Why haven't Flyers drafted and kept top defensemen?

051613-sbisa-seidenberg-pitkinen-usa.jpg

Why haven't Flyers drafted and kept top defensemen?

If there is one thing the past two seasons have shown the Flyers, it’s that their gaping holes on defense have finally caught up to them.

Club chairman Ed Snider was accurate in his March assessment when he labeled the loss of Chris Pronger as “devastating.”
 
Snider likened Pronger’s absence to what it would be like for the Boston Bruins to lose their franchise defenseman, Zdeno Chara, for the rest of his career.
 
This is less devastating, but its impact is significant: The Flyers are the only NHL club without a single active defenseman that they drafted since the decade began playing regular minutes for them – not someone else.
 
Think about that. Thirteen Flyers drafts. Not one every-day player on the Flyers' blue line to show for it.
 
Oliver Lauridsen? The stay-at-home D-man played well as a late-season call-up from the Phantoms, appearing in 15 games. Yet he wasn’t a regular and only played because four of the top six were injured.
 
The lack of bonafide drafted NHL defenseman on the Flyers is an embarrassment. And it remains a huge obstacle to legitimately compete for the Stanley Cup, even if you have the right goaltender, which is always up for debate in Philadelphia.
 
That’s why the Flyers attempted last summer to sign Ryan Suter to a long-term contract. When that failed, they rendered a Group II offer sheet to restricted free agent Shea Weber, which Nashville matched.
 
It was the only way the Flyers believed they could land an impact defenseman.

Is this the year?
The 2013 NHL draft in New Jersey might be the most crucial draft the Flyers have had in quite a while to find a defenseman who can develop into an everyday NHLer.
 
Right now, the only everyday blueliner the organization has who would be close to being considered their own draft pick is Erik Gustafsson, who was signed as a free agent in 2010 out of Northern Michigan University, developed via the Phantoms, and averaged 20 minutes this season.
 
Gustafsson is the scouting staff’s best example of finding a defensive gem outside the draft, which is ironic since they can’t find one inside of it.
 
A major part of the Flyers' inability to produce defensemen is rooted in the organizational philosophy of drafting the best player available instead of drafting based on need.
 
“We try to take the best available player,” said Chris Pryor, director of hockey operations, who oversees all incoming talent - amateur and pro.
 
“It might happen to be this year a defenseman. You don’t know. You could have three defensemen where you think you will be picking and all of a sudden someone from a group of [forwards] is still on the board. We’re going to take the best guy available with that pick.”
 
Clearly, the Flyers' needs are on the blue line. The flip side is, it’s hard to argue with the forwards they’ve picked with their first-round selections in recent years: Jeff Carter and Mike Richards (2003); Claude Giroux (2006); James van Riemsdyk (2007); Sean Couturier (2011); and Scott Laughton (2012).
 
While the Flyers' pick this year is No. 11, there should be several defensemen available, possibly Ryan Pulock, Rasmus Ristolainen, Darnell Nurse or Robert Haag.

Even a strong 2013 draft, however, won’t impact the Flyers immediately next season. General manager Paul Holmgren will have to make a trade this summer (Phoenix’s Keith Yandle?) or submit a Group II RFA sheet (Alex Petrangelo or Kevin Shattenkirk) to land a young impact defenseman.
 
Unrestricted free agency doesn’t offer much, although there are some older defensemen, such as Mark Streit (he's 35).

History shows ...
Honestly, you have to go back to 1990 to find a defenseman drafted and developed by the Flyers who lasted here a significant amount of time and established himself on a No. 1 pairing.
 
That one player would be Chris Therien, who lasted a decade.
 
Since Therien was taken with the 47th pick (in the third round), the Flyers have drafted 198 players, including supplemental picks.
 
Of those 198 players, only three remain as surviving defensemen playing somewhere in the NHL:

    •    Dennis Seidenberg (2001), who played a key role in winning a Stanley Cup with Boston
    •    Joni Pitkanen (2002) now with Carolina
    •    Luca Sbisa (2008) who become the centerpiece for Anaheim in the Pronger deal.
 
The Pronger deal was born of the Flyers “win it now” philosophy, given how close they were to a Cup, as it would become apparent in 2010.
 
