The Philadelphia Flyers total and utter ineptitude to draft an NHL calibre defenseman has been well griped about for years. In 2002 the Flyers drafted Joni Pitkanen (1st Round), a big puck-moving Finn who was the sort or prospect scouts describe as a "can’t miss". Indeed that’s proven to be true as Pitkanen has gone on to play 517 games and rack up 276 career points to this point in his career. He may not be a top-10 defenseman in the league, but he is a bonafide top-2 pairing player on almost any team in the league. I’m sure if the Flyers could go back in time and keep Joni instead of shipping him (along with Sanderson) to Edmonton in the deal that brought Lupul and Smith to Philly, they would.
Since that draft year the Flyers have used just one 1st Round pick on a defenseman; Luca Sbisa. It’s quite interesting then that Sbisa along with a player brought in for Pitkanen (Lupul) were traded to Anaheim for Chris Pronger after Sbisa’s surprise rookie season. Oh the webs we weave. Sbisa is only 22 so it’s hard to get a read on what he could eventually become. It’s fair to say though, with nearly 200 games under his belt at 22, Luca will be a useful defender in the NHL for a long time.
Both of these trades look bad right now because Pronger’s career is essentially over at this point, but bringing in Pronger was an amazing step towards becoming a contender at that time. So it’s fair to say both teams received the value they wanted in that deal. Moving beyond those two it becomes increasingly hard to find a Flyers defense prospect who actually worked out. The following is a quick run-down of the defenders Philly has drafted since Pitkanen in 2002.
2003: Alex Picard, 3rd Round (85th).
Painful Picks: Shea Weber (49th) was available when Carter (11th) and Richards (24th) were drafted.
With a total of 253 games at the NHL level Picard is the only other Flyers D-pick in the last 10 draft years to have any sort of legitimate NHL career. He’s a guy who has been up and down between parent clubs and AHL franchises and fits in as a number 7 or 8 defenseman at best. Most recently he had been playing for Prague in the KHL, but just last season he suited up for 17 games with the Pens. The Flyers had their minds made up before this draft started to take Richards and Carter, who were excellent selections, so they can’t really be faulted on this draft. BUT WEBER… ugh...
2004: R.J. Anderson, 4th Round (101st). Chris Zarb, 5th Round, (144th). Travis Gawryletz, 8th Round, (253rd).
Painful Picks: Mark Streit (262nd).
In a not-so-unusual-to-Flyer-fans-fashion the Flyers brass traded their draft picks in the first 3 rounds to end up with a smattering of trash picks in this draft year. 11 players picked in this draft and they combined for 23 NHL games played. Trash. Anderson is currently kicking around the Norwegian and 2nd Tier Swedish League (Allsvenskan), while Zarb went on to feature for the glamorous Dundee Stars of the English Ice Hockey League. Gawryletz appears to have been the most successful of the three as he played 120 AHL contests and is now in his second season in the Czech Extraliga.
2005: Oskars Bartulis, 3rd Round (91st). John Flatters, 6th Round (174th).
Painful Picks: Keith Yandle (105th), Nik Hjalmarsson (108th).
Bartulis was SO close that the Flyers could taste a top-6 defenseman. His 66 games were a formidable effort but the Flyers ran out of patience with the Latvian standout. He has moved on to Donbass Donetsk, the lone Ukranian entry in the KHL. John Flatters appears to be possibly the biggest bust of this whole survey as it seems he forgot what hockey was after attending the University of British Columbia and vanishing off the face of the earth.
Departing from their usual policy of drafting hulking behemoth defensemen, the Flyers opted for a few smaller D-men. They picked Mike Ratchuk (5’10), Russian Denis Bodrov (6’1), and followed those two up with Lehtivuori (5’11)… all of whom have proven useless at the top-level. Ratchuk plays for Ljubljana in Austria, Bodrov for Moscow in the KHL, and Lehtivuori suits up for MODO in the Elitserien. All three had a taste of AHL-ECHL hockey however bitter a taste it was.
2007: Kevin Marshall, 2nd Round (41st).
