Philadelphia Flyers

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.

Forcing the Flyers' hand? Travis Sanheim's chances at roster spot grow in preseason loss

Forcing the Flyers' hand? Travis Sanheim's chances at roster spot grow in preseason loss

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK — Is starting the season with three rookie defensemen asking too much?

Travis Sanheim might be making it possible.

“We got another good night of information," Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said Monday after a 3-2 overtime preseason loss to the Rangers (see observations). "Those two young guys (Sanheim and Robert Hagg) played pretty well — Sanheim had a real impact on the hockey game tonight. We’re going to let these guys make those decisions.”

If the brain trust of Hakstol and Ron Hextall was expecting two of their three rookie defensemen to separate themselves during the preseason test run, well that hasn’t quite happened, as the 21-year-old Sanheim has displayed an offensive element that would give the Flyers a much-needed weapon from the blue line. Sanheim’s NHL-caliber slap shot, coupled with his mobility and ability to read plays in the offensive zone have set him apart from fellow rookies Hagg and Sam Morin.

“I’m slowly starting to build my game, get a lot more confidence and get comfortable playing with the guys around me,” Sanheim said. "I’m getting more comfortable with the team, systems, and players around me. It’s been good so far. Obviously, we wanted a different outcome tonight, but I like where my game’s at.” 

If it wasn’t for Sanheim, the Flyers would have been shut out in each of their last two games, as he’s provided their only offense in overtime losses to the Bruins and Rangers. A week ago, it appeared all signs were pointing to Lehigh Valley and another year of AHL seasoning, but that’s when Hakstol noticed a change in Sanheim.

“I learned more about him five to six days ago,” Hakstol said. “He didn’t have a great night (preseason opener against Islanders). Sometimes you learn as much about a player and where he’s at coming off a night like that. It didn’t shake him. He came back and had a great practice the next day and he carried that into the next game. To me, that showed maturity on his part.”

Sanheim has continued to rise up the charts coming off a strong performance against the Islanders in Allentown, Pennsylvania, last Wednesday, and he’s rolled that over into the past two games, playing mostly with NHL regulars. What’s even more impressive is that Sanheim is having a tremendous offensive outburst despite seeing very little time on the team’s power play, as he logged just 36 seconds with the man advantage, a unit that came up empty once again and is now 0 for 14 over its last two games.

Still, captain Claude Giroux can’t see any reason why three rookie defensemen can’t make this team out of camp.

“You’ve seen them play. They can play,” Giroux said. “We have a lot of young D that are ready to play in the NHL, and they’re competing right now for a spot. For us, it’s fun to see because every day they’re doing stuff and it’s pretty amazing. It’s a long season — whoever’s hot, whoever’s playing good will have the opportunity to play.”

With Morin receiving his first night off from preseason action, Hakstol had Sanheim paired with Radko Gudas, while Hagg was working with Flyers top defenseman Ivan Provorov. Outside of a slow start and an unfortunate bounce on the Rangers' second goal, Hagg continued his steady play.

“I thought he didn’t have the cleanest start to a hockey game, but to his credit, he worked his way into the game,” Hakstol said. “The goal against — there’s a couple of things that happened before that that led to that play, but he had a hard-working night.”

You can be my wingman
Giroux’s much-anticipated left wing audition could be described as a good first night and worthy of a callback, whether that comes Tuesday night against the Rangers or Thursday against the Bruins.

Unofficially, the top line of Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek saw 15 shifts together at even strength, and then chemistry appeared to grow as the game progressed.

“It was good," Giroux said. "As the game went on, I started to feel more comfortable. We had a lot of chances, just some mistakes that you don’t see during the season, like a 2-on-0 with Jake, usually our chemistry is better than that. As the game went on, our chemistry got better and we were able to find each other a little bit more."

Giroux and Voracek had a prime scoring opportunity in the opening period, but Giroux’s shot from the right side went just wide of the net. Combined, the Flyers' top line finished the night with a minus-2 rating and six shots while winning 67 percent of its faceoffs.

“Maybe there was a tendency to make one more pass instead of putting it on net and stopping at the net and looking for one of those greasy goals,” Hakstol said. “But overall, there’s some good things there. There were enough positives to see if it can grow.”

Nolan's night
The No. 2 pick continues to settle into his role as the Flyers' No. 2 center. Once again, Nolan Patrick centered a line that included Jordan Weal and Wayne Simmonds. Patrick’s defense has been a steady component of his game since camp began, and now the rookie is sprinkling in some offense. Patrick contributed the primary assist on Sanheim’s first goal, which came during 4-on-4 play in the first period.

