Even if Ron Hextall didn’t draft any more distant relatives of his on Saturday, a former sixth-round draft choice turned NHL general manager essentially is a blood brother of every longshot.
“You look at the history of the draft, the kids who don’t play are the ones not hungry to play,” said the Flyers general manager at the end of the draft on Saturday. “That doesn’t always [show] in physical play, but in the will to win.
“This is one of my things that I’m banging on the table. ‘Guys, we have to hit in the late rounds. We have some recent [longer shots] who have a good chance, but we gotta continue.
“The gap between the best team in the league and the worst team is not very big. What I have stressed to our scouts is that the will to win is huge and the importance of (evaluating that by) turning over every stone.”
In 1982, Jerry Melnyk, the Flyers’ Western Scout lifted up a rock that was as hard as the head of a wild Brandon Wheat King goaltender. “What I liked about Ron Hextall was what everyone else didn’t,” recalled the late Melnyk while the rookie goaltender was taking the Flyers to within one game of the 1987 Stanley Cup. “They thought he was crazy but, to me, this was a kid who didn’t lose easy.”
That’s the way the Flyers looked on Saturday at their seventh pick, Swedish defenseman Jesper Pettersson, who had gone undrafted in 2012 and 2013.
“At the world (juniors) I saw a Swedish kid paying well and hitting hard, really feisty, and I said to one of our guys, ‘He’s a pretty good player,’ recalled Hextall. “He said, ‘Yeah we have been saying that for three years and through two drafts.’
“[Pettersson] is gritty, hard nosed, honest. He’s 5-9, but has a wide body and we like him. We are intrigued by all our picks or we wouldn’t have picked them.”
Every choice had a different story. After a good showing in the under-17 tournament a year ago, fifth rounder Oskar Lindblom was projected to go as high as the second round. The Flyers are taking a shot that a bad year was just a bad year. Sixth round choice Radel Fazleev, a Calgary Hitmen teammate of first round choice Travis Sanheim, was hurt past of last season and didn’t receive quite the exposure to get him drafted higher.
Right wing Nicolas Aube-Kubel, the second round choice, is quick, competitive and, the Flyers believe, a year away from blossoming offensive. No. 3 defenseman Mark Friedman is a little undersized but has mobility and some skill.
If two of these guys ever play for the Flyers, then they will have proven to have had an exceptional 2014 draft. And if they did, it was because somebody at the drafting table swung from the heels, as Melnyk did in 1969 about a diabetic named Bobby Clarke after every team in the league passed him over at least once.
Two years ago, a part-time scout named John Riley, who now works for the Flyers in player development, loved Shayne Gostisbehere, never mind his Kimmo Timonen size. Gostisbehere, who led Union College to the NCAA title, is likely to get the Flyers off a late-round schneid that practically goes back to 2001, when they took Patrick Sharp in the third round.
Leading into Saturday, all the organization had to show on its roster for the last 86 picks from the second round on was Zac Rinaldo, a No. 6 in 2008. The only other one of the 86 even in the NHL is Boston’s Dennis Seidenberg, whom the Flyers selected in a fifth round.
Of course, from 2002 until 2011, the Flyers traded away all but three second-rounders. The Flyers also signed the undrafted Matt Read and Michael Raffl, so they haven’t gone stone cold in turning over these stones, just perhaps need to be reminded by the new GM as to what exactly they are looking for under there.
“We kind of rely on individual [scouts] in the late rounds,” said Director of Scouting Chris Pryor. “We want our scouts to step up and be exited about somebody.
“You don’t get the coverage on guys that you do in earlier rounds. Maybe it’s one guy you can grab onto, maybe because of speed or size or competitiveness.
“Our guys work hard so we try to listen to them and run with it. Of course, to get young players, you need to have picks. The more you have, the better chance of hitting. I think we’re going to start accumulating picks. That’s what Paul has started and Hexy has the same philosophy.”
As both the team president and the general manager once were sixth rounders, at heart, they prioritize heart.