Flyers Set Sights At Top of 2007 NHL Entry Draft Class
/ Philadelphia Flyers
by Bill Meltzer
Picking near the top of the NHL Entry Draft is unfamiliar turf for the Philadelphia Flyers. This year, the Flyers will have the second pick of the draft as determined by the draft lottery held on Tuesday, April 10.
The 2007 draft class may not have a clear cut first overall pick like Sidney Crosby (2005) or Alexander Ovechkin (2004), but it boasts a small cadre of players with star to superstar potential in the NHL. The main difference between the top of the 2007 class and the cream of other recent classes is that each of the top-rated prospects will likely require several years until he's ready to make an NHL impact.
Coupled with the talented core of young players that the Flyers have already assembled, the Flyers' first pick figures to become part of an excellent nucleus. The Flyers also own the Nashville Predators' first-round pick late in the first round. Here's a look at the six top-ranked players in Central Scouting's Midterm Rankings and a review of their progress in recent months (in alphabetical order).
Alexei Cherepanov (Right Wing, Avangard Omsk - Russian Super League, 5-11, 170 lbs, born 1/15/1989)
Nicknamed the "Siberian Express," Cherepanov has had an historic season in the Russian Super League. During the regular season, he scored 18 goals to set a new rookie goal-scoring record previously held by Pavel Bure. Cherepanov also added 11 assists for 29 points. By way of comparison, Ovechkin scored eight goals and 15 points in 40 RSL games as a 17-year-old rookie, while Evgeny Malkin tallied three goals and 12 points in 33 games.
"That's pretty scary when you think about it," said Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren.
Central Scouting ranked Cherepanov as the top European player in the mid-term rankings and International Scouting Service recently ranked him the top draft prospect overall. Most projections have him going in the top four, and possibly first overall. Cherepanov had an excellent World Junior Championships for silver-medallist Russia, winning IIHF Tournament Directorate honors for Best Forward and a selection to the media's tournament All-Star Team.
Praise for Cherepanov isn't universal. Scouts say that he lacks the complete games and the physical makeup of Ovechkin or Malkin. Team Canada held him quiet in the WJC Gold Medal game and Cherepanov disappointed at the Five Nations Tournament in the Czech Republic. In Russia, he has the benefit of playing on a line with Anton Kuryanov, one of the top playmakers in the league.
Nevertheless, Cherepanov's soft hands and ability to materialize around the net have drawn comparisons to NHL players ranging from Ray Whitney to Pavel Datsyuk.
Coming into this season, Esposito was the most highly touted player in the 2007 draft class. Whispers of scouts' disenchantment started in November, and grew louder when Esposito was one of the first cuts from Team Canada's World Junior Championships preliminary roster, after being one of the final cuts as a 16-year-old.
Nevertheless, the highly skilled center held onto his number one ranking in Central Scouting's Mid-Term rankings. Since then, he has dropped on most lists and recently fell out of McKeen's top 10. The drop came as a result of inconsistent Quebec League play and a sub par performance at the CHL Top Prospects game (it turned out that he was battling the flu). His Quebec League production has gone backwards this year. As a 16-year-old, he posted 39 goals and 98 points in 57 games, but fell in 2006-07 to 27 goals and 79 points in 60 games.
Skill-wise, Esposito remains top-notch prospect. A former figure skater, he is silky smooth on his skates with an explosive stride. He sees the ice as well as anyone in the draft, handles the puck with ease and is dangerous one-on-one.
On the flip side, there are question marks about his willingness to pay the price in traffic and reports of selfishness with the puck and overstaying his shifts. Believers in his ability compare him to Vincent Lecavalier. Detractors invoke the name of Alexandre Daigle.
"In terms of physical ability, Esposito has all the tools we look for," says one Eastern Conference NHL scout. "In terms of drafting him, it depends on your tolerance for risk. He's a gamble, but he could make you look really smart or foolish."
Sam Gagner (Center, London Knights - OHL, 5-10, 182 lbs, born 8/10/1989)
The son of former NHLer Dave Gagner, London Knights' center Sam Gagner is considered one of the safest picks in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. Ranked third in Central Scouting's North American mid-term rankings, most draft projections have him in top five to seven picks. He missed some OHL time due to what was initially thought to be a concussion, but he's had an excellent regular season with 35 goals and 118 points in 53 games.
