DEFENDING THE PHILOSOPHY
Flyers draft strategy remains to choose best available player, regardless of need.
It’s time to attempt to eviscerate a long-standing misnomer about the Flyers.
There is a belief out there that the Flyers are horrible at recognizing defensive talent in the draft.
It’s easy to make that argument when looking at past drafts and finding that the Flyers were the only team in the NHL in 2013 to play the entire season without at least one defensive draft pick to play in at least half of the team’s games.
It’s also easy to look around the league and highlight superstar defensemen and say, “Look how good a job this team did because they drafted so-and-so.”
It’s easy to say, as my good friend and colleague Tim Panaccio at CSNPhilly.com this week did, that the Flyers haven’t had a true home-grown regular on defense since Chris Therien.
And while each of these blanket statements, may in fact be true to an extent, you need more to support an argument that based on these facts alone that the Flyers are incapable of such defensive talent evaluation at the prospect level.
Instead, it would be better to do a little more research and try to find out some deeper answers.
Like, why did the drafts go the way they did? While doing that, try comparing the players selected instead of that arbitrary stud defenseman that they should have taken otherwise.
Or, maybe study the rest of the NHL and see if the Flyers are in fact unique in their non-drafting of defensive talent, or if in fact they are part of the majority when it comes to the drafting theory of selecting the best player and not drafting for need.
Let’s start with a very basic premise about player development.
Defensemen, on the whole, do not reach their potential until later in their careers than forwards.
“It goes from goaltenders to defensemen to forwards,” said Flyers Director of Hockey Operations Chris Pryor. “That length of time, there’s risk involved - especially in the first round. We take the best player and try to minimize as much risk as we can. If he happens to be a defenseman, so be it. If he happens to be a forward, so be it.
“Do I think the chances are good that it could be a defenseman this year? Yes, but that’s because there are a lot of good defensemen in this draft. But there are a lot of good forwards too. We might be thinking about a defenseman when all of the sudden a forward we weren’t expecting to fall does. In that case, we’ll take the forward.”
There’s so much more that goes into playing defense than the other positions. Defensemen have to be quick thinkers, play smart angles, make good passes, play physical, block shots, show patience, at least be adequate, if not very good skaters.
Oh, and they have to combine all of these skills and thought processes - and more – while under the constant pressure of opposing forechecking and under the pressure and duress to not turnover the puck in their own end.
By that very notion, it is more difficult to find a defenseman in a draft who can step right into the NHL and succeed. As such, defensemen need to be cultivated and groomed. They need time to develop in lower pressure situations – namely junior hockey, college hockey, or the American Hockey League.
Yet, in what is a paradoxical dichotomy, while every team wants to develop prospects, they all want to win now at the NHL level as well. So, finding the necessary time to develop defensemen within the organization to be NHL-ready is often not possible.
What ends up happening is defenses are often populated through free agency or trades, and then adjustments are made in-season based on a team’s success or lack-thereof.
Teams going for it, will often move prospects for a proven-NHLer, meanwhile teams that are out of it, will take a chance on a developing prospect.
That’s why, pointing out that the Flyers were the only team in the NHL without a home-grown draft pick was a little off base. But we’ll let the report slide on the technicality that Oliver Lauridsen (a 7th round draft pick) played only 15 games and that Erik Gustafsson is also homegrown but didn’t count because he was an undrafted free agent signing and not a draft pick.
But, using that limited premise, it should be noted that of the 180 defensemen in the NHL (top six on each team) who played the most games for their respective teams in the 2013 season, only 62 defensemen, or 34.4 percent of the league, were drafted by the team they were playing for.
That means the remaining 65.6 percent were either a free agent or traded for at some point in their careers.
Similarly, more than two-thirds of the league, like the Flyers, has less than half of their NHL defense consisting of homegrown draft picks.
Ten teams only had one draft pick on their blue line and 10 teams had two. Making even more of a statement about the development of defensemen, only three teams in the entire league had more than three draft picks on defense.
Those three teams? Detroit, Nashville and Washington. You only need one finger to count how many of them are still playing.
It’s more evidence that team’s will draft the best player available rather than filling needs, otherwise the defensemen would go quickly.
“The danger is, if you are drafting for need is oftentimes there’s a gap between the best available player and the need,” Pryor said. “You’re taking a player not as good because you are drafting by need.
“Also, your strengths today could be your needs tomorrow. You never know.”
The CSNPhilly.com article ran a headline asking why the Flyers can’t draft – and keep – a top defenseman.
Now, what makes a top defenseman? Is it a star-quality rearguard worthy of Norris Trophy consideration? Is it a Stanley Cup winner? Is it an All-Star? Or is it simply someone playing top pair minutes for a team?
The report didn’t say, so we’ll set our own parameters.
First, we’ll look at All-star caliber defensemen. Guys who are frequently considered among the elite in the sport and who are in or come close to the Norris Trophy conversation or are on the cusp of joining that conversation.
There are 10 players who fit that category who played more than half the games this season for the team that drafted them.
