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Thoughts on the Flyers’ 2017 Draft: Nolan Patrick the big prize, but what about the rest?

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With the 2017 NHL Draft now in the rearview mirror, let’s take a look at the Flyers’ haul.

NHL: NHL Draft David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

On April 28, the 2017 NHL Draft was not looking like an especially exciting one for the Philadelphia Flyers’ organization. Yes, general manager Ron Hextall had stockpiled an impressive number of picks, but in terms of immediate high-end talent, they likely weren’t going to add a franchise-changer with a mid-first round pick in a draft generally viewed as a “two-player” draft.

Then, the lottery happened.

With only a 2.4% chance of it occurring, Philadelphia somehow jumped up to the No. 2 pick in the draft, opening up a clear path to acquiring either Nolan Patrick or Nico Hischier, the two prizes of the class. Next up was two months of speculation, rumors, and unfounded concerns that the Flyers might somehow find a way to waste the gift that had fallen into their laps.

On Friday night, the Flyers made no such error, snapping up Patrick after the New Jersey Devils took Hischier at No. 1. But the draft didn’t end there. Philadelphia still had six more rounds to go, with ten more picks remaining. After three trades, they would end up making eight more selections, adding nine total prospects to the organization, obviously headlined by the franchise’s best hope in years for a homegrown 1C.

Nolan Patrick, C | 1st round, 2nd overall

NHL: NHL Draft David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

This was the obvious choice, but there is something to be said for not overthinking the situation. The Flyers’ prospect pool entering Friday night was one of the deepest in hockey, with one key element missing: a forward prospect guaranteed to stick at center possessing top line potential. Patrick, long expected to be the #1 selection in this draft, fell right into their lap, and the Flyers made the only logical decision: they rushed up to the podium and grabbed him.

There is no rational reason to criticize the pick. Sure, there were a few other intriguing center prospects — Cody Glass, Gabriel Vilardi, Elias Pettersson and Nick Suzuki were my favorites — but none graded out as well as Patrick on the whole. He’s a do-it-all center with ideal size for the position, a plus shot, solid skating ability and fantastic hockey sense. Patrick is the total package.

Are there some concerns surrounding him? Sure. His draft year didn’t go as planned because he dealt with two sports hernias (one undiagnosed) and unsurprisingly didn’t take the previously-expected point production leap as a result. He’s also old for his draft year, which makes his statistics a little less impressive in comparison to his peers. Patrick’s style also isn’t the flashiest, especially in comparison to Nico Hischier.

But these are more quibbles than legitimate concerns. The injury issues were the most worrying, especially because Patrick has only spent one year of his hockey career fully healthy. But Ron Hextall, as a former Brandon Wheat King, has lots of connections in Patrick’s organization, and he clearly saw nothing to dissuade him from making the pick.

As for the “bad” draft year, I’m honestly impressed that despite playing through a fairly serious injury and on a squad that lost its three highest scorers from the previous year not named Nolan Patrick, he still basically replicated his point per game pace from 2015-16.

Patrick will likely be in the Flyers’ lineup for Game 1 of the 2017-18 season, and the sky is the limit when it comes to his upside.

Morgan Frost, C | 1st round, 27th overall

NHL: NHL Draft David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

A direct result of the Friday night deal that sent Brayden Schenn to the St. Louis Blues, Frost is a center from the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds who put up 62 points in 67 games during his draft year. He’s fairly young for his class, as he just turned 18 years old on May 14, and was generally projected in the muddled 20 through 60 range of the draft, according to public evaluations.

Frost will always be linked to two players in the minds of diehard Flyers fans. The first is Schenn himself, since the team likely downgraded in the short term by flipping Schenn for Jori Lehtera and future draft picks. The trade becomes far easier for fans to swallow if Frost turns into a major NHL contributor. The second is Eeli Tolvanen, who was the consensus “best player available” at pick No. 27 for the Flyers and was passed over in favor of Frost. Tolvanen is a high-volume sniper prospect, which was perhaps the only archetype the Flyers lacked in the prospect pool after the selection of Patrick. Television broadcasts even briefly placed a Tolvanen graphic up on the screen immediately before Hextall announced the Frost pick.

