Philadelphia Flyers

2017 NHL draft prep: Options for Flyers at No. 2

2017 NHL draft prep: Options for Flyers at No. 2

The Flyers' long-term landscape changed Saturday night with a stroke of luck.

Facing long odds, the Flyers nearly won the NHL draft lottery, but will have to settle for the No. 2 pick (see story). Considering where they were projected to pick, this is a major win for the Flyers.

"We had a lot of bad luck this year," Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said Saturday night. "And I'm hoping this is a turning point. This is a big point for our franchise."

The Flyers came into the lottery most likely to draft 13th at 84.3 percent. Lottery rules dictated that they could only draft in the top three, stay at 13 or fall to 14 or 15th. They had a 2.2 percent chance at the top pick, 2.4 percent at the second pick and 2.7 at the third pick.

And the hockey gods were on the Flyers' side Saturday. Because of their current prospect picture — heavy on defensemen and goaltenders — the Flyers will have an opportunity to add an impact forward to their prospect pool, an immediate hole they will be able to fill.

Here are five prospects the Flyers could target with the No. 2 pick come June 23-24 at the NHL draft in Chicago.

(Note: Because the Flyers are heavy on defensive prospects, we're not including Miro Heiskanen, the consensus top defenseman in this year's draft class.)

Nolan Patrick, C, 18, 6-2/198, Brandon (WHL)
Patrick finished as the top-rated skater by the NHL's Central Scouting Bureau, a spot he has been in all year long despite dealing with a groin/abdominal injury throughout the 2016-17 season. He is touted as a two-way, right-handed center who does everything well but doesn't possess any one specific elite skill. Sportsnet's Jeff Marek wrote in March, "think Jonathan Toews-lite." Patrick has NHL blood in his veins, as his father, Steve Patrick (250 games), and uncle, James Patrick (1,280 games), both have played in the league. In 33 games with the Wheat Kings this season, Patrick scored 20 goals and 46 points. He missed 39 games. During the 2015-16 season, Patrick registered 41 goals and 102 points in 72 games. He played two seasons in Brandon with Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov.

Central Scouting director Dan Marr's take: "He has more than proven over the last three years that he is the real deal and will be an impact NHL player. The poise, the presence, the attention to detail, the way he processes and executes plays — everything has been far more precise, far more accurate and a lot quicker this season."

Nico Hischier, C, 18, 6-1/176, Halifax (QMJHL)
With Patrick the projected top pick in June's draft, Hischier checks in as the early favorite to become a Flyer on June 23. Hischier had a breakout performance as an underage player — he was 17 at the time — for Team Switzerland during the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championships, posting four goals and three assists in five games. He will likely become the highest-drafted Swiss-born player in league history. Nino Niederreiter (fifth overall, 2010) currently holds that title. In his first season in the QMJHL, Hischier led all rookies with 38 goals, 48 assists and 86 points in 57 games, earning himself the league's Rookie of the Year award and winning the Mike Bossy Trophy, awarded to the league's best pro prospect.

Central Scouting director Dan Marr's take: "Hischier is definitely worth the price of admission. He has a high skill level, but what's most impressive is the way he competes, his drive and work ethic. He is a player who is first on the forecheck forcing a turnover and when the play transitions, he's the first player back. He's in that category as a special player."

Gabriel Vilardi, C, 17, 6-3/202, Windsor (OHL)
Vilardi battled a knee injury and appendicitis in 2016-17 with Windsor but still finished more than a point-per-game player with the Spitfires. He recorded 61 points in 49 games this season. His 29 goals led Windsor and his 61 points were second on the club. Vilardi is an excellent puck-possession forward, which drives his and his linemates' scoring. Skating is an area he can improve upon. He is a right-handed shot with good size, something that could intrigue the Flyers. He compares his game to John Tavares, the New York Islanders' star captain. He finished as Central Scouting's fourth-best rated North American skater.

Central Scouting director Dan Marr's take: "Vilardi is a high-end possession center with excellent hockey sense and puck-handling ability. He plays a very composed game with the puck, using his vision and playmaking ability to influence the game in all three zones. Vilardi excels below the dots in the offensive zone, where he utilizes his size and reach to control the play and generate scoring opportunities."

