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Class of 2007 Could Be Rich in Sleeper Picks

by Staff Writer / Philadelphia Flyers
by Bill Meltzer

Speculation is rampant about whom the Philadelphia Flyers will select with the second overall pick of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. That player will draw the lion’s share of attention on draft day and face the most scrutiny in the years to come. But in a year when there is little scouting consensus at the top of the draft class, 2007 is a bottom-heavy draft with an array of appealing prospects with the potential to blossom in the future.

That bodes well for the Flyers, who hold a late first round selection (23rd overall, acquired from the Nashville Predators in the Peter Forsberg trade) in addition to the second pick. In recent club history, Paul Holmgren and the Flyers scouting department have done a top-notch job identifying NHL-caliber talent late in the first round.

Astute scouting enabled the Flyers to unearth talents ranging from Simon Gagne (22nd overall pick in 1998) to Mike Richards (24th overall in 2003). Meanwhile, the team’s top current prospects, Steve Downie (29th overall in 2005) and Claude Giroux (22nd overall in 2006) would likely have been drafted earlier by other teams given the benefit of a year or two worth of hindsight.

Simon Gagne was drafted by the Flyers 22nd overall in 1998.
Going back in Flyers’ team history, the club’s ability to find prospects beneath the top-pick radar screen has been remarkable. Back in 1969, Philadelphia nabbed a diabetic, undersized future Hall-of-Famer named Bobby Clarke in the second round of the draft. Twenty-two years later, the club had the foresight to draft Peter Forsberg sixth overall in 1991, even though Central Scouting and The Hockey News tabbed him as a late first-round or early second-round prospect.

While it’s unlikely that the Flyers – or any other team – will find a once-in-a-generation hockey talent like Clarke or Forsberg in this draft, there’s every reason to believe Philly will choose wisely with the Nashville pick.  However, it’s difficult to predict which prospects the Flyers scouts covet will still be on the board when that choice comes up. It’s possible that some highly-rated prospects could fall to that range in the draft or some of the fast-rising sleepers could appeal to Philadelphia.

The Flyers typically take the approach of drafting the best available player, regardless of position, in the first round of the draft. Later on, they may look to shore up depth at specific positions. Goaltending may by the position where the Flyers have the least system depth below the NHL level, with defense and right wing being the strongest positions.

This year’s draft class has relatively few goalies projected as future NHL starters, and none projected as surefire first-round picks. Instead, there are quite a few forwards and defensemen with potential for significant upward mobility after they’re selected. From the third round onward, the Flyers may look to choose one or more of the top-rated goalies: possibly North Americans Jeremy Smith, Josh Unice, Trevor Cann or Tyson Sexsmith or a European goaltender such as Joel Gistedt or Mark Owuya.

Intriguing Crop of Forwards

Pre-draft ratings fluctuate widely for forward prospects such as Zach Hamill, Mikael Backlund, Logan Couture, Brandon Sutter, Colton Gillies, Lars Eller, Simon Hjalmarsson, Max Pacioretty, Oscar Möller and Stefan Legein.  A few of these players should be available with the Flyers make their second pick of the opening round. 

Zach Hamill, a center for the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League, is the most unlikely to remain on the board that late in the first round. The leading scorer in the WHL this season, Hamill is ranked ninth among North Americans by Central Scouting, 16th overall by International Scouting Services (ISS), 12th overall by The Hockey News and 10th overall by McKeen’s. A fine offensive talent, Hamill may drop slightly in the draft due to questions about his willingness to venture into traffic.

Mikael Backlund, a center for Västerås IK in Sweden’s Allsvenkan (the highest minor league, one step below the Elite League), scored six goals in six games at the recent Under-18 World Junior Championships in Finland. Coming into this season, many considered his potential to be similar to top Washington Capitals prospect Nicklas Bäckström. He has good all-around skills.

A knee injury slowed Backlund down for much of the season and his performance didn’t meet expectations until the Under-18s. He is rated second among European skaters by Central Scouting, 10th overall by ISS and 21st overall by McKeen’s.

Logan Couture, a center for Ottawa 67’s of the Ontario Hockey League, entered the season as one of the top-ranked prospects for the draft, but struggled after a bout with mononucleosis. The main concern with Couture is his lack of top-notch skating skills, but he has soft hands and good offensive anticipation.