For my money, I wanted Tolvanen. He’s a player I’ve had an eye on going back to before the Flyers jumped to No. 2, back when it looked like they would pick at No. 13. He’s exciting to watch, has excelled in international play, and seemed highly regarded in the pre-draft process. As for Frost, I’m naturally skeptical of any forward going in the first round who didn’t at least score at a point per game pace in his draft year, unless he was buried on an ultra-talented lineup, and Frost was not. To me, the upside of Tolvanen made him a better pick.

But this isn’t the first time that the Flyers passed up on a volume shooter for a two-way forward. In fact, just last year, Hextall had a chance to grab Kieffer Bellows and instead traded down before nabbing German Rubtsov in the first round, and then Bellows posted a fairly disappointing freshman season at BU. It’s possible that players with that style simply don’t fit Hextall’s preferred mold, and fans should stop expecting that one gets taken by Philadelphia.

In addition, Frost is a talented young playmaker. Out of draft eligible OHL forwards, only Robert Thomas (the 20th overall pick) had a higher Estimated Primary Assists per 60 rate at 5v5 than Frost, and his Estimated Primary Points/60 ranked eighth. He also appears to be a plus skater, and graded out quite well in the physical tests at the combine. Plus, the OHL is the hardest of the three CHL leagues to score in, so if the Flyers were going to take a non-PPG forward in the first, I’m glad he came from the OHL.

There’s definite upside here, and I wouldn’t call Frost a bad selection. But I do worry about getting another Scott Laughton type. Hopefully Frost can produce more than the 56-points-in-49-games that Laughton did in his Draft+1 season.

Isaac Ratcliffe, F | 2nd round, 35th overall

Isaac Ratcliffe NHL Draft profile 2017 | SB Nation NHL Draft M...

Four picks into Round 2, the Flyers traded up for Isaac Ratcliffe!

Posted by Broad Street Hockey: For Philadelphia Flyers Fans on Saturday, June 24, 2017

This strikes me as the most intriguing pick in the draft by Ron Hextall. Prior to this draft, Hextall had conspicuously avoided the “loved by scouts, not by stats” forwards in the first two rounds, instead targeting players like Travis Konecny, Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Pascal Laberge who were exciting, offensively gifted prospects. Isaac Ratcliffe, on the other hand, is one of those “projectable” forwards that scouts love to dream on.

Ratcliffe’s most noticeable attribute is obviously his size. He’s 6’5’’ and already over 200 pounds, and he’s certainly a power forward prospect to say the least. The production in the OHL was decent in his draft year (54 points in 67 games) but not incredible. His skating is also above-average for his size, so it’s not like he’s a plodder. From what I gather, the aspect of his game that needs the most work is his puck skills while skating, as he already possesses soft hands around the net. It’s clear this selection is an upside play, and for an organization that was lacking Ratcliffe’s skillset in their prospect pool, I totally understand the thought process behind the pick.

From a pre-draft value standpoint, Ratcliffe was a great pick at No. 35. It was a minor surprise when he fell out of the top-31, as many mock drafts had him going as early as the mid-first round. I would have disliked a Ratcliffe pick in that range, but No. 35 feels right for a projectable power forward to me.

I do have concerns about the trade up, however. To acquire pick No. 35, the Flyers traded No. 44, a third (75th overall) and a fourth round pick (108th) to Arizona in order to nab Ratcliffe. Looking at Michael Schuckers’ Draft Value Chart, that’s 455 points sent by the Flyers for a pick (#35) worth 222 points on average. In fact, Coyotes GM John Chayka noted after the draft that he told Hextall it was an overpayment, and Hextall did the deal anyway.

That leads me to believe that Hextall felt that even though Ratcliffe was officially taken at No. 35, he had the value of a player who “should have” been taken much higher. How much higher? Going back to Schuckers’ chart, the 455 points of value that the Flyers shipped to Arizona is basically equivalent to the 14th overall pick — which is right where the optimistic public scouts had Ratcliffe ranked.

Essentially, I like the player and I like where he was picked, but I don’t like the value they gave up to make the pick.