Painful Picks: P.K. Subban (43rd)
Continuing the pattern of picking useless defensemen in the 2nd Round, but getting back to the idea of drafting muscle-dummies, the Flyers went with Kevin Marshall in ’07. Marshall has (to his credit) carved out a niche as a defensive defenseman in the AHL. He’s not going to give you any flash, but eventually he might be a number 6 or 7 guy at the NHL level. The thing that REALLY makes this a bad pick is the fact that Subban was picked just two spots later by Montreal! Ow… that hurts…
2008: Luca Sbisa, 1st Round (19th), M.A. Bourdon, 3rd Round (67th)
In an uncharacteristic show of genius the Flyers picked Sbisa and Bourdon who are both currently projecting as legitimate NHL defensemen. Sbisa of course was traded, but Bourdon could yet be a steal. Aside from Del Zotto and Demers there wasn’t a whole lot available in terms of defenders in the this draft, so they didn’t do too badly here either.
2009: Simon Bertilsson, 3rd Round (87th), Oliver Lauridsen, 7th Round (196th)
Painful Picks: None as of yet.
No pick until 81st (Goalie Adam Morrison) meant that the Flyers missed out on the marquee defenders. These two guys are both too young to judge completely, but Lauridsen (at 6’6) appears to be the more NHL ready of the two so far at age 23. He’s been with the Phantoms for the past two seasons after two years at St. Cloud State. Bertilsson however, has yet to make the jump from Brynas of the Elitserien. There may still be hope for him as well seeing as he’s just 21.
Painful Picks: None as of yet.
Again without a pick until 89th how can this team find a good young defender in the draft? Tough to say what will become of either of these guys either… Luukko is in his 2nd year at U Vermont where he was been surprisingly successful so far with 9 points in 24 games. Blidstrand is buried in the 3rd Tier of Swedish hockey this season after finishing up in the WHL with the Prince George Cougars last year. That’s not exactly the place you want your 20 year old defender to develop, but he can still make an impression on Vasteras who have his 2nd Tier rights.
2011: Colin Suellentrop, 4th Round (116th)
Painful Picks: mostly still in Junior.
Picking Sean Couturier at 8th overall is never going to be construed as a bad pick by anyone. There are no defensemen who outweigh him at this point. Nick Cousins at 68th could eventually be a bad pick but as a scrappy two-way forward who currently has 264 points in 249 games in the OHL it’s hard to imagine him not being at least an NHL caliber 4th liner. Suellentrop in the meantime, won’t solve any offensive problems but he certainly appears to be developing into a solid defensive presence. Suellentrop is on a loaded Oshawa Generals team sporting the likes of World Junior players Boone Jenner, Ty Biggs, and recently returned from the Flyers Scott Laughton. A strong playoff push from this team would give the Flyers a sense of reassurance that those two are well along their development curve.
Painful Picks: too early to tell
Gostisbehere was edged to the outskirts of a stacked American team at the World Juniors, which is a shame really because he looked fairly good leading up to the crossovers. With 38 points in 62 NCAA games for Union College it seems as though Shayne will be at the very least a fringe NHLer, and could possibly end up as a top-flight puck-mover.
Larsson is in the Swedish Under-20 league so I have no idea how he projects, while Willcox was drafted out of the BCHL and is now at Cornell as a Freshman leaving his potential relatively unknown too. The final pick to talk about is Vasiliev who is currently with Spartak Moscow of the KHL! I have a bit of a problem with drafting Europeans high, especially defenders because of the unknowns when dealing with physical play in North America. So this 7th Round pick used up on a relatively unknown Russian was probably a good idea. For an 18 year old to play in the KHL… and for a Muscovite team… that is something. Looks as though he’s been up and down between the 2nd Tier feeder team and Spartak so this bodes well! Potential steal.
From what I’ve seen in this survey of the 22 Defensemen the Flyers have drafted in the past 10 years they haven’t done an especially good job. The two guys they’ve used 1st Round picks on have been slam-dunks, but the Flyers continuously use 1st Round picks on Forwards, not Defensemen or for that matter Goalies. Either that or they trade away their 1st and 2nd Round picks for stop-gap temporary solutions to their defensive problems. So far that philosophy hasn’t resulted in Stanley Cup success.
Take a look at the teams that have won the last 4 Stanley Cups… Kings (Brown, Kopitar, Quick, Doughty), Bruins (Seguin, Krejci, Lucic, Bergeron), Blackhawks (Toews, Kane, Keith, Seabrook), Penguins (Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Fleury). All of these teams had to go through a rough season or two (5 or 6 in Pittsburgh’s case) to acquire high draft picks and build a team from a core of great young players. Only the Bruins were able to ‘build-on-the-fly’ by trading Kessel (LOL TORONTO). Maybe the Leafs will take Voracek for 2 – 1st Round Picks?