Owen Tippett, RW, 18, 6-0/200, Mississauga (OHL)
What would intrigue Flyers fans about Tippett is his shoot-first mentality, a trait not many current Flyers own. A right wing with size, Tippett positions himself in scoring areas and has a desirable shot. He's described as a strong skater with great breakaway speed. He led the Steelheads with 44 goals and 75 points in 60 games this season. His 44 goals were fifth in the Ontario Hockey League. With Patrick and Hischier the cream of this year's average crop, Tippett at No. 2 might be a reach, but he fits the mold of what the Flyers need.

Michael Rasmussen, C, 18, 6-6/215, Tri-City (WHL)
Rasmussen is a centerman with above average skating for a player his size and a knack for knowing how to use his size to his advantage. He suffered a wrist injury this season and played in just 50 of Tri-City's 72 games. He netted 32 goals and 55 points and led the Americans with 15 power-play goals, an attractive trait for the Flyers. He compares his game to Panthers forward Aleksander Barkov and former Maple Leafs superstar Mats Sundin. He finished fifth among North American skaters in Central Scouting's final rankings.

Central Scouting director Dan Marr's take: "He's playing with much more confidence this season. He's adapted to playing a bigger role and playing heavy minutes against opponents' top lines and defense. The game has slowed down for him a little bit and he's just that much more poised. He can take that extra bit of time and understands he can take that time to make plays and score goals."

Flyers captain Claude Giroux appears to embrace move to wing

Flyers captain Claude Giroux appears to embrace move to wing

VOORHEES, N.J. — Dave Hakstol brought up the idea on Monday and Claude Giroux appeared to embrace it.

The Flyers' captain switched to left wing during Tuesday’s practice on a line with Jakub Voracek at right wing and Sean Couturier in the middle.

“That’s funny because I was pretty much a winger all my life,” Giroux said. “I started playing center when I became a professional. It’s hard to complain when you’re playing with Jake and Coots.”

“I liked it,” Voracek said. “He (Giroux) is a very powerful guy, so he always skates into the space on the ice when there’s an opening. I think as a line we’ve been working pretty good. We understand each other. It’s one of the looks Hak might try in the preseason. I wouldn’t read too much into it, but I don’t know, if it’s long term, that means we’re playing good.” 

Over the years, Giroux has found a comfort zone creating a shot off the left half board, especially off the team’s power-play setup, and towards the end of Tuesday’s practice, Couturier was feeding Giroux one-timer after one-timer. 

“We did a lot of drills where I was coming down the left side there,” Giroux said. “I can see the ice pretty good from there because you have the puck on your good side. It was actually a lot of fun. It’s not like I'm against it or I’m not happy with it if it makes the team better. I know we have a lot of centermen. I’m up for the idea for sure.”

The second part of the experiment involves Sean Couturier and whether this type of move could also open up his untapped offensive side. The Flyers' best defensive center, Couturier has consistently scored between 34 and 39 points in each of the past four seasons, but has failed to take the next step to prove he can evolve into a top-six role. Needless to say, the seventh-year center embraced playing with two highly-skilled linemates.

Especially Giroux.

“It’s been six years we’ve been here and we’ve never really played with each other," Couturier said. "We’ve kind of played with everyone else but each other. Me and G have some good chemistry. The little odd shifts here and there we’d have together we’d seem to create something and get some scoring chances, so hopefully, we can make this work.” 

Giroux grew accustomed to playing right wing when he first entered the NHL under head coaches John Stevens and later Peter Laviolette. With Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Danny Briere occupying the center spots, Giroux still found a way to thrive offensively as he scored 76 points to lead the Flyers in 2010-11, while also taking the second-most faceoffs on the team that season.  

“I think breakouts, when you’re on the right side for me, it’s easier to handle the puck and kind of chip it out and make a play, but offensively on the left side it’s a lot better," Giroux said. "When you come into the zone you got Coots going to the net and Jake on the weak side, I think it’s pretty exciting when you see that.” 

The decision to switch Giroux to wing also comes two days after Nolan Patrick turned in a solid effort in his preseason debut against the Islanders. If Patrick, who turned 19 years old on Tuesday, is to make the opening night roster in San Jose, California, it’s expected Hakstol will be forced to make some adjustments and rearrange some of his veterans up and down the lineup. So far in camp, Patrick, Valtteri Filppula, Couturier and Scott Laughton are the only ones who have not moved from their center positions.   

