As the calendar moves closer to the 2012 NHL Entry Draft this weekend in Pittsburgh, the Philadelphia Flyers sit in a rather familiar position -- drafting towards the end of the first round (20th overall).
It's a spot the club has experienced success, having plucked the likes of Simon Gagne (22nd overall, 1998), Justin Williams (28th, 2000), Mike Richards (24th, 2003), Steve Downie (29th, 2005), and Claude Giroux (22nd, 2006) over the last 13 years. If you add in picks acquired in trades -- Jeff Carter at the 11th overall spot in 2003 and Sean Couturier eighth last summer -- as well as a high first-rounder following a disastrous 2006-07 season in which they selected James van Riemsdyk 2nd overall in 2007, that's a pretty impressive group of forwards tabbed in the first round by the Flyers' scouting staff.
Paul Holmgren's movement towards acquiring younger players last summer yielded a pretty memorable 2011-12 campaign, and the shift is something long needed in an organization where the cupboard is fairly bare regarding blue-chip prospects. Philadelphia's youth is almost exclusively on the present roster of the big club, and a replenishment of up-and-coming talent in the system is a must.
With a big-move mentality and a propensity for completely changing the direction of the franchise at the drop of a hat, youth has not been served well in the City of Brotherly Love. Young players and draft choices are often bandied about as if a bargaining chip in the next deal to acquire the one (sometimes aging) player viewed to be the one missing piece to push the Flyers over the top.
With rumors swirling that Columbus Blue Jackets star winger Rick Nash is on the trading block and could be moved as early as before the conclusion of the weekend, and the Flyers still being named as one of the possible clubs involved in trade talks, Philly would be smart to stay the course -- especially with the return reportedly being demanded by Jackets' GM Scott Howson, as there are at least seven clubs that have kicked the tires on the idea of adding Nash. The names of van Riemsdyk, Schenn, and Couturier have been mentioned in numerous rumors, as well as one of the Flyers' current top prospects, gritty forward Nick Cousins.
Perhaps no better example exists of the organization's about-face approach and the lesson to be learned than that of the Philly teams of the early-1990's. As a matter of fact, a deal comsummated 20 years ago today comes to mind, one in which the Flyers sent forwards Peter Forsberg, Mike Ricci, Chris Simon, defensemen Steve Duchesne, Kerry Huffman, goaltender Ron Hextall, two first round draft picks, and $15 million to the Quebec Nordiques in exchange for the player deemed to be "The Next One", Eric Lindros.
Although Lindros was just 19 at the time, the number of key youngsters lost -- already on the roster, set to be on the roster in the 1992-93 season, and future draft choices -- was immense.
After three seasons out of playoff contention, Philadelphia was headed in a very positive direction. There was a solid base of young players, including three future Cup-winners and likely Hall-of-Famers:
- Rod Brind'Amour -- Prematurely discarded by the St. Louis Blues, the Flyers nabbed a guy that would become the team's heart and soul for years to come. The 21-year-old would score 33 goals and post 77 points in his first year in Philadelphia during the 1991-92 season, and would be the lone All-Star representative on a rebuilding Flyers club.
- Mark Recchi -- Having traded captain Rick Tocchet to acquire "The Recching Ball", the price was steep. But the 23-year-old had only played two full NHL seasons, and already won a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in his rookie campaign. Recchi, who was picked up late in the 1992 season, would end up setting a club record with 123 points as a member of the "Crazy 8's Line" with Lindros and Brent Fedyk.
- Peter Forsberg -- "The best player not playing in the NHL". Olympic champion, leading Sweden to the Gold Medal. The surprise pick of the Flyers in 1991 (6th overall) became the centerpiece of the Lindros deal, and would lead the Colorado Avalanche to two Stanley Cups.
The move ravaged the Flyers in the short-term and set the team's resurgence back, as the club missed an invitation to the spring dance for an additional two seasons.
Hindsight is always 20 / 20 and it's tough to make a judgment call on two players who never played in an NHL game. Looking back -- even though Lindros did some fantastic things for the franchise and provided many memorable moments -- it's doubtful the Flyers would have moved Forsberg for Lindros even-up, let alone for the King's ransom handed over on June 20, 1992.
The real lesson to be learned from that deal is moving so many key pieces of the future for one player basically puts all of your eggs in one basket. Unfortunately for Lindros, his impressive 6' 4", 230-pound frame came along with an unforeseen fragility. For all of the raw talent exuded and physical dominance wreaked upon opponents, his injury history became one of the biggest focuses surrounding the story of his career.
"What could have been" if only he could have remained healthy is a common utterance, as is "what might have been" had the Flyers simply just stayed the course.
The consequences could be terrible for Philadelphia were they to lop off numerous chunks of their promising future to land Nash, a sometimes bruising 6' 4", 215-pound power forward who saw his offensive production dip to just 17 goals and 39 points last year.
To put those numbers into persepctive, bottom-six Philly forward Maxime Talbot managed 19 goals and 34 points. Sure it was a season of career-high totals for Talbot and he played on a team with much more offensive firepower, but Nash consistently hovers around 19-21 minutes of ice time per game as compared to Talbot's 15+ minutes.
Even though Nash is still relatively young (28), has been pretty durable (averaging just under 75 games per year in nine seasons), and entering what should be expected to be his most-productive years, packing several youngsters from the roster along with picks would be extremely risky.
As for the pieces rumored to be on Howson's wishlist in return for Nash:
- Following a run of injuries to begin last season, Schenn showed glimpses of the highly-touted blue chip prospect the Los Angeles Kings moved in the Richards deal last June.
