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Flyers won’t sign 2020 sixth-round pick Connor McClennon to contract

The small but talented offensive winger won’t be joining the organization.

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June 1 is the final day for NHL teams to sign draft picks that they hold the rights to for certain leagues, most notably the CHL, from which players that are picked have two years from their draft year to be signed. Meaning, today (June 1, 2022) is the final day for CHL players taken in the 2020 draft to be signed by the team that picked them.

The Flyers have already signed three of their picks from that draft — CHL forwards Tyson Foerster, Zayde Wisdom, and Eliot Desnoyers — and they’ll all be on the Phantoms next year. Additionally, they’ve got two more years to sign Swedish defenseman Emil Andrae, their second-round pick. However, today marked the deadline for them to sign their sixth-round selection, winger Connor McClennon from the Winnipeg Ice.

And, courtesy of the Inquirer’s Olivia Reiner, they won’t be offering McClennon an entry-level deal:

That report was quickly confirmed by basically every other Flyers beat as well. McClennon will now re-enter the upcoming NHL draft and can be selected by any team in the league.

So let’s get the requisite disclaimers out of the way here: McClennon was a sixth-round pick for a reason, the Flyers have watched way more of him than any of us have, and the odds are that they are not missing out on a future star or even a measurably above-replacement-level NHL player by not signing him.

That all said ... it’s weird, right? McClennon has always put up pretty strong scoring numbers in the WHL, topping a point-per-game even in his draft year before missing time with a broken collarbone. His offensive skill-set is, by most accounts, pretty well-rounded. It seems as though there’s a lot to like here, and neutral observers seem to think so as well — one guy’s opinion and all, but The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler called him the seventh-best prospect in the Flyers’ system earlier this year, ahead of the likes of Wisdom, Desnoyers, and Noah Cates.

So why didn’t the Flyers decide he was worth taking a chance on? BSH Radio and The Athletic’s Charlie O’Connor suggested the following explanation:

There’s a degree to which “he didn’t improve enough” fits as a possible explanation here. McClennon’s scoring numbers, while consistently good, did plateau a bit, particularly this season — his points per game of 1.30 was actually lower than the 1.38 he posted in the abbreviated 2020-21 season, despite him being on a pretty loaded Winnipeg team that features a likely top-10 pick in Matthew Savoie and another likely first-rounder in Connor Geekie. The track record for guys who hit a plateau in terms of scoring in amateur leagues is not great.

And it may well be true that a guy with McClennon’s unimposing physical profile makes him D.O.A. if he someday reaches the game’s highest level. Fair or not, guys who are small and aren’t particularly good skaters have an uphill fight to prove that they’re skilled enough to overcome those deficiencies, and it looks like the Flyers didn’t have the confidence that he has that skill, or that he’d be able to make the leap in terms of his skating.

Yet, even with those caveats acknowledged, it’s a bit of a surprise. Some will lament “losing a draft pick for nothing”, but that doesn’t really seem like the main concern here — the default expectation of a sixth-round pick is that you’re not really going to get anything out of him. But most sixth-round picks don’t fill the net (43 goals this season) or put up points like McClennon did, and even if the Flyers think it’s unlikely that he’s able to carry some of that skill over against better competition, it seems like it would’ve been a worthwhile gamble. They’ve had skilled players fix their skating and become productive before.

Additionally, it doesn’t seem like it’s an issue of needing space for other prospects. The team only has 32 active NHL contracts (via CapFriendly), well below the 50 they’re allowed to have. Taking a quick look at the Phantoms’ roster and knowing how they as a team did last year, it seems hard to believe that there’s a full lineup’s worth of guys who are going to add more to the organizational depth than McClennon would. Even if he never makes the leap to NHL-caliber player, it’s not at all hard to see him as a guy who can hold his own against AHLers, and there’s value in having AHL-level skill around your prospects. And who knows — there were a lot of eyes around the league on that Winnipeg team; maybe there’s a GM somewhere that liked what they saw in him that would have given you a pick for him down the line.

Ultimately, it’s unlikely this is going to come back to haunt the Flyers, and again, the expectations for a sixth-round pick should never have been particularly high. But it seems like a missed opportunity for the organization to add some skill. This team is going to need a lot of things to go right to pull off the turnaround that it thinks it can, and it’s a little surprising that they weren’t willing to take the lottery ticket here.

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