Why haven't Flyers drafted and kept top defensemen?

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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.

Best of NHL: Wild beat Blackhawks to grab 1st place in Western Conference

Best of NHL: Wild beat Blackhawks to grab 1st place in Western Conference

CHICAGO -- Jason Pominville scored in the third period, Devan Dubnyk made 33 saves and the Minnesota Wild beat the Chicago Blackhawks 3-2 on Sunday night to grab sole possession of the top spot in the Western Conference.

Nino Niederreiter and Chris Stewart also scored as Minnesota earned its fourth straight win and improved to 17-1-1 since Dec. 4. The Wild also beat the Blackhawks for the eighth straight time.

Minnesota (28-9-5) jumped in front for good when Marco Scandella shot the puck behind the net and it caromed right to Pominville standing all alone on the right side of the crease. He knocked it into the open net for his sixth of the season at 5:08.

Minnesota defenseman Ryan Suter was sent off for tripping with 22.4 seconds left, but Chicago was unable to get a good look with a 6-on-4 advantage.

Patrick Kane scored twice for the Blackhawks and Corey Crawford made 29 stops (see full recap).

Hall nets OT winner as Devils top Canucks
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Taylor Hall scored 1:28 into overtime to lift the New Jersey Devils to a 2=1 victory over the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday.

Skating on a 2-on-1 with Damon Severson, Hall chose to hold the puck and beat Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom through the legs.

Kyle Quincey scored the tying goal with 3:03 left in the second period and Cory Schneider stopped 21 shots to help the Devils win their second straight after losing four in a row.

Loui Eriksson scored for the Canucks and Markstrom finished with 20 saves for the Canucks, losers of four straight after winning six in a row coming out of the holiday break (see full recap).

Flyers Weekly Observations: Everything coming apart at the seams

Flyers Weekly Observations: Everything coming apart at the seams

That week was… not pretty.

Not by a long shot.

The Flyers’ busy week saw them play five games in an eight-day stretch and come out on the winning side of things just once. Overall, the Flyers went 1-3-1 last week with a 2-1 overtime loss in Columbus, a disheartening 4-1 defeat in Buffalo, a wild 5-4 shootout win over visiting Vancouver, an ugly 6-3 loss in Boston and an even uglier 5-0 loss in Washington.

There’s a lot to digest in this week’s Flyers Weekly Observations, and, needless to say, not much of it is good.

Where to even begin?

• Let’s start with Shayne Gostisbehere’s benching on Saturday afternoon in Boston, the second healthy scratch of the season for last season’s runner up to the Calder Trophy. Let’s face it, the 23-year-old defenseman has not played great this season. He’s struggled mightily defensively and he’s had a miserable time hitting the net in the offensive zone, among other warts in his game. He’s obviously not alone. After all, this 3-8-3 skid is rooted in shoddy defensive play in all zones. But he has not played well. We all know offense is Gostisbehere’s strength, but he’s got just four goals and 15 assists in 46 games. And he’s sporting a minus-17 after Sunday's loss. Dave Hakstol is obviously not happy with his young defenseman’s game and figured the best course of action would be to let Gostisbehere sit down, observe and clear his head. And I get that thought process. Sometimes that’s a good thing. But I’m of the belief it’s best to let a young player play through his struggles. Gostisbehere’s going to have to get used to doing that because this will not be the only time in his career he will struggle. It happens to every player, even the best ones. And it’s even tougher to defend Ghost’s benching with as poorly as Michael Del Zotto and Brandon Manning played in the previous game against Vancouver.

• Speaking of which, those stick penalties Del Zotto and Manning took over and over again in the first period against the Canucks were just careless and put the Flyers into a hole that could have been a lot deeper if not for the play of the penalty kill and Steve Mason. That’s the stuff that can just kill a team, and that’s the stuff that’s also very avoidable.

• One play really stuck out to me during Saturday’s loss to the Bruins in Beantown. The Flyers were down 5-3 early in the third period and attacking in the Bruins' zone when Jake Voracek hit Sean Couturier with a slick cross-ice pass. Couturier had net to shoot at and a chance to cut it to a one-goal game, but instead skated to the side of the net and backhanded the puck into the crowded slot and turned it over. When you’re down two in the third period, you need to shoot there. Even if Tuukka Rask stops it, you never know if there’s going to be a rebound. It was an example of how Couturier needs to be more aggressive offensively on a consistent basis. Especially after he was aggressive against Vancouver with a goal and a post hit after a beautiful offensive rush.

• What was that effort in Buffalo on Tuesday night? Credit the improving Sabres for playing well and earning the win, but the Flyers were just lifeless out there on the ice.

• Let’s chat some about those goalie interference calls that didn’t go the Flyers’ way in Columbus last weekend. Michael Raffl was squeezed into Sergei Bobrovsky and barely made contact with the Jackets’ goalie on the first one. Raffl is entitled to that space just as much as anyone else on the ice. It’s a hockey play, plain and simple. No idea how that one was overturned. Contact was made with Mason’s skate on the second one, but I believe that call was eventually correct as the goal stood. The problem is this: They were two similar plays with limited contact made with the goaltender. The league can’t have one count there and one not. The league is creating itself a very unnecessary grey area with those calls.

• On the NBC national telecast of Sunday’s debacle in Washington, analyst Brian Boucher said something to the effect of the Flyers were in the process of quitting the game after the Caps’ fourth goal, which was scored early in the third period. And it was hard to disagree him with what we all saw. Things can become fragile over these kinds of skids and it just seems recently when one thing goes wrong with for the Flyers, everything comes apart at the seams.

• Brayden Schenn’s stat line so far this season is uneven, literally. He’s got 14 goals on the season, but a league-leading 11 have come on the power play. So that’s 79 percent of Schenn’s goal-scoring coming on the man advantage. That’s obviously great for when the Flyers are on the power play, but with how they’re averaging 1.79 goals per game over this recent 3-8-3 stretch, that could really use it at even strength. That goes for everybody.

• I’m not sure how I feel about the bye week. On one hand, it comes at the right time as the Flyers can rest, recharge and get their heads straight after this awful stretch. On the other hand, it’s no secret this team could REALLY use the practice time right now just to get back to the basics and for the players just to get their footing back underneath themselves. They’ll next be able to practice Friday afternoon.

Coming up this week: Saturday vs. New Jersey (7 p.m./TCN), Sunday at New York Islanders (6 p.m./CSN)