“I wouldn’t connect the dots to that (Patrick making the team) quite yet,” Hakstol said. “I think that’s too early of a connection to make. I think it’s obvious that we have a number of players that are good centermen. Jori Lehtera has jumped over to the left side for the first few practices and the first preseason game. Today, this gave us an opportunity to have Jori back up the middle, so no, I wouldn’t draw the connection directly towards Nolan Patrick at this point in time.” 

Giroux would not be the first established veteran to transition from center to wing later in his career, as the Flyers' captain mentioned Sharks forwards Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton, two established centers who have also transitioned to the wing over the past few years in San Jose.

“They take faceoffs on their strong side and it's tough when you take faceoffs all game against the guy who’s on his strong side. It’s tough," Giroux said. "Maybe I’m not going to play one more shift on the wing, but that’s up to the coach, but I really liked it today.”  

We’ll see if the next experimental phase comes during Wednesday’s split-squad exhibition against the Islanders. With Hakstol coaching the team in Allentown, Pennsylvania, he would probably want to see firsthand how that line operates.

Health check
Wayne Simmonds missed his second straight day of practice Tuesday, suggesting that Monday’s absence was more than what Hakstol has termed “a maintenance day.” Players are rarely given days off during camp, but the Flyers would not elaborate any further regarding Simmonds' status. A team spokesperson said Simmonds is scheduled to skate with the team Wednesday morning, however, it’s not known whether he will play in one of the Flyers' split-squad games against the Islanders.

On the blue line
Sam Morin and Robert Hagg, the Flyers' top-two picks from the 2013 draft class, appear to have separated themselves even further from their fellow rookie prospects. Travis Sanheim was moved to the afternoon group and AHL veteran T.J. Brennan was brought over to the morning practice with the NHL regulars. 

“It was nice to play with these guys at a little bit higher pace,” Brennan said. “Who knows what they’re thinking, but I’m just trying to give them the best I got and hopefully they get a good impression.”

Coming off an All-Star season with the Phantoms in 2016-17, the Willingboro, New Jersey, native and lifelong Flyers fan hasn’t played in the NHL since suiting up with the Toronto Maple Leafs in April 2016. 

“I’ve just learned to focus that energy in different spots,” Brennan said. “This time a year ago there was a little more anxiety involved. Now I think throughout the entire organization they have an idea of who I am, how I play and maybe how I can fit in.”  

Lines and pairings
Forwards
Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Jakub Voracek
Oskar Lindblom-Nolan Patrick-Travis Konecny
Jordan Weal-Valtteri Filppula-Dale Weise
Michael Raffl-Jori Lehtera-Matt Read
Colin McDonald-Scott Laughton-Taylor Leier

Defensemen
Ivan Provorov-Andrew MacDonald
Shayne Gostisbehere-Robert Hagg
Sam Morin-T.J. Brennan
Brandon Manning-Radko Gudas

Finding two-way balance Scott Laughton's key to finally sticking with Flyers

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USA Today Images

Finding two-way balance Scott Laughton's key to finally sticking with Flyers

VOORHEES, N.J. — The 2012 NHL entry draft is an excellent case study in how the career of an NHL prospect and the future of a first-round pick can venture in one of two directions.

Scott Laughton was the Flyers’ first-round selection that year, taken 20th overall. Laughton can begin to comprehend how that fork in the road has affected two guys selected just before him.

The Buffalo Sabres had a pair of first-round selections. With the 12th overall choice, the Sabres snatched Russian Mikhail Grigorenko, who was ranked third by NHL Central Scouting among all North American skaters. The Sabres came right back two picks later and grabbed another projected first-rounder, but not nearly as touted, Latvian Zemgus Girgensons.
 
In Grigorenko’s defense, Buffalo rushed him to the NHL at the age of 18, and clearly before he was ready. Over the course of the next three seasons, he bounced back and forth between the NHL and the AHL while never fully grasping that his skills weren’t quite good enough to be a top-six forward. In my conversations with coaches and GMs, Grigorenko also had a belief that he was a “superstar-in-the-making” whom the coaching staff was holding back and felt the “grunt work” of killing penalties and playing solid defense was reserved for players drafted much later than him. In 2015, the Sabres utilized what little value Grigorenko had left and shipped him to Colorado in a multi-player deal for star Ryan O’Reilly.   

