Chris Pronger, Danny Briere, Matvei Michkov, NHL Entry Draft, Philadelphia Flyers, Will Smith

Flyers Must Consider 3 Bold NHL Draft Strategies

The 2023 NHL Draft Lottery came and went without the momentous break that fans of the Philadelphia Flyers hoped for. The Chicago Blackhawks will get the opportunity to draft Connor Bedard after a tortuous twist of fate reminiscent of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft when the Flyers missed out on a chance to pick Patrick Kane with the first-overall pick.

“I am excited for our seventh overall selection in this year’s NHL Draft. This selection is the first step needed to usher our organization into a new era and am looking forward to welcoming our next group of prospects into the Flyers family,” interim general manager (GM) Danny Brière said after the lottery drawing.

Related: 2023 NHL Draft Guide

Brière and the Philadelphia front office will still have the opportunity to select a franchise-altering player in a prospect pool that is arguably the deepest of the past two decades. Whether they have their eyes on Will Smith, Matvei Michkov, Zach Benson, or any other prospect, the Flyers must consider three wise draft strategies based on their franchise history and the landscape of the modern NHL.

Best Available Player Above Positional Need

NHL teams should select the best player available rather than picking for positional needs within their own organization. The Flyers should stick especially close to this strategy with a roster completely in flux during the first long-term rebuild in franchise history.

The San Jose Sharks set the infamous precedent with a cautionary tale in 1993. They held the second-overall pick in the draft when defenseman Chris Pronger looked like the clear-cut second choice behind top prospect Alexandre Daigle. They had selected Mike Rathje, a bruising defenseman with a similar playing style to Pronger, with the third-overall pick the previous year. They also felt confident in the development track of their 1992 fifth-round pick Marcus Ragnarsson as an important piece for the future of their blue line.

Former Philadelphia Flyers Defenseman Chris Pronger (Neat1325@/flickr)

The Sharks traded back to the sixth-overall spot and selected Viktor Kozlov. Rathje, Ragnarsson, and Kozlov fell way short of the contributions made by one of the best defensemen in the history of the NHL. Despite repeated movement to other teams by all four respective players involved in the scenario, the Sharks clearly failed to utilize the best available talent on the draft board by making the simple selection with Pronger.

The Flyers have identified center depth as a weakness within the organization, and the 2023 draft class is loaded with centermen at the top. They’re sitting on a deep pool of prospect defensemen with Cam York, Egor Zamula, Ronnie Attard, and Emil Andrae. However, it doesn’t mean that David Reinbacher, the best available defenseman, should be off their board entirely.

The Flyers have proven the unpredictability of prospects as much as any other NHL organization. Injuries, stunted development, and and extenuating circumstances have ruined prospect trajectory within the organization in recent seasons. Their blue line struggled consistently in 2022-23 for the third consecutive season, and they don’t have the luxury of counting on upcoming prospects as sure-fire, long-term stars on their blue line.

This strategy, however, ironically doesn’t apply to the most important position in the sport. Goaltenders might impact hockey games in the most consequential ways, but the incredible unpredictability of the position and the extensively longer path of development commonly discourages teams from picking goaltenders at the top of the draft. While there are exceptions like Carey Price and Marc-Andre Fleury at the top of the first round, most successful NHL goaltenders went outside the top 10. Carter Hart was the first goalie taken in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. The Flyers selected him in the second round with the 48th-overall pick.

High Ceiling Over “Safer” Pick

The Flyers famously missed on Nolan Patrick with the second-overall pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. It would’ve taken a huge leap of faith to pass on Patrick (despite what Bobby Clarke might claim). However, Miro Heiskanen, Cale Makar, and Elias Pettersson have all outperformed the former Brandon Wheat Kings star after they were selected with the next three picks to round out the top five.

The top three teams hesitated to pick a dynamic defenseman like Makar because he hadn’t played above the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL), and the unfamiliarity made him a high-risk pick despite his incredible upside. However, the idea of a safe pick is inherently flawed, especially in the top 10. Selecting a player who doesn’t have enough of a high upside comes with the risk of wasting a top pick on a player who won’t make a major impact at the top of an NHL lineup. Every draft pick has an inherent risk, and Brière should not count on any prospect who looks like a sure thing to become just a reliable secondary building block instead of picking a player with a higher upside.

