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MELTZER: A Flahr for scouting

Examining the combine and what's available at this year's draft according to the new assistant GM

by Bill Meltzer @billmeltzer

Brent Flahr faced a daunting task when he was named the Flyers assistant general manager on Dec. 12, 2018. With the 2018-19 season underway for two-plus months by that point, he not only had to get up to speed quickly in working with the Flyers amateur and pro scouts, he also had a tough act to follow in highly respected former assistant general manager Chris "Sarge" Pryor. 

"It could have been an awkward situation," Flahr admitted. "But it actually went pretty smoothly. I knew a lot of the Flyers scouts for many years of being out in the field scouting. They are all really bright hockey people, hard-working pros,who are dedicated to the organization and focused on the job we have to do. That helped a lot."

The hockey world is a small one and the scouting circles are even smaller. Flahr noted, for example, that he already knew and respected Mark Greig, Dennis Patterson, Rick Pracey and Nick Pryor before coming to work for the Flyers. Additionally, Flahr and Flyers QMJHL-based scout Todd Hearty previously worked together in the scouting departments of the Florida Panthers and Anaheim Ducks. Hearty's cousin, former Buffalo Sabres general manager Tim Murray, is one of Flahr's closest friends. 

Flahr, of course, was very familiar with working with Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher. He had been Fletcher's assistant GM with the Minnesota Wild from 2009 until the end of Fletcher's tenure with the Wild in the spring of 2018. Flahr remained with Minnesota as the senior vice president of hockey operations under new general manager Paul Fenton until Fletcher brought him over to Philadelphia shortly after the Flyers hired Fletcher to succeed Ron Hextall as GM.

A second factor in why Flahr was able to hit the ground running in Philadelphia is that he wasn't starting from scratch in preparing for the 2019 NHL Draft. He'd already started the process.

"I had already done some scouting this season [for the Wild] before I came to the Flyers. So I had some knowledge base on how the season was progressing early on for candidates for this year's Draft," Fletcher said. 

Fletcher, who said that his philosophies are somewhat similar to Pryor's, did not have to reinvent the wheel with the Flyers' scouting operations because there was already a good system in place. That did not mean he didn't make certain tweaks here and there. Fundamentally, however, Flahr was able to roll up his sleeves and get to work quickly with the scouts on the massive task of Draft preparation, which is typically close to a full-year process that starts with preseason international tournaments. 

According to Flahr, the Flyers final internal meetings were done and their rankings for the Draft were completed ahead of attending the NHL Draft Combine in Buffalo. 

"We're where we need to be at this point. I don't believe in changing rankings based on a Combine interview with a player, but it can fill in a few gaps or maybe address a red flag such an injury," Flahr said.

The 2018 NHL Draft was something of an oddity in Flyers history. The team took only one CHL player -- Western Hockey League defenseman Wyatte Wylie in the 5th round -- and none who hail from Canada. It was not by design so much as circumstance in a relatively fallow year overall for CHL draft-eligible players.The odds of a repeat this year are fairly low.

"In terms of the CHL this year, I think we can go league by league. Last year was one of the shallower years for the Western League, but it's better this year. The OHL has had better years than this year in terms of depth, but there are a few players we like. The Quebec League doesn't have a lot of the top-end guys this year -- although, that said, there might be a couple who go in the first round -- but there are some others in the middle range right now who can develop," Flahr said.

Near the top end of this year's draft pool is an exceptionally deep and skilled batch of American players from the US National Team Development Program. The program has become a veritable factory of Draft prospects (last year, the Flyers selected USNTDP products Joel Farabee and Gavin Hain, while Jay O'Brien also spent some time in the program). Flahr noted that there could be a half-dozen USNTDP players who are selected in the first round of this year's Draft, with others to come in later rounds. 

"Very different styles of players from one another but, to be successful in today's game, you need different elements of what all of them bring," Flahr said in collectively assessing the talents that the top USNTDP prospects, which includes the likes of projected first overall pick Jack Hughes, as well as forwards Cole Caufield, Alex Turcotte, Matthew Boldy and Trevor Zegras. 

Philosophically, Flahr is a believer to taking the best available player in the first round or two regardless of position. Later on in the draft, he'll focus a little more in terms of overall system needs and positional depth unless someone internally ranked higher unexpectedly falls to a range where his ceiling takes precedence over systemic considerations.

There are some exceptions to the BPA philosophy. If two players are ranked very closely in terms of their projected impact at their respective positions, then positional/system needs might tip the scales one way or the other. There is also a somewhat different consideration as pertains to goaltenders versus position players.

"We have Carter Hart, of course, and some goaltending prospects we like in our system. There's a good young goaltender who could go in the first round this year," Flahr said, likely referring to USNTDP product Spencer Knight. "I don't think we'll likely go in that direction with where we're picking [11th overall] but this is a year where the best available player at some point in the first round might be the goalie."

Flahr, who with turn 45 on June 25, has been scouting professionally for 23 years. Shortly after graduating Princeton, where the former defenseman captained the Tigers hockey team in his senior year, he went to work in the NHL as a scout for Florida. Subsequently, he scouted for Anaheim and the Ottawa Senators (where he became the director of hockey operations) before joining Fletcher in Minnesota and Philadelphia as assistant general manager. 

According to Flahr, there have been some major changes over the years in how teams prepare for the Draft. Apart from the growth of the Combine, scouts nowadays cast a much wider net in terms of the player pool they consider. 

For example, when Flahr first got into scouting, the NHL was in the heyday of a "bigger is better" era of scouting. More recently, smaller-framed defensemen and forwards have seen doors opened for them if they are sufficiently skilled and competitive. 

"What happened is that enough smaller players came along and proved the doubters wrong that they could compete in the NHL at their size. So, over time, that's not as much of a concern as it used to be," said Flahr.

A second factor: Apart from the exponential growth of hockey programs in the United States there have also been huge strides taken in "secondary" European hockey nations. The result has been that scouting operations truly have to have be global and virtually year-round in order to come to the NHL Draft prepared to make well-considered selections not only in the first round but throughout the Draft.

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