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.

NHL Notes: Brandon Pirri, Rangers agree to terms on one-year deal

NHL Notes: Brandon Pirri, Rangers agree to terms on one-year deal

NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers have agreed to terms with forward Brandon Pirri on a $1.1 million, one-year deal.

The 25-year-old Pirri spent last season with the Florida Panthers and Anaheim Ducks, recording 14 goals and 15 assists in 61 games. His 29 points were a career high.

A second-round pick, 59th overall, in the 2009 draft, Pirri has been traded twice and was considered a potential bargain in NHL free agency. Pirri is something of a shootout specialist, scoring on five of his six attempts last season, and that 83.3 percent success rate ranked first among players with at least five attempts.

In 166 NHL games with the Chicago Blackhawks, Panthers and Ducks, Pirri has 49 goals and 31 assists for 90 points.

Enroth replaces injured Lerner for Sweden at World Cup
NEW YORK -- With goaltender Robin Lehner still not fully healthy, Sweden replaced him on its World Cup of Hockey roster with Jhonas Enroth.

The Buffalo Sabres' starting goalie was bothered by a right ankle injury for much of last season that limited him to 21 NHL games. Lehner underwent surgery in March and had been working to get ready for the World Cup, which begins Sept. 17 in Toronto.

"We really wanted to give Robin the opportunity to recover from his injury from last year, but unfortunately it wasn't enough time for him to feel 100 percent recovered," coach Rikard Gronborg said in a statement released by the Swedish Ice Hockey Association.

Concussion problems held Lehner to 23 games in 2014-15, and he looked to be over those after the Ottawa Senators traded him to Buffalo at the 2015 draft. The 25-year-old injured his ankle early in the season opener and aggravated it in March.

It was not immediately clear when the Sabres expect Lehner to be back to 100 percent.

"As Robin continues to progress during the offseason in his rehab from last season's ankle injury, he felt that it was best to withdraw from Team Sweden for the upcoming World Cup," Buffalo general manager Tim Murray said in a statement. "Robin felt it was important to continue his rehab in Buffalo to prepare for training camp. He has been working out both on and off the ice and we look forward to seeing him on the ice with our team next month."

Enroth, who spent last season with the Los Angeles Kings, recently signed a one-year deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He joins Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers and Jacob Markstrom of the Vancouver Canucks as the goalies on Sweden's roster.

The 28-year-old has a 2.80 goals-against average and .911 save percentage in 147 career NHL games. Enroth was on the Swedish team that earned a silver medal at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, though he never appeared in a game. He started for Sweden at the 2013 and 2015 world hockey championships, winning gold in 2013 with a 1.15 GAA and .956 save percentage (see full story).

NHL Notes: Panthers flip Dave Bolland's contract, prospect Lawson Crouse to Coyotes for picks

NHL Notes: Panthers flip Dave Bolland's contract, prospect Lawson Crouse to Coyotes for picks

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Arizona Coyotes have acquired prospect Lawson Crouse and veteran Dave Bolland's contract from the Florida Panthers for two draft picks.

Arizona sent a 2017 third-round pick and a conditional 2018 second-rounder that could become another 2017 third to Florida. The Coyotes are taking on the final three years of the injured Bolland's deal to pick up Crouse, the 11th pick in the 2015 draft.

Nagging injuries limited Bolland to 25 games last season, and the 30-year-old forward has three years left on his deal at a salary-cap hit of $5.5 million. But Arizona general manager John Chayka said Bolland isn't expected to play for the foreseeable future and could be placed on long-term injured reserve.

Crouse, 19, is a 6-foot-4 left winger who could make his NHL debut this fall.

Avalanche name Jared Bednar head coach
DENVER -- The Colorado Avalanche have hired Jared Bednar as their new head coach.

Bednar replaces Patrick Roy, who abruptly stepped down as coach and vice president of hockey operations earlier this month.

The 44-year-old Bednar won the American Hockey League's Calder Cup championship as coach of the Lake Erie Monsters last season. He also won the ECHL's Kelly Cup in 2009 with the South Carolina Stingrays.

President of hockey operations and general manager Joe Sakic said upon Roy's sudden resignation that he'd look outside the organization for Colorado's next coach. He did just that with Bednar, who had been in the Columbus system.

Sidney Crosby named Canada's captain for World Cup of Hockey
Canada has chosen Sidney Crosby as its captain for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey.

Crosby returns as Canada's captain after wearing the "C" for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. He's coming off his second Stanley Cup as captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews and Montreal Canadiens defenseman Shea Weber will serve as the alternates.

Crosby scored one of Canada's biggest goals in international history when he beat U.S. goaltender Ryan Miller to win the gold medal on home ice at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Now 29, he has two gold medals, two Cup rings and a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

Canada begins training camp Sept. 5 in Ottawa. The World Cup begins Sept. 17 in Toronto (see full story).

Coyotes hire NHL's first female coach
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Arizona Coyotes have hired Dawn Braid as skating coach and say she is believed to be the first full-time female coach in NHL history.

Braid has a long association with the NHL.

She worked part-time for the Coyotes last year and has served as a skating consultant with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Anaheim Ducks, Buffalo Sabres and Calgary Flames.

Braid also spent seven years with the Athletes Training Center as director of skating development. Among the skaters she worked with while there is New York Islanders center John Tavares (see full story).

Philadelphia to host 2016 U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame ceremony

Philadelphia to host 2016 U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame ceremony

Philadelphia will host the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Nov. 30.

USA Hockey on Tuesday announced that the Flyers will host the event for the first time.

The 2016 Hall of Fame class includes legendary high school coach Bill Belisle, former NHL forward Craig Janney, and the 1996 World Cup of Hockey team. 

That team featured Brett Hull, Brian Leetch and Abington native Mike Richter. It also has a special connection with Philly. The 1996 World Cup of Hockey was the first sporting event played at the CoreStates Center (now the Wells Fargo Center). The U.S. would go on to win the tournament.

“We’re excited to bring the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Induction Celebration to Philadelphia,” Dave Ogrean, executive director of USA Hockey, said in a statement. “It’s one of our nation’s very top hockey cities, thanks in large part to the decades-long efforts of the late Ed Snider, and fans in the area will enjoy being part of enshrining the Class of 2016. This is always one of the most anticipated events on the calendar each year and we’re grateful for the advance support we’ve received from the Flyers and our Atlantic Affiliate.”

Tuesday also marks 50 days until the Flyers begin their 50th anniversary season.