When the 17-year-old Gagner earned a spot on Team Canada's roster for the World Junior Championships, there was even talk of him going in the top three of the NHL draft. He dropped slightly after struggling in the 19-year-old dominated WJC, while London teammate Patrick Kane and Cherepanov excelled.
Although he's probably two to three seasons from being NHL ready, many scouts project Gagner as a solid NHL second-line center with first-line potential.
Scouts praise Gagner for his complete game and his uncommon maturity for such a young player. Hockey scout and coach Travis Howe, who coached Gagner in his East Coast/West Coast Selects Program, is a big believer in Gagner's potential as is Team Canada WJC Head Coach Craig Hartsburg, a former Flyers' assistant coach.
"The highest compliment I can pay a player is to say that he makes the players around him better, and Sam already does that. He's a competitor and a winner. Being selected for the WJC over players like (John) Tavares and Esposito says a lot about Sam and I'm sure he's ready for the next challenge," says Howe.
Adds Hartsburg, "Sam is a player who has a lot of character as well as skill. He's very coachable and he has an excellent work ethic."
Patrick Kane (Right Wing, London Knights - OHL, 5-10, 160 lbs, born 11/19/1988)
A native of Buffalo, New York, Kane was ranked fourth among North American prospects in Central Scouting's Mid-Term Rankings. But he has the potential to be the first selection overall. He's coming off an outstanding World Junior Championship performance for bronze-medalist Team USA and has enjoyed a consistently dominating junior season for the London Knights, for whom he racked up 57 goals and 134 points in 56 regular season games this season.
Kane has top notch speed and puckhandling skills and a deadly finishing touch around the net. Although he's small and lacks strength, he has shown a willingness to venture into traffic and take a hit to make a play. Some scouts have compared him to Martin St. Louis of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"He's a difference maker. Patrick can do everything at top speed– score, set up plays and beat defensemen one-on-one to the outside. He can also make quick cuts and is very elusive. Just a very gifted player," said Kane's Team USA Coach Ron Rolston during the World Junior Championships.
Kyle Turris (Center, Burnaby Express - BCHL, 6-1, 170 lbs, born 8/11/1989)
If Kyle Turris played major junior hockey this season instead of Tier II, there is a good chance that he would have been the consensus top overall pick in North America. As it was, Turris was slotted fifth in the mid-term Central Scouting ratings, but he now appears likely to go in the top three picks, perhaps even first overall. Turris had an eye-opening performance at the Junior A Challenge, including a spectacular four-goal game against Russia. Depending on how far Burnaby goes in the BCHL playoffs, Turris may suit up for Canada at the Under-18 World Junior Championships in Finland.
Turris's raw skills are routinely compared to BCHL alumni Scott Gomez and Paul Kariya. His Burnaby coach, Rick Lanz, says the comparisons are justified.
"Pound for pound, the talent level of Kyle is something that comes along only once in awhile. …I would definitely group him in with Kariya and Gomez. He's got that extra ability to see the game, dish pucks under duress. There is zero panic in his game," Lanz told McKeen's.
Turris is widely hailed as a coachable player with a great attitude on and off the ice. He has committed to play NCAA hockey next fall for the University of Wisconsin.
James vanRiemsdyk (Left Wing, USA Hockey Under-18s, 6-3, 205 lbs, born 5/4/1989)
A native of Middletown, New Jersey, vanRiemsdyk presents an intriguing combination of size and skill. Despite possessing a power forward's frame, the winger is an above-average skater with surprising finesse. Central Scouting ranked him second among North Americans in its mid-term rankings and he is a top-10 prospect in most draft projections. He has committed to play NCAA college hockey at the University of New Hampshire.
Most NHL scouts consider vanRiemsdyk a raw player who has yet to fully tap into his offensive potential. Even so, he's made significant progress since he first garnered attention three years ago at the U.S. Select Hockey Festival.
He suited up for Team USA at the 2007 World Junior Championships in Sweden and later turned in an excellent performance at the Five Nations Tournament in the Czech Republic. He will likely need at least two college seasons before he's ready for pro hockey. A few scouts have likened him to a young Mike Knuble, with better top-end speed, but less of a natural finishing touch.
"James brings a lot to the table," said Rolston. "I'd say his biggest strengths are his size, speed and overall skill level. He's fast and he shoots the puck hard. The areas that need to improve are his strength and his conditioning. He also needs to work on his play away from the puck."