Kirill Ustimenko, G | 3rd round, 80th overall

These goalie picks are always hard for me to analyze, for two obvious reasons:

  • We don’t have much information regarding European prospects past probable first rounders.
  • My knowledge of goaltending technique is limited at best.

As a result, all I can really use are the numbers and the reports of scouts. In the former, Ustimenko absolutely stands out. In the MHL (Russian juniors), he posted a 0.938 save percentage in 27 games, second-best in the league. He also performed well in two games at the U18 World Championships. However, he barely rated on any of the public draft boards, and was taken over more highly-rated goalies that were available at the time.

Personally, I have no issue with the pick. This is around the point in the draft where I’m fine with a netminder being taken, and Hextall has implied that he’d like to grab one in every draft just to keep the pipeline full with lottery tickets at that position. The strong metrics intrigue me, as does his ideal size for the position (6’3’’, 179 pounds at age-18).

Plus, the Flyers showed their cards last year by taking German Rubtsov in round one and proved they keep a very close eye on the Russian junior levels, since that pick required a great deal of background research due to the doping scandal. Clearly their scouts see something in this guy, and finding a good young goalie is more a volume play than anything else. Pick a bunch, hope you stumbled upon the next Lundqvist.

Matthew Strome, F | 4th round, 106th overall

2017 NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7 Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

This was a fantastic value selection, and unlike the Ratcliffe pick, it didn’t require an expensive trade-up. Strome was thought to have an outside chance of slipping into the tail end of the first round, but most thought he was probably ticketed for round two. Getting a player in the fourth round who scored at a better point per game rate than your late first round pick, has legitimate power forward potential, and has two brothers who are sure NHLers was a coup for Ron Hextall.

The big concern surrounding Strome is obviously his skating — it’s legitimately a major weakness, and could definitely prevent him from ever making the NHL. But every other skill that Strome possesses is NHL caliber, and like Ratcliffe, he’s a big kid (6’3’’, 201 pounds) who is capable of imposing his will on the opposition.

I’m iffy on taking power forward projects in the first two rounds. I love taking them in the middle rounds, however, and the guys that fall this far rarely come with the past point production and pedigree that Strome brings to the table.

Maksim Sushko, F | 4th round, 107th overall

Sushko has the numbers (32 points in 54 games in the OHL) of a Samuel Dove-McFalls or Carsen Twarynski-type mid-round selection, but not the skillset. Unlike those players, who from the moment of drafting felt like future NHL bottom-sixers in an absolute best-case scenario, Sushko appears to bring more raw talent to the table. He was a first round pick in the OHL Import Draft last year, and was touted as a potential impact scoring forward coming over from Belarus.

Unfortunately, it didn’t translate in his rookie North American season, with his Estimated Primary Points/60 ranking 25th among draft-eligible forwards in the OHL. My guess is that Flyers’ scouts like the skillset, and think that his underwhelming 2016-17 season was a result of Sushko adjusting to a new home and style of play, not a lack of projectable talent.

For what it’s worth, ESPN’s Corey Pronman had him in his Honorable Mention section prior to the draft, which includes his favorite 30 players not ranked in his top-100. There’s legitimate talent here — it’s just a matter of whether Sushko can put it all together.

Noah Cates, F | 5th round, 137th overall

This is exactly the type of late round lottery ticket pick that I love to see from Ron Hextall. Cates is something of an unknown, spending most of his time in the Minnesota high school hockey system, though he did get a brief 11-game stint in the USHL, putting up seven points for the Omaha Lancers while there. But he’s flashed impressive skill and raw talent, per scouts and YouTube clips.

At this point in the draft, why not take a stab at a under-the-radar player with sky-high upside, especially if he’ll be moving to a much better league the following year and you’ll know very quickly if he’s fulfilling his promise? Cates will play a full season in the USHL next year before moving on to the University of Minnesota-Duluth in 2018-19, a strong program. If there’s a Tanner Laczynski in this draft class for the Flyers, I feel like Cates is it.