At 18, Girgensons, unlike Grigorenko, spent the year he was drafted with the Sabres’ AHL affiliate the Rochester Americans. Because Girgensons committed to play in the NCAA and elected to go pro, he was eligible to play in the AHL. Girgensons developed more of a “blue-collar” approach as an effective penalty killer and has become the Sabres’ shutdown center who plays a very solid defensive game and is tough along the boards, all while continuing to improve at faceoffs.

Laughton, who was seated not too far from both guys at that draft in Pittsburgh that year, is starting to figure out the best way to secure an NHL job is taking the Girgensons approach to the game, and not the one paved by Grigorenko.

“I think I was caught in between there for a little bit, and that’s why I was up and down,” Laughton said Monday. “I still think I can be an offensive threat and be a good offensive guy, but I think I’ve got to take care of my own zone. I think just taking that defensive approach. I think that’s what’s going to help me stay in this league.”

Laughton’s evolution as a better two-way player was evident during Sunday’s preseason opener against the Islanders when the line of Laughton, Matt Read and Michael Raffl was tasked with shutting down the Isles’ top line of John Tavares, Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee. Even though Tavares scored twice, his tallies weren’t at the expense of Laughton or his linemates.

“I thought playing to his role, he did an outstanding job — in the faceoff dot, killing penalties, strong two-way play," Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said Sunday. "He did a real good job."

Laughton may have been the Flyers’ forgotten recent first-rounder last season after spending the entire year, minus two games, with the Phantoms in Lehigh Valley. The experience was immeasurable, as he sacrificed offensive glory to become the type of player the organization had envisioned.
 
“I think that was the biggest thing, not playing power play, just being down there taking key faceoffs and just finding my role I think,” Laughton said. “It’s nice when you have a good year in the minors. I know it’s a different league. I’m kind of building off last year and that’s what I’m trying to do. Just coming to camp, be prepared and play hard against guys. Do what I did last year and it’ll take me a long way.”

General manager Ron Hextall recognized that progression and elected to protect the younger Laughton in the June expansion draft over 32-year-old Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who had established himself as a solid checking-line center during his three years in Philadelphia.

“Definitely was a surprise,” Laughton said of being protected. “I didn’t see it coming at all, but it felt good. I’ve been in this organization for five years now and I’m still trying to stick around and become a full-time NHLer, and I truly believe this is my year.”

Perhaps Laughton will develop into the Flyers’ version of Girgensons, one of two All-Stars from that 2012 draft class, who just re-signed with the Sabres for two more years at $3.2 million. As for Grigorenko, the Colorado Avalanche, unquestionably the worst non-expansion team in the NHL entering this season, elected to cut him loose this summer. Grigorenko inked a deal in July to play in the KHL. A promising one-time prospect‘s NHL career appears to be over at the age of 23.

Loose pucks
• The Flyers cut two more players from their training camp roster, which now stands at 55. Forward Anthony Salinitri was returned to his junior team, the Sarnia Sting. Defenseman Frank Hora will report to the Phantoms starting Thursday.

• Hakstol elected to split his two groups Monday into an NHL morning group and an AHL afternoon group, although the two teams will be combined when the Flyers play split-squad games against the New York Islanders Wednesday — one at the PPL Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and the other at Barclays Center in New York.

• Forward Wayne Simmonds was not on the ice for Monday’s practice. Hakstol said Simmonds was given a maintenance day.  

• For the first time since camp opened Friday, the Flyers worked on Hakstol’s systems, which included more structure on the team’s breakouts. Much of the focus through the first four days has been on individual battles in close quarters. One drill included intense 1-on-1 play with a goaltender at one end of the faceoff circle and another goalie directly across from him. “It’s important in today’s hockey because every single team overloads in the defensive zone,” Jakub Voracek said. “You need to win those battles, 1-on-1 and 2-on-2, they’re really important."

Monday's lines and pairings
Forwards
Oskar Lindblom-Claude Giroux-Jakub Voracek
Dale Weise-Sean Couturier-Travis Konecny
Jordan Weal-Nolan Patrick-Taylor Leier
Jori Lehtera-Valtteri Filppula-Colin McDonald
Michael Raffl-Scott Laughton-Matt Read

Defense
Shayne Gostisbehere-Robert Hagg
Ivan Provorov-Andrew MacDonald
Sam Morin-Travis Sanheim
Brandon Manning-Radko Gudas