Last year, for the first time in Flyers' franchise history, the team did not select even one Canadian-born player among the team's eight selections in the NHL Entry Draft. Five were from the United States and three were from Sweden.
Among the five Americans, three had ties to the U.S, National Team Development Program (USNTDP): first-round selections Joel Farabee and Jay O'Brien (on a shorter-term basis) as well as sixth-round pick Gavin Hain all saw time with the national Under-18 squad.
While last year's Draft was an aberration in terms of the absence of any Canadian-born prospects being selected by Philadelphia, it it very plausible that American players in general, and USNTDP products in particular, could figure prominently among the Flyers' picks.
"The National Team program does a great job, year after year, in developing players. This year, there's a very good group of players from the program, both in quality and quantity," said Brent Flair, the Flyers assistant general manager.
"It's a really interesting group from the National Team because there's a lot of different types of players among them -- playmakers, goal-scorers, defensemen, big guys with skill, two-way players, a small guy who is a top-end goal scorer, a good goalie prospect. You need all of those types of players on a team to be successful. It's not always an apples-to-apples comparison. But when you're ranking and picking for the Draft, you have to take everything in account and project who will be the best player if he's available when you pick."
The Flyers already know that USNTDP center Jack Hughes won't be available when they select 11th overall. He is a virtual lock to be selected by the New Jersey Devils with the first overall pick, with dynamic Finnish forward Kaapo Kakko going second to the New York Rangers. Thereafter, from the third through the 10th pick, there are many different ways the selections could shake out.
Overall, it's possible that there could be as many as many as five USNTDP players chosen among the top 10, six or seven within the top 20, and possibly 10 to 12 whose names are called within the first two rounds of the Draft. Beyond Hughes' probable first overall selections, here are thumbnails of the top USNTDP prospects for this year's Draft.
Alex Turcotte (C): Offensively dynamic, exceptionally speedy and hard-working, Turcotte could go as early as third overall and, at worst, is still a likely selection within the top 10. His skill set is sometimes compared to that of Detroit Red Wings standout Dylan Larkin (himself a USNTDP alum).
Trevor Zegras (C): The USNTDP was extraordinarily deep and talented through the middle, and some NHL scouts rank Zegras slightly higher than Turcotte, depending on their organization's needs and preferences. Zegras is an outstanding playmaker (Turcotte is a little better as a finisher, Zegras the superior setup man), a plus-skater both in a straight line and moving east-west and one of the top stickhandlers in this year's Draft class. As with Turcotte, Zegras is considered a strong contender to be selected within the Top 10.
Cole Caufield (RW): The comparisons to Johhny Gaudreau and Alex DeBrincat are inevitable with the pint-sized goal-scoring dynamo, although Caufield's skating is higher rated than DeBrincat's in his Draft year. If DeBrincat stood even 5-foot-10, he'd be a slam-dunk to be selected in the top five of his Draft class. But he doesn't. He stands less than 5-foot-8 and is vying to become the smallest player ever to be chosen in the top 10 -- or even the top 15 -- of his Draft year. It's one thing for teams and their scouts to talk the talk about how they aren't scared off by Caufield's size and quite another to leave other desirable and "safer" names on the board to pick him. Ultimately, it will come down to how high the team that chooses Caufield believes will play in their lineup. If there is a consensus belief he'll be an NHL first-line player who will score 30 or more goals on an annual basis. If there's any uncertainty, they'll look elsewhere.
Matthew Boldy (LW): Boldy is a big-framed winger who also has above-average puckhandling skills, a heavy shot and a surprisingly deft passing touch and ice vision. These are not a common combination of traits for players who generically get described in the "power forward" category. Some improved consistency and added first-stride explosiveness probably would have made him a slam-dunk pick for the top five to 10 picks, and he still may go in that range. If not, he'd be an intriguing option for the Flyers at 11th overall.
John Beecher (C): Widely considered either a late first-round option or second-round candidate, Beecher is more of a project than some of his USNTDP counterparts. His offensive skill upside is a divisive question: Does he project as a middle six forward or an NHL fourth-liner? What no one questions that 6-foot-3, 210-plus pound forwards who are also plus skaters and the floor to at least play a checking role are not readily available.
Judd Caulfield (RW): A possible second-round or third-round option in some projections, Caulfield periodically played within the upper end of the Under-18 team's lineup during the season but was a depth option at the Under-18 World Championships. The question with Caulfield is whether he would still project as a top-nine forward at the NHL level if he does not hit the ceiling of his potential as he moves up the ladder.
Cam York (D): York could be the second or third defenseman to come off the Draft board in the first round this year and is almost a lock to be within the top four or five blueliners picked. He isn't big (5-foot-11, 172 pounds) but fits the puck-moving mold that has been highly valued in recent years. York can jump into the play as a trailer in the offensive end, is a slick passer and has point-producing potential even at higher levels of the game. At the defensive end, he is reliable positionally and there's a good foundation with which to work in terms of his gaps and poise under forechecking pressure although development will be needed in his overall game before he's deemed NHL ready.
Alex Vlasic (D): The Boston University-bound blueliner is an intriguing bundle of raw materials: huge frame (nearly 6-foot-6) and surprisingly mobile. Such players often go in the second round, if not in the first. Vlasic is still searching for his identity as a blueliner in terms of being more of a strictly defensive-defenseman or a big-framed hybrid type in the mold of former Flyers defenseman Braydon Coburn (although Coburn is a superior skater among players of any size). Vlasic is not especially physical or aggressive, at least not on a consistent basis, but larger-framed defensemen sometimes take longer to figure out what works for them.
Henry Thrun (D): Solid all-around skills on a 6-foot-2 frame, intelligence and strong character are the main ingredients that have the Harvard University bound projected in some rankings as a candidate for selection within the top 50 picks of the 2019 Draft. Thrun does not stand out above the crown in any one particular area (although, at U17 level, he led the team in points-per-game among the defense corps) -- and could stand improvement in his skating and strength -- but has shown adaptability to different roles and has a good head on his shoulders; he's defensively aware on the ice, book smart off the ice, and possesses a strong work ethic. It is not uncommon for players such as Thrun to eventually develop into pros, although he's not a "swing for the fences" type of Draft candidate.
Spencer Knight (G): Goaltender development is notoriously hard to predict -- the hardest of any position of the ice to project out three to five years, and the position that often requires the lengthiest pre-NHL gestation period after the Draft.
As a result, NHL teams have largely shied away from taking goalies in the first round over the last decade. When there are exceptions, the prospect is considered almost a slam-dunk to become a bonafide NHL starting goaltender within a few years. Knight fits this description, according to many scouts, and he could even be selected within the first dozen to 15 picks of the Draft. If not, he's still a near lock to go in the first round, especially because some teams own more than one first rounder and may be more inclined to pick the goalie after selecting a position player a little earlier.