Yet “win it now” has long-term developmental consequences when the organization fails to achieve its ultimate goal – the Cup.

By comparison, some NHL clubs have fared considerably better in the draft, just from 2000 forward.
 
The Chicago Blackhawks, for example, have drafted six current NHL defensemen playing somewhere, including Nicklas Hjalmarsson (2005), Brent Seabrook (2003) and Duncan Keith (2002), all of whom are still with them.
 
Montreal and Ottawa each have five. Montreal’s most-prized possession is P.K. Subban (2007). Ottawa had four first-rounders, including Andrej Meszaros (2004), who would eventually land in Philadelphia via trade with Tampa Bay, and Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson (2008), who is the envy of every NHL club.
 
Closer to home, the New York Rangers have drafted six such players, among them: Marc Staal (2006) while the Flyers' most-hated rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins, have five such players, including Kris Letang (2005) and Brooks Orpik (2000).
 
Not every one of these players were first-rounders, either. Hjalmarsson was a fourth-round pick; Keith a second-rounder; Subban a second-rounder; Letang a third-rounder.
 
Players the Flyers could have drafted these players themselves and didn’t, either because of poor judgment, or more likely, their “best player” mantra.

Forwards-focused
Simply put: the Flyers might have done well selecting a center or winger in the first round in recent times, but they remain an abysmal failure finding a defenseman, developing that defenseman, and then keeping that defenseman around.
 
“It’s a fair statement when you analyze it,” Pryor said of emphasizing forwards. “I have a tough time with the draft book sometimes because hindsight is always 20/20. It’s easy to look back. At the time, we try to pick the best player available and minimize the risk. In saying that, we drafted defensemen. We’ve taken more forwards than defensemen. Have we taken [many] defensemen? No, not as many as forwards. But the body of work, as a whole, if you look at drafts, we’ve done pretty good from a drafting standpoint.
 
“We’ve got the young kid coming up from Union College, [Shayne] Gostisbehere, and he’s a third-round pick, and [Oliver] Lauridsen is a seventh-rounder. We acquired Mark Alt. We signed [Matt] Konan. We’re doing it a bit of a different way. We’ve had to supplement things because we’ve done things differently and we’re well aware of that as a group. We’ve got some kids coming from Europe and college. We’re aware of that as an organization.”
 
One defenseman, Dmitri Tertyshny, drafted in the sixth round in 1995, could very well have gone on to a long successful career. But Tertyshny died in a boating accident in 1999.

The organization’s future hopes now rest primarily with Gostisbehere, currently at Union College, and Alt, who left Minnesota this spring after three years to sign with the Flyers.
 
Even more remarkable is that Lauridsen was a seventh-round pick (196th overall) and could be among the Flyers’ top seven or eight next season.
 
Quite often, the Flyers have flipped a forward in a trade for a defenseman. Van Riemsdyk for Luke Schenn is the most recent example, and appears to be a win for both organizations.
 
The Flyers' use of trading for defensive help rather than drafting is not a recent phenomenon, either. It didn’t begin with general manager Bob Clarke or even his successor, Holmgren.

The naked truth
The naked truth is, trading for help on the blue line has been part of the Flyers' legacy for a very long time - longer than most current season ticket holders have been alive.
 
Three of their all-time best defensemen – Mark Howe, Brad McCrimmon and Brad Marsh - came here via trade under GM Keith Allen in the 1980s.
 
Allen’s legacy was that of a shrewd GM whose deals always paid dividends, which is why he earned the nickname “Keith the Thief.”
 
The consequences of Allen’s moves, however, were the organization's false illusions for generations to come that the Flyers could keep pace with other Cup contenders on the blue line merely by picking up the phone and making a deal.
 
These days, you can’t win a Cup in the NHL without impact players developed in your own organization.
 
Whenever the Flyers needed a defenseman, they either traded for one, or to a lesser extent, signed one via free agency, which exploded in the NHL under new rules in 1995.
 
Since the late ‘80s, there’s been a staggering number of imported defensemen that wore orange and black.
 
Keep in mind that the Flyers' only two drafted defensemen from that era to make an impact were the moody, often-inconsistent Behn Wilson, who had two strong years and some average ones, and Jimmy Watson, who retired because of injury shortly before his 30th birthday.
 