After a strong start at the Under-18s (Couture played on a line with top-five draft prospect Kyle Turris), Couture seemed to run out of steam in the medal round. He fell to 19th in the final Central Scouting North American ratings. However, The Hockey News pegs him seventh overall for the draft, while both the ISS and McKeen’s seed him 13th.

Brandon Sutter, the son of former NHL player Brent Sutter and nephew of five NHL uncles, plays for the Red Deer Rebels of the WHL where he’s coached by his father. His uncles, Ron and Rich, both played for the Flyers in the 1980s. The Sutter name usually conjures an image of grit, fiery toughness and two-way play.

While Brandon Sutter is capable of living up to that image, he is more of a skill player than a grinder. He has considerable offensive tools, but they are still raw, and he posted a relatively modest 20 goals and 57 points for the Rebels this season. He had an up-and-down Under-18 World Championship tournament for Canada. In the final Central Scouting ratings, Sutter fell to 28th among North Americans and 29th overall in the ISS ratings. But The Hockey News remains high on him, slotting him 10th overall, while McKeen’s has him 24th.

Like Sutter, Saskatoon Blades center Colton Gillies comes from a hockey family. His uncle, Clark Gillies, was one of the key leaders on the New York Islanders during the Long Island club’s Stanley Cup-winning dynasty of the early 1980s. Unlike Sutter, most scouts feel Gillies has limited offensive potential, although some say he could develop a power forward style in close to the net.

Gillies’ main assets are his size (6’4’’), skating ability, versatility (he’s played both defense and forward) and a sizeable mean streak. He will hit anything that moves and is impossible to intimidate. His professional future is as a forward. Gillies had a solid Under-18 tournament for Canada. His rankings are all over the map. Central Scouting slotted him 30th among North Americans in their final ratings, but ISS has him 12th overall. The Hockey News slotted him 13th overall, but McKeen’s ranks him 40th.

Meanwhile, Danish forward Lars Eller has seen his rankings soar over the course of the
The Flyers are hoping 2006 first round draft choice Claude Giroux (22nd overall) someday becomes a top-notch NHL scorer.
season. Some scouts have likened the player’s potential to that of Detroit Red Wings star Henrik Zetterberg and the late season buzz about the player has lifted his projections from the second round of the draft to the mid-to-late first round.  Eller has always been a smooth skater and playmaker, but he grew several inches over the last year and his frame has started to fill out. He is also regarded as a solid two-way player with good vision on the ice.

Eller is one of five players from a championship Frölunda Indians junior team in Sweden who is likely to be selected in the early rounds of the 2007 draft. He also played a key role in Denmark’s promotion to the top-level Under-20 and Under-18 World Championships for 2008. Eller finished third in the final Central Scouting European rankings and 18th overall in the ISS ratings. The Hockey News does not project him as a first round pick, but McKeen’s slots him 16th overall.

Simon Hjalmarsson, Eller’s Frölunda linemate, is known as more of a scorer than a playmaker. The right winger lit up both the Swedish SuperElit junior league and the Under-18 World Championships with his scoring ability. Sometimes compared with Calgary Flames forward Kristian Huselius for his ability to stickhandle and finish plays, Hjalmarsson lacks size and does not possess top-notch speed when moving straight ahead. For this reason, many draft rankings push him out of the first round.  Central Scouting slots him sixth among European skaters and McKeen’s ranks him 18th overall. But neither the ISS nor The Hockey News see him going in the first round.

Sioux City Musketeers winger Max Pacioretty won the USHL Rookie of the Year Award this year on the strength of 63 points in 60 games and 119 penalty minutes. The powerfully built American forward (6’2’’, 205 pounds) is still learning to use his physical presence to maximum effectiveness and can still use work on his skating, but he has the potential to be an effective offensive player at the NHL level.

Pacioretty is committed to the University of Michigan next fall, where he will play NCAA hockey for a traditional college hockey powerhouse. One advantage of drafting U.S. college players is the NHL franchise selecting the player has the duration of the player’s NCAA amateur eligibility to evaluate the player, rather than the two-year signing window for Canadian junior and European players. Central Scouting ranks Pacioretty 16th in its final North American rankings, while the ISS does not rate him among its top 30 overall. The Hockey News slots the forward 24th overall, while McKeen’s has him 22nd.