Nolan Patrick Philadelphia Flyers
Former Philadelphia Flyers Center Nolan Patrick (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

While Dalibor Dvorsky could land in the top 10, he fits the profile of a player unlikely to play at the top of an NHL lineup in his career. Russ Cohen spoke about Dvorsky’s strong defensive play and physical game while also pointing to potential offensive deficiencies. Seventh-overall picks in recent history include Nazem Kadri, Jeff Skinner, Mark Scheifle, and Quinn Hughes, and the Flyers even selected their all-time leading goal-scorer Bill Barber at the seventh spot. They need to use this one on a more dynamic player with the potential to become a franchise building block.

The Flyers have strongly pushed back on the idea of tanking every time the subject has come up on the record. If they don’t intend to bottom out by selling off veteran players with the hopes of improving their lottery odds, how do they anticipate acquiring the type of top-end talent that their organization currently doesn’t have? Aim high.

Charlie O’Connor lauded Philadelphia’s decision to select Cutter Gauthier with the fifth-overall pick in 2022 because of the organization’s willingness to take a “big swing” on an unpolished prospect with tremendous upside (from The Athletic, Why Flyers’ Cutter Gauthier pick at No. 5 in 2022 NHL Draft is an ‘upside play’, 7/7/22). Gauthier’s offensive production with the United States National Team Development Program (USNTDP) didn’t necessarily characterize a top-five pick, but a good blend of size and strength and his raw shooting ability convinced the Flyers to pull the trigger.

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Gauthier took important steps forward during his freshman season at Boston College in 2022-23. While he hasn’t appeared in the NHL yet, the development track looks promising after the decision to draft based on high upside. Benson fits the same mold in the 2023 class. Peter Baracchini has identified Benson’s strength in puck battles and a deceptive ability as a puck carrier. If he slips to the seventh-overall spot, the Flyers need to take a hard look at the Western Hockey League (WHL) star.

While the idea of a high ceiling applies to Michkov, the circumstances surrounding his situation make the decision much more complex. The Flyers need to act boldly to pick themselves up out of the rut they’re in. Could a bold strategy include selecting a Russian star player under contract in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) through 2026-27 with all the uncertainty surrounding Russians moving to the NHL? The organization would need a thorough analysis of world politics that far exceeds prospect talent evaluation to make a properly informed decision.

Higher Focus on Player Development

The Flyers have sunk to an unprecedented point in their franchise history, and they feel it necessary to start fresh with a full rebuild. As part of their long-term vision, they plan on addressing internal issues in player development. Jeff Marek spoke on Hockey Night in Canada in March about potential changes in the foundational philosophies.

“There also is a feeling around the organization (that) they don’t spend enough time with their development. They also want to beef that up. They want to beef that up, so that means more players spending more time in Lehigh Valley, the AHL affiliate for the Philadelphia Flyers,” Marek said. 

The decision to send Cam York to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms to begin the 2022-23 became very controversial in Philadelphia. The 2019 first-round pick struggled during the preseason. John Tortorella stayed true to his message about accountability by avoiding handing a spot to York based on his draft pedigree. The 21-year-old went to Lehigh Valley to work with Ian Laperrière before getting called up again in December 2022. When he reached the NHL level, he played as well as any defenseman on the team in 54 regular-season games.

Don’t be surprised if the Flyers take a player who won’t reach the NHL level in the near future. Their timeline for contention also allows for recent raft picks to develop at their own pace because the organization won’t put much pressure on them to contribute to a playoff-contending team very quickly.

The Flyers have also shown clear confidence in the USNTDP as a reliable feeder. Their trust in the development system pushed them to pick Gauthier with the fifth-overall pick and Devin Kaplan with the 69th-overall pick in 2022, York with the 14th-overall pick in 2019, and Joel Farabee with the 14th-overall pick in 2018. Brière might differ from Chuck Fletcher or Ron Hextall in his approach, but assistant GM Brent Flahr will still likely have a significant influence on draft decisions.

Will Smith of the USNTDP will follow the same path as Gauthier with a jump to the NCAA level at Boston College for his freshman season. The Flyers would need an unexpected slip for Smith to remain on the board when they pick seventh. His USNTDP teammates Ryan Leonard, Gabe Perreault, and Oliver Moore could all land in the top 10 also.

Related: Flyers News & Rumors: Wheeler for Ellis, President, Fedotov

The Flyers should make their selection with the seventh-overall pick based on a vision of long-term success in the modern NHL. The opportunity for a new era in Philadelphia starts with a critical draft pick that could turn into a franchise building block. It’s up to the front office to take the right approach with their choice based on the philosophy they want to develop as an organization.

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