Look at the revolving door on the blue line since the late ‘80s (this is only a partial list):
 
Terry Carkner (trade); Kjell Samuelsson (trade); Garry Galley (trade); Yves Racine (trade); Eric Desjardins (trade); Karl Dykhuis (trade), Petr Svoboda (trade), Dave Babych (trade); Luke Richardson (free agent); Dan McGillis (trade); Steve Duchesne (traded twice here); Danny Markov (trade); Derian Hatcher (free agent); Mike Rathje (free agent); Braydon Coburn (trade); Kimmo Timonen (trade); Matt Carle (trade); Andrej Meszaros (trade); Nick Boynton (trade); Nick Grossmann (trade); Pavel Kubina (trade); Chris Pronger (trade); Matt Walker (trade); Andreas Lilja (free agent); Luke Schenn (trade); Bruno Gervais (free agent); and Kurtis Foster (free agent) ... you get the point.
 
Flyer fans are so accustomed to other teams' D-men bolstering their roster that when CSNPhilly.com conducted its All-Time Flyers poll last summer, the top four vote-getters on defense were all players acquired through trades except one: Ed Van Impe, who came in the 1967 expansion draft when left unprotected by Chicago.
 
The others? Howe (No. 1), Desjardins (No. 2) and Pronger (No. 3).
 
So what’s next? The situation isn’t hopeless, especially if the Flyers start getting help out of the draft and make it a priority this summer to pull off a trade or offer sheet for an established younger defenseman.
 
“We all know what is out there and what we need to do,” Pryor said. “We usually figure out a way to do it.”
 
Unless the Flyers do, they won’t ever win that elusive third Cup.

Pierre-Edouard Bellmare named Flyers' Masterton Trophy nominee

Pierre-Edouard Bellmare named Flyers' Masterton Trophy nominee

In the span of three seasons, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare's whirlwind hockey tour has gone from Paris to the NHL to Flyers alternate captain.

Its latest stop: Masterton Trophy nominee.

The 32-year-old on Tuesday was named the Flyers' nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy by the Philadelphia Chapter of the Pro Hockey Writers Association.

According to the NHL's website, the Masterton Trophy is an annual award under the trusteeship of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association and is given to the National Hockey League player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.

"You don't work to try and get this kind of reward," Bellemare said following Tuesday's morning skate, where the Flyers prepared for their matchup with the Ottawa Senators later on in the evening (see Skate Update). "My way to work is to try and be as helpful to the team as possible and try to help in anyway I can. Sometimes it could be on the bench and just trying to support the guys and sometimes it could be on the ice or making a big play on the PK.

"You don't really work for this reward, but it sure feels nice when somebody notices the work you're doing."

Each team has a Masterton nominee named every year. Former Flyer Jaromir Jagr took home last year's award, which saw Shayne Gostisbehere as the Flyers' nominee. The Flyers have had three previous Masterton winners -- Bobby Clarke in 1972, Tim Kerr in 1989 and Ian Laperriere in 2011.

Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol feels Bellemare is a worthy nominee.

"If you look at the definition of the award, he fits the bill, absolutely" Hakstol said. "He's a great person. He's a great teammate and a leader and he's a guy that, night in and night out, he leaves everything he has out on the ice. I think it's real fitting."

Before the 2014-15 season, the Flyers signed Bellemare, who had never previously played in the NHL, to a free-agent deal. Bellemare came to camp in that fall, made the team and went on to play in 81 of 82 games. He fit in to key fourth-line and penalty-killing roles that he still plays in today. He's regularly matched up against the opposition's best players on any given night.

"It's been quite crazy, to be honest," Bellemare said of his time in the NHL thus far. "I'm happy the team trusted me with some big roles. It's a big step in a player's career to be able to play against those big guys and have more ice time against those big guys, so that was already an improvement for me."

In 230 NHL games, Bellemare has 11 goals and 17 assists for 32 points and isn't afraid to drop his gloves if the situation calls for it. He's grown as a respected leader on the club and, for that reason, he was named an alternate captain earlier this month when Mark Streit was dealt at the trade deadline. Around the same time, Bellemare was also given a two-year contract extension.

"The new contract, I'm just really happy the organization trusted me and put confidence in my to have me for two more years," he said.