The 10 are: Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook (Chicago), Niklas Kronwall (Detroit), Drew Doughty (Los Angeles), P.K. Subban (Montreal), Shea Weber (Nashville), Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson (Phoenix), Kris Letang (Pittsburgh), Alex Pietrangelo) St. Louis.
(Please note that both Marc Staal of the New York Rangers and Erik Karlsson of Ottawa would also be on this list, but missed a large portion of the season because of injury).
The second group is players playing top pair minutes for their team and are good players, although not in the elite-level of among NHL defenseman just yet, although some have the potential to reach that status. They also were drafted by the team for which they are playing.
There are 15 of them: Tyler Myers (Buffalo), Justin Faulk (Carolina), Tyson Barrie (Colorado), Jonathon Ericsson (Detroit), Jeff Petry (Edmonton), Slava Voynov (Los Angeles), Jonas Brodin (Minnesota), Roman Josi (Nashville), Andrew MacDonald (New York Islanders), Marc-Edouard Vlasic (San Jose), Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay), Alexander Edler (Vancouver), Mike Green and John Carlson (Washington) and Zach Bogosian (Winnipeg).
Before we get to their draft history, let’s use some advanced statistics (don’t get too excited kids) to study these defensemen.
Of those mentioned, only 15 ranked in the top 60 (equivalent number to a top pair defenseman in the NHL counting two per team) in key analytics statistics: Corsi Relative (Corsi Rel) and Corsi Relative Quality of Competiton (Corsi Rel QoC).
Simply put, that Corsi Relative measures the puck possession abilities of a player as compared to his teammates by measuring the amount of shots a player is on the ice for both for and against and using this as a true plus/minus.
Therefore players with a good plus number are on the ice more for shots by their team then shots by the opponent getting through to the net. It’s a good measure for defensemen.
However, some defensemen are put in better offensive situations (against weaker offensive lines on the opposition, or predominantly offensive zone starts) and the QOC portion of the equation helps measure the Corsi Rel statistic based on who the opponents are on the ice against said player.
The top defenseman in the NHL this season in Corsi Rel Qoc was Ekman-Larsson (2.761). The top defenseman in the NHL in Corsi Rel was Jake Muzzin of Los Angeles (21.7).
Only six defenseman who played top pair minutes (based on each team’s average time on ice, or TOI), ranked in the top 60 in both categories – meaning a positive impact on possession, shot generation, limiting shots against and facing top quality opposition.
Wait, Schenn and Timonen weren’t drafted by the Flyers?
Exactly. It’s showing that you don’t need to draft a “top defenseman” to have a “top defenseman.”
Of the 27 defensemen mentioned (less than one per team in the NHL), all were drafted between 2000-2011, an era in which the Flyers were unfairly crucified for not drafting a top defenseman. In the CSN story this sentence stuck out:
“The lack of bonafide drafted NHL defensemen on the Flyers is an embarrassment. And it remains a huge obstacle to legitimately compete for the Stanley Cup…”
So, we decided to go back and examine each draft involved and compare the Flyers choices to the possibility of landing one of these 27 defensemen playing top pair minutes for the teams that drafted them.
Here we go:
In the 2000 draft, Kronwall was drafted No. 29 overall by Detroit. The Flyers chose one pick earlier at No. 28. They selected Justin Williams. And while Williams didn’t last long with the Flyers, he did go on to win two Cups and has posted 498 points in 755 career NHL games. And while one could argue that Kronwall may have been a better pick long-term, he didn’t make it to the NHL as a full-time defenseman until six years later. Williams played as an 18-year-old.
None of the players on our list was drafted in 2001, so we’ll skip that draft and move to 2002.
The Flyers drafted a defenseman in the first round, trading Ruslan Fedotenko and a later first round pick to move up and select Joni Pitkanen No. 4 overall. There were 26 players taken between Pitkanen and Duncan Keith (No. 54 overall) that played fewer than 100 NHL games (including six defensemen). Ericsson was Mr. Irrelevant that year, taken with the 291st and final pick of the draft in the ninth round. You can say the Flyers missed out on him, but so did 28 other teams. Credit that pick to the good European scouts in Detroit.
The 2003 draft is an interesting study. Seabrook was taken No. 14 overall by Chicago. The Flyers could have had him, but instead chose to draft Jeff Carter, who has 410 points in 564 career games and a Stanley Cup. Carter was very good for the Flyers and the value the Flyers got in return for Carter (Jake Voracek and Sean Couturier) in trade also adds up to being worth more than Seabrook alone.
Later in the draft, the Flyers selected Mike Richards 24th overall. There were 24 picks between Richards and Weber at No. 49. Seven were defensemen. Only two are still in the NHL – Kevin Klein and Matt Carle – and Carle ended up here for awhile anyway. Richards, of course, was captain of the team and led the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Final in 2010. He finally won a Cup last season as a member of the Los Angeles Kings. The Flyers received Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn in the deal. Of course, they almost had Weber last summer too, but Nashville matched the Flyers offer sheet to the restricted free agent.