Olle Lycksell, C | 6th, 168th overall

Meet the forward version of Linus Hogberg, taken last year by the Flyers in the fifth round. Like Hogberg, Lycksell is Swedish, very young for his draft year and a total unknown to anyone who isn’t focusing heavily on the lower levels in that country. But the Flyers clearly see something in the undersized forward, and he certainly won’t be rushed. Like the Cates pick, this is a matter a trusting a scout in your organization who thinks he unearthed a gem. I’d rather take a chance of a high-upside project like Lycksell than a slow CHL middle-sixer.

Wyatt Kalynuk, D | 7th round, 196th overall

Kalynuk is a 20-year old defenseman who put up unspectacular numbers in three USHL seasons, and now is committed to Wisconsin for college hockey. This strikes me as a flier just in case Kalynuk’s game translates well and turns him into the type of player who becomes a sought-after college UFA. But considering the fact that the Flyers originally had two seventh round picks and traded away one for a seventh round pick next season, my guess is that the Flyers were running out of attractive targets by this stage of the draft.

General thoughts

The addition of Nolan Patrick to the organization immediately turns the 2017 NHL Draft into a major win for the Philadelphia Flyers. He’s everything that the Flyers needed at this stage of their retooling process, especially with Claude Giroux’s 5v5 production dropping off dramatically over the past few seasons. Despite all of the work that Ron Hextall has done to build up his prospect pool, the biggest concern was that Giroux’s decline would leave them without a first line-caliber center just as the rest of the kids were hitting their primes.

Typically, a team only gets that type of prospect in the first few picks of a draft, but considering the talent that Hextall was bringing into the organization, it seemed unlikely that the team would ever be so bad as to earn one of those picks. The results of the 2017 lottery gave the Flyers that missing piece without requiring the team to fully “tank” a season, and the importance of that cannot be overstated.

As for the rest of the draft, I have mixed feelings. On one hand, it’s clear that Hextall expertly filled the gaps in his prospect pool. Stocked with potential top-four defensemen and enviable goalie depth, the Flyers were comparatively weak down the middle, and lacked much in the way of big, physical wingers. The selections of Patrick and Morgan Frost — who I believe both project as centers at the NHL level — resolve the former issue, while Ratcliffe and Strome are intriguing projects with top-six upside and address the latter. This truly is now a system with no holes, and I honestly believe a case can be made that it’s the best prospect pool in the NHL at the moment.

At the same time, I can’t help feeling a bit underwhelmed. I’m not a fan of the Ratcliffe trade-up, because I feel that it basically views him as a top-15 talent in this draft, and I disagree with that valuation. I would have rather the Flyers kept their third and fourth round selections and added even more depth to the organization. And while I don’t hate the Frost pick, I do worry that they missed an opportunity to bring in a difference maker in Eeli Tolvanen who also filled an organizational need.

Aside from Nolan Patrick, there just isn’t a player in the class that I really love. Frost didn’t post the type of scoring totals that make me stand up and take notice, Ratcliffe is a project in the Samuel Morin vein, and Ustimenko is a total unknown. Strome was a fantastic value pick, but even if he improves his skating to the point where he becomes an NHL regular, we’re not talking about a dynamic player here. Cates and Lycksell are intriguing (especially the former) but truly are the definition of lottery tickets.

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I freely admit that part of my lack of excitement surrounding the draft is due to my bias towards more dynamic, skilled players. But the Flyers have lots of those in the organization already, and this draft did go a long way in filling the role-related gaps. And maybe Morgan Frost’s playmaking ability results in him taking a major scoring leap in his Draft+1 season, or Noah Cates absolutely kills it in the USHL. Neither are out of the realm of possibility.

On the whole, I’d give the draft an A- in terms of value added to the organization, and a B in terms of how much I liked the individual picks and trades, simply because the Patrick selection was such a no-brainer. Of course, I’m no scout, and the Hextall front office has historically done a fantastic job in acquiring talent at the NHL Draft. It’s completely plausible to me that this time next year, we’re talking about how Frost was a steal, Ratcliffe took a major step forward, and Strome is so much better at skating now.

Hextall certainly has earned the fans’ trust when it comes to his drafting. But aside from Nolan Patrick (obviously), I’m just a little less excited about this overall class than any of his others.


All stats courtesy of EliteProspects or Prospect-Stats.