- Couturier made the team out of training camp as an 18-year-old, and should be considered absolutely off-limits in any potential deal not involving Nashville Predators defenseman Shea Weber.
- Though on the smaller side (5' 11", 170 pounds), Cousins has a nice combination of talent and toughness. Hockey's Future makes a comparison to Scott Hartnell (as they note minus the size), and a former coach compared him to former-Flyer Ken "The Rat" Linseman -- the guy who would go around pulling opponent's skates out from under them during scrums, then having teammate Holmgren finish off his battles. He's the type of skater who is very valuable, especially in the heat of the ultra-physical postseason.
- Van Riemsdyk is an interesting case. He remained in college longer than Holmgren and the rest of the Flyers' organization would have liked, with the general consensus being the decision may have stunted his development. After a tremendously promising showing in the 2011 postseason, injuries ravaged JvR for much of the 2011-12 campaign. His name has been in the rumor mill since before the 2012 trade deadline, and will likely remain in the mix.
When examining a successful team such as the Detroit Red Wings, there are two fundamentally key elements that are consistently developed in Hockeytown:
Prospects -- In a very similar situation as the Flyers due to the success attained by the Wings, GM Ken Holland and his scouts continually come up with excellent players through the draft while annually picking very late because of their success. The core of their dominant teams in the 2000's -- Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom, even Valtteri Filppula -- all came via the draft.
None of those players came higher than in the third round, further exposing the problem with Philadelphia's knack of tossing aside draft picks in exchange for immediate gain. The Flyers have had success in the middle rounds through the years as well -- Hextall and Tocchet were each sixth-rounders in their draft years, as well as last summer with Cousins in the third round -- so assets can be mined, even outside the top rounds.
Team chemistry -- If you look at the Detroit roster from year-to-year, the core of impact players remains the same, with some tweaking of the supporting cast by Holland when necessary. The Red Wings scour the league for skaters available to fit into Mike Babcock's system -- such as Daniel Cleary and Todd Bertuzzi, both former high draft choices of other teams -- to fit in as role players.
But there is always the rock solid nucleus, frequently supplemented by products of their own good drafts. Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson, Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader, Jimmy Howard. The Detroit roster is loaded with their own picks.
That has to change.
As mentioned above, Weber is a player that a couple of the stable of youngsters could be exposed IF he were to become available. The restricted free agent is the one player who is everything the franchise has lacked for many years -- a younger (26), tough as nails, right-handed shooting franchise defenseman.
Since Eric Desjardins' retirement in 2006, there has not been a significant Philly defenseman who shoots from the right side. Weber, who just so happens to posses a slap shot that ranks among the best in the NHL, would be the perfect fit.
A Flyer power play with Weber's howitzer of a shot from the blue line should have anyone salivating about the elite rear guard donning the Orange-and-Black.
With Chris Pronger's playing career looking like it may be over, Weber could be the blue liner to add the ultimate amount of stability to a unit that has undergone years of constant turnover. Since arriving in a trade for Alexi Zhitnik in 2007, Braydon Coburn has the distinction of being the longest-tenured Flyer.
The ball is in Nashville Predators GM David Poile's able hands at the moment. Not only is Weber a top priority, so is defensive partner Ryan Suter, the top defender slated to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1st. Suter has expressed an interest in testing the market and the likelihood he heads to Motown to help sure up a Detroit defense that suffered the loss of Nicklas Lidstrom to retirement.
Weber actually fits the Flyers' needs much more capably than Suter, but it remains to be seen if Poile can get his captain inked to an extension. Money should not be a problem for the Predators, as Nashville has the second-lowest amount of money (just over $32 million) commited to payroll for the upcoming campaign, less than half of what the salary cap ceiling has been rumored to be set for 2012-13.
The Preds may actually have to over-spend in order to reach the cap floor.
At any rate, the same pitfalls remain if the longshot chance happened and Weber were to become a Flyer. If he were injured and missed any extensive time, Philadelphia would almost-certainly be in deep trouble.
The best course of action may be for the team to take a shot at one of the defensemen who may be remaining at #20, and the revamping of the club's forward ranks last summer should be replicated regarding their defense this year.
After Timonen, Coburn, Andrej Meszaros, and Nicklas Grossmann, the Flyers have an aging Andreas Lilja, and youngsters Erik Gustafsson, Marc-Andre Bourdon, Brandon Manning, Blake Kessel, and Oliver Lauridsen vying for spots.
If Holmgren decides to pick with an eye on the blue line, there are plenty of defensive prospects that may be available.
Unless Holmgren moves up in the draft order, Ryan Murray, Griffin Reinhart, Matt Dumba, Morgan Rielly, Jacob Trouba, and Cody Ceci, will probably be gone by the time the Flyers selection rolls around. Some who may fall to 20 include Matt Finn, Derrick Pouliot, Brady Skeji, Ludvig Bystrom, Slater Koekoek, Hampus Lindholm, and Olli Maatta.
Of this group of projected first rounders, only Dumba, Trouba, and Ceci -- all predicted to be snapped up before the 20th pick -- shoot from the right side.
With the exception of Murray and Maatta, any rear guard taken in this draft will likely be at least a season or two away from the NHL, but it will only benefit the team in the long run if that's the method chosen by the Flyers.
Along with another year of the young core already playing in Philadelphia developing together, the youth movement started by Holmgren last summer will continue to bring the Flyers a brighter future -- both immediately and long-term.