In 2004, the Flyers didn’t have a pick ahead of Washington for Green (No. 29) nor ahead of Vancouver for Edler (No. 91). Instead, they drafted one spot later selecting Rob Bellamy, who never made it to the NHL. There were seven defensemen drafted after Bellamy that played in the NHL this year, but none were star quality and only one – Roman Polak – is with his original team.
The 2005 draft was an interesting one in which the Flyers drafted Steve Downie No. 29 overall. They had no shot of getting Staal (No. 12) but could have drafted Vlasic, who went six picks after Downie. However, the Flyers flipped Downie for Carle in a trade, which was an upgrade over the prospects of having Vlasic. The Flyers did not have another pick before Pittsburgh drafted Letang (No. 62) but did miss on a third round pick. The Flyers chose Oskars Bartulis (No. 91) 14 picks ahead of Yandle and 17 picks ahead of Niklas Hjarmalsson (Chicago).
In 2006, everyone thought the Flyers were going to draft Bobby Sanguinetti until the New York Rangers jumped ahead of them to snag him one pick earlier. While the Flyers liked Sanguinetti, they didn’t have him rated ahead of Claude Giroux, who they chose at No. 22. Anyone want to make that swap now? The next defenseman taken that is still in the NHL was Petry (No. 45 to Edmonton). There were seven defensemen between Giroux and Petry. None in the NHL. Could the Flyers have had Petry? Yes. But they missed on two second round picks. Andreas Nodl (No. 39) is a marginal NHHer and the defenseman they did take, Mike Ratchuk (No. 42) never panned out.
It was hard to argue the Flyers drafting James van Riemsdyk at No. 2 overall in 2007. There were decent defenseman drafted in some of the slots behind him – Karl Alzner (Washington), Ryan McDonagh (New York Rangers), Kevin Shattenkirk (Colorado), but none worthy of the No. 2 pick. Van Riemsdyk was traded last year for Schenn – who continues to grow as a top pair defenseman for the Flyers. There was a mistake in round two, as the Flyers chose defenseman Kevin Marshall two picks ahead of Montreal selecting P.K. Subban, but again, not every team is perfect, and frankly, every team had a shot at Subban in the first round and passed.
If there was a great draft year for defensemen it was 2008. Doughty, Bogosian, Pietrangelo, Schenn, Myers and Karlsson were all selected before the Flyers picked at No. 19. Recognizing how good that draft was on the blue line, the Flyers chose Luca Sbisa. Sbisa was later part of the package that landed Chris Pronger. By the time the Flyers picked again in the third round, Carlson, Josi and Voynov were all off the board. The Flyers went defense again in the third round selecting Marc-Andre Bourdon. The only defensemen drafted after Bourdon to play 100 NHL games? T.J. Brodie (Calgary), Jared Spurgeon (now on Minnesota, drafted by the Islanders) and Jason Demers (San Jose).
The Flyers first pick in 2009 wasn’t until No. 81, so they had no shot at Hedman (No. 2), Ekman-Larsson (No. 6), or Barrie (No. 64). The Flyers selected goalie Adam Morrisson at No. 81. He didn’t work out, but neither did any defenseman drafted after him, as the most NHL games played by a defenseman after Morrison to date is 35 by David Savard in Columbus.
The 2010 draft was no different. The Flyers didn’t have a selection until No. 89. Faulk was the only guy on our original list that was selected in this year. He was chosen at No. 37.
In 2011, the Flyers went with Couturier two picks ahead of Brodin and one pick ahead of Dougie Hamilton, who is playing well for Boston in the playoffs. The jury is still out on that class.
The 2012 draft is still too early to call, but the Flyers drafted four defensemen in the draft, their most in any one draft since 2002.
In conclusion, it’s hard to say the Flyers went awry with their draft strategy. Their first round picks have all panned out or been swapped as assets for needs. They had a couple hiccups in rounds two and three, but so has everyone else. They’ve also done a nice job with depth guys in late rounds as evidenced by Tye McGinn, Eric Wellwood and Zac Rinaldo all being productive players in recent seasons.
If there is a an area where in recent years the Flyers drafts have come up empty it’s not having picks – not misusing them.
“Inevitably that’s going to catch up,” Pryor said. “The temperature here is to win and do whatever it takes to win. You have to take a gamble sometimes. Those picks are assets for a reason.”
But, after the Pronger trade, the Flyers have made a concerted effort to hang onto their draft picks. They had seven picks last year for the first time since 2007. They are only missing one pick this year and have a full compliment next year.
“[General Manager] Paul [Holmgren] has done a good job of holding on to our picks the last few years,” Pryor said. “The way the game is now you need to have young players and to do that you have to draft young players and to do that you have to have picks.
“Looking at last year’s draft, we think we have three really good players down the road in [Scott] Laughton, [Anthony] Stolarz and the defenseman [Shayne] Gostisbehere. We are keenly aware of what it takes these days and we are moving forward holding onto our picks as assets.”
So will they draft a “top defenseman” this year? Maybe. But if they don’t, it’s not because they don’t recognize the talent. It’s because they’re taking the best available player, and that’s not going to change.
To contact Anthony SanFilippo email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AnthonySan37