"And then the alternate captain, a crazy surprise. I'm really happy about it. I've been doing my part of the work and I've been just trying to focus on what I can do to help the team and I got rewarded with a big "A" on the jersey. I never expected it, being so late in the NHL. I've had that role before, but I never thought I would get it in the NHL."

Flyers Skate Update: Focus on Ottawa and improving the power play

Flyers Skate Update: Focus on Ottawa and improving the power play

There's still a pulse. However faint it may be, it's still there.

Through all their ups and downs and all their flaws, the Flyers are still alive in the hunt for the last wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.

Entering Tuesday night's game against the visiting Ottawa Senators, the Flyers are six points behind the Boston Bruins for the final wild-card slot. The Bruins host the Nashville Predators on Tuesday. So if the Flyers win and the Bruins fall in regulation to the Preds, the Flyers would somehow, some way be just four points back.

The caveat is the Flyers still have three teams -- Carolina, the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay -- to jump to get right behind the Bruins.

"We're in a position where we know what we have to do," Steve Mason said following Tuesday's morning skate at the Wells Fargo Center. "We can't focus on what other teams are doing. We just have to go out there and play hockey and have fun and put forth a good effort. I feel like if we do that, we'll have a good chance at winning."

Points are obviously at a premium right now. And with the handful of teams to hurdle, the Flyers know they basically need every game left.

They feel the best way to get that tall task done is to focus game by game and not on the teams ahead of them in the standings, as difficult as that may be. They can't jump every team in one fell swoop.

But the Flyers do have some momentum coming into Tuesday's game after steamrolling the rival Penguins, 6-2, on Sunday night in Pittsburgh.

"We need to find a way," Claude Giroux said. "When we play Pittsburgh, we always have a little bit more motivation to win the game. We just need to find that same motivation.

"I think we need to look at the small picture and that picture is Ottawa tonight. We'll play Ottawa tonight and we'll worry about the other teams after.

"For us, it's about winning games. We've been playing some good hockey, but a couple times there, we just couldn't find ways to win. We go to Columbus and play a great game and a great 60 minutes and we can't find a way to get points."

One thing that would greatly help the Flyers' point-earning cause would be getting the power play out of the rut it's been in all month. The Flyers' man advantage has been mired in a miserable 3-for-44 slump and has just looked downright awful for stretches. There have been instances where opponents have had better shorthanded chances than the Flyers' power-play chances.

While the Ottawa team the Flyers host on Tuesday is fighting for the Atlantic Division crown, the Sens feature a middle-of-the-pack penalty kill (17th in the league at 80.6 percent) that could present the Flyers opportunities to take advantage of.

That's been easier said than done lately for the Flyers, although they did fire 10 power-play shots on net in three chances in Saturday's 1-0 loss in Columbus.

"We know we've had games where we've gone 1 for 7 or 1 for 8 and that happens sometimes," Jake Voracek said. "We've all played together for a long time. We just have to find a way to get the shots through."

"Our power play needs to get us some big goals," Giroux said. "We've had the same power play for a lot of years here and we've been successful. We've got to keep working on it.

"There's no confusion and there's no doubt in the way we want to be on the power play. When our power play is going, we get the chances that we want and we have all the tools that we want to have."

Lineup
Nick Cousins, who hasn't played in the last six games thanks to a suspected concussion suffered March 15 against the Penguins, took part in the morning skate but was not involved in line rushes. He'll sit again against the Sens. Dave Hakstol had no official update on Cousins' status, but did say it was good to see the 23-year-old forward back on the ice.

Sticking with his modus operandi after victories, Hakstol will not be making any lineup changes for the Flyers after Sunday's win in Pittsburgh.

Mason will start in net. He'll be opposed by Ottawa's Craig Anderson.

F: Matt Read-Claude Giroux-Jake Voracek
Jordan Weal-Valterri Filppula-Wayne Simmonds
Dale Weise-Sean Couturier-Brayden Schenn
Chris VandeVelde-Pierre-Edouard Bellemare-Travis Konecny

D: Ivan Provorov-Andrew MacDonald
Shayne Gostisbehere-Michael Del Zotto
Radko Gudas-Brandon Manning

G: Steve Mason
Michal Neuvirth