade. Dropping down to where Philly is picking currently at four and the Panthers could add another quality piece of the puzzle.

If no trade is made the name everyone will talk about is Darnell Nurse, a teammate of Cousins, who is considered a big, physical banger with a solid two way game. What will get Flyers fans to notice him is that he is a nephew of former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. More importantly what should get him noticed is his 6’ 5” frame.

If Nurse is not available Ryan Pulock (Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL)) is a right handed shot the Flyers sorely lack. So is his two way game. If you are looking for someone with NHL bloodlines look no further than Rasmus Ristolainen, and he also has a right handed shot and a solid 6’3”, 203 pound build. What will make him endearing to the Flyers is that he patterns his game after Pronger.

The free agency crop is week at best so a trade or the draft will be the Flyers best chance at turning around the defense. The good news is it doesn’t take a lot to do that with adding two of them through both avenues. My best guess here is unless they can move up for Jones in the draft Ristolainen or Nurse is the pick if the top forwards are taken. The Flyers should also add another d-man in a trade as well. Don’t be surprised of the Kings or Blue Jackets are trade partners once again with Philly.

Goaltending

After the way Ilya Bryzgalov played last season the last thing anyone would even be thinking that a year later that Bryzgalov would have a solid season playing in front of one of the NHL’s worst defenses. The Flyers might want to rethink their using the amnesty clause on Bryzgalov this off-season in order to relieve themselves of some cap space and his long term contract.

Still, the turnaround in Bryzgalov’s game can give Holmgren a reason to not only push harder for an NHL ready defenseman but with more than one for that matter. His 2.81 goals against average and 90% save percentage might however has the Flyers GM’s head doing circles. Beyond Bryzgalov the Flyers just might have finally struck gold in one of their top prospects.

The Flyers took Anthony Stolarz in the second round (45th overall) last season and has been stellar playing for London in the OHL since coming over from the USHL. During the regular season he had a 2.29 goals against average and 92% save percentage. He currently leads the OHL playoffs in goals against average (1.57) and is third in save percentage (.946). His career stats are more than solid across the board and his 6’ 6” frame makes him the first Flyers goaltending prospect in years that could finally end the team’s drought in net or years to come.

That said the Flyers need goaltending depth and they are known for taking goaltenders in rounds 3-5 in their entire draft history. The Flyers have only drafted three goaltenders in the first round, one being currently backup Brian Boucher. Don’t expect the Flyers to take one in the first round this year unless they can acquire another first rounder in a trade.

The Bottom Line – If the Flyers are in the top 6 or 7 picks the pick will most likely be for a forward. Philadelphia is known for taking the “best player available” but the need for a stud defenseman might be too great to take a forward unless it is for Drouin. If they go for a d-man the Flyers will be more than happy to see either Ristolainen or Nurse fall to them. The top 6-7 picks in the draft will definitely be forwards except for Jones. The Flyers would love to get into the top 5 in order to select an impact player that will play in the NHL next season.
If they keep winning that will be tough to do but I am still expecting the Flyers to miss the playoffs. Too many injuries and not enough depth will do them in and the NHL Entry Draft and free agency will be the only things fans will look forward to once the season is over.

Sorry to sound like Debby Downer, but as I’ve said before, this isn’t a bad year to miss the playoffs. Flyers fans should consider this a blessing rather than a curse.

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