“Those are the kind of things he can do,” Hakstol said. “That’s hockey sense. That’s knowing what’s around him and being a step ahead. He’s building. As the speed of the games go up, there’s always more to learn. I think over the last week, he’s done a little more offensively. Each and every night he’s impacted the game offensively in our last three games, and that’s been a real positive.”

Flyers-Rangers preseason observations: Travis Sanheim's push to make team heats up

Flyers-Rangers preseason observations: Travis Sanheim's push to make team heats up

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK — Dave Hakstol conducted some garden variety experimentation Monday night against the Rangers, by moving Claude Giroux to left wing for the first time in his Flyers career.

"It's definitely a change but you know I'm just trying to be in good position and make the right play," Giroux said. "Slowly, I'm feeling more comfortable."
 
The line combination of Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek failed to generate a point, but it was the play of rookie Travis Sanheim that took center stage off Broadway.

Sanheim notched a pair of goals, but the Flyers fell, 3-2, in overtime at Madison Square Garden. Ryan McDonagh scored the game-winner for New York in the 3-on-3 OT.

"It's really high right now," Sanheim said of his confidence. "Obviously, I don't want it to get too high. I just have to try and keep an even-keel here and finish up strong."

Sanheim has now scored the Flyers' last three goals of the preseason.

• For the fourth time in five preseason games, the Flyers went to overtime. The Rangers finished the job Monday, as the captain McDonagh collected his own rebound and pushed the puck past Michal Neuvirth for the game-winner with 1:09 remaining in OT.

• New York scored on its first shot on net, when Rick Nash deflected McDonagh's shot from the point to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead just 3:16 into the game.

• Sanheim tallied his first just 2:23 after the Rangers' first goal. The defenseman ripped a rocket past Henrik Lundqvist from the top of the left circle. It was his team-leading second of the preseason with assists from Jordan Weal and Nolan Patrick, who picked up his second assist in four preseason games.

• Sanheim added his second goal in the final moments of the second period, when he pinched behind the Rangers' defense and corralled Radko Gudas' shot from the point and backhanded it past Lundqvist with four seconds remaining in the period.

"I'm just trying to play my game,” Sanheim said. “All along I play that offensive side. I'm just trying to keep it simple defensively and trying to make smart plays and make good reads to get in the play and it's been working so far."

Sanheim has continued to make significant strides and show improvement throughout the preseason, and his offensive upside has to give Hakstol some serious consideration to how he wants his defense to look when the regular season begins (see story). There have been few lapses defensively since the preseason opener against the New York Islanders.

• The Rangers tied the game at 2-2 when Neuvirth knocked away Mika Zibanejad’s wrist shot with his blocker, but the rebound hit Robert Hagg, deflected off Neuvirth and just over the line for a goal.

• The Flyers' power play continues to work out the kinks. The team worked on the PP structure for the first time over the weekend. That unit is now 0 for 14 over the last two games. The Flyers finished Monday’s game 0 for 5.

• Scott Laughton continues to be a valuable asset on the Flyers' penalty kill. Laughton broke up several passes on the Rangers' early power play of the second period.  
  
• Gudas fell to the ice late in the first period and then appeared to be holding his hand in obvious pain. Gudas didn’t miss any time and made a pronounced statement in the third period when he unloaded an open-ice hit on Rangers center Filip Chytil. Mats Zuccarello rushed to Chytil’s defense, which resulted in a two-minute unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and a Flyers power play.

• The two teams will continue their preseason home-and-home series Tuesday night at the Wells Fargo Center as Brian Elliott is expected to play the entire game in net. Elliott turned aside all 18 shots in two periods of action last Thursday in Boston.

Lines, pairing and scratches:

Forwards
Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Jakub Voracek
Jordan Weal-Nolan Patrick-Wayne Simmonds
Jori Lehtera-Valtteri Filppula-Travis Konecny
Michael Raffl-Scott Laughton-Matt Read

Defensemen
Ivan Provorov-Robert Hagg
Brandon Manning-Shayne Gostisbehere
Travis Sanheim-Radko Gudas

Goalies
Michal Neuvirth
Brian Elliott

Scratches: Sam Morin, Taylor Leier, Mike Vecchione, Dale Weise, Oskar Lindblom