Like Backlund and Hjalmarsson, Oscar Möller hails from Sweden. Unlike his countrymen, the right winger opted to play junior hockey in North America rather than developing at home. Playing for the Chilliwack Bruins of the Western Hockey League, Möller adapted quickly to the North American style, recording 32 goals and 69 points in 68 games.

Although he lacks size, (5’11’’, 180 pounds) the right-handed shooting Möller “plays big” and brings some agitation to his game as well as offense. He played on the same line as Backlund at the Under-18 Worlds, but was overshadowed by both Backlund and Hjalmarsson. Central Scouting ranks him 20th among North Americans, and the ISS slots him 25th overall. The Hockey News rates him 19th overall, while McKeen’s puts him 27th.

Mississauga Ice Dogs right wing Stefan Legein is another player who lacks size (he stands less than 5’10’’), but plays with both grit and skill. The third-year player scored 43 goals this season and provided a strong complement to Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Chris Lawrence. Central Scouting is fairly high on Legein, seeding him 13th among North American players. Other projections are more modest. None among the ISS, The Hockey News or McKeen’s project him landing in first-round territory, although McKeen’s slots him early in the second round at 32nd overall.

Defensive Crop Features Stay-at-Home Players, Puck Movers

Among defensemen in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, there is little consensus about player rankings after Karl Alzner and Keaton Ellerby. Both players should be long gone before Philadelphia’s second first rounder comes up, but a group of four American defensemen could be appealing picks in that range of the draft: Jonathon Blum, Nick Petrecki, Kevin Shattenkirk and Tommy Cross.

Jonathon Blum, a right-handed shooting blueliner for the Vancouver Giants of the WHL, is considered one of the better puck-moving blueliners. He had a strong two-way season this year, showing surprising toughness for a player known as a skating defenseman who likes to join the rush.

The main concerns with Blum are his skinny frame (6’0’’, 160 pounds), which has not filled out at all despite several years of trying to add muscle. That could make him injury-prone and vulnerable to turnovers at the professional level. The pre-draft rankings for Blum are relatively consistent. Central Scouting ranks him 17th among North Americans, the ISS has him 20th overall.  The Hockey News slots him 17th overall, while McKeen’s rates him 19th overall.

Size is certainly no issue for hulking defenseman Nick Petrecki. The 6’3’’, 215-pound backliner for the USHL’s Omaha Lancers loves to throw his weight around and is surprisingly mobile for such a big player. 

Although he scored 11 goals this season, most scouts and coaches feel he has limited offensive potential at the professional level. A greater concern is Petrecki’s tendency to get out of position while looking for the big hit, but he may overcome that problem with additional experience. Central Scouting ranks Petrecki 21st among North American skaters, while the ISS has him 14th overall. The Hockey News slots him 15th overall and McKeen’s ranks him 20th overall.

Kevin Shattenkirk is more of a wildcard. While somewhat undersized (5’11’’, 195 pounds), he is a superior skating and puckhandling defenseman. He started to slip in the ratings after displaying inconsistent play for the U.S. National Development team, but rebounded in some rankings after an outstanding Under-18 WJC that saw him win best defenseman honors at the tournament.

Shattenkirk’s rankings fluctuate wildly. Central Scouting rates him 34th among North American skaters and the ISS puts him 26th overall. However, The Hockey News ranks him 18th overall and McKeen’s was so impressed with his Under-18 tournament that he ranked 7th overall and the second-best defenseman in the draft, ahead of Ellerby.

Tommy Cross, yet another American defenseman, is the polar opposite of Shattenkirk. The high-school player from Westminster, Connecticut, has imposing size (6’3’’) as well as mobility. Considered more of a stay-at-home defenseman than a puck rusher, he will play college hockey for Boston College in the fall of 2008. While he will require several years of development, Cross is considered a potential top-four defenseman at the NHL level. Central Scouting ranks him 12th among North American skaters, and the ISS has him 28th overall. Both The Hockey News and McKeen’s project him going early in the second round.

Other defensemen who could potentially be tabbed with Philly’s late first round pick include undersized, but offensive minded OHL defenseman Mark Katic, smallish puck mover Thomas Hickey, U.S. high school player Ryan McDonagh, huge WHL blueliner Alex Plante or U.S. Under-18s standout Ian Cole.

In the third round and beyond, the Flyers may have their sights set on North American defensemen such as Colby Cohen or Taylor Ellington or European standouts such as Sweden’s Nichlas Torp and Jens Hellgren or Finland’s Harri Ilvonen.
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