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Mining Gold: The Top 5 Drafts in Flyers History

by Bill Meltzer / Philadelphia Flyers
The NHL Entry Draft is an annual rite of speculation, debate and optimism for hockey fans. On draft day, it seems, every high-round selection is a potential NHL star, every mid-round pick has a chance to become a starter and every low-end pick is a possible sleeper. It’s not until several years have gone by that teams can gauge the real measure of a draft crop’s impact on the club and the league.

While every fan (and general manager) hopes that the club lands a future star in the NHL draft, the main goal is to establish – or replenish – depth in the organization. Perennial Stanley Cup contenders are built on deep rosters, not on one or two stars.

With that in mind, here are the five top drafts in Philadelphia Flyers history. These five draft classes produced the greatest depth of talent that had an impact on the team, and often included future stars at the head of the class.

The Class of 1969 (Clarke, Schultz, Saleski)

No draft was more crucial to the Flyers’ two Stanley Cup victories and the Broad Street Bullies image than the 1969 draft. Although the Flyers’ first-round pick, right winger Bob Currier, never played a game in the NHL,  The club struck gold in the second round with the selection of Flin Flon Bombers center Bobby Clarke.
Bobby Clarke

Clarke was a junior hockey standout for Flin Flon coming off a season in which he racked up 137 points (51 goals, 86 assists) in 58 games. Combined with his now-legendary work ethic and leadership, Clarke would have been one of the top players chosen in the 1969 NHL draft, but his diabetic condition led every team in the NHL to pass him over in the first round. Finally, the Flyers selected him with their second pick, 17th overall.

It never occurred to Clarke, an unworldly teenager, that his diabetes would be a focal point at the draft. But Pat Ginnell, Clarke’s coach in Flin Flon, knew differently. Many of the questions NHL scouts asked him about Clarke centered on the limitations of his medical condition, not on the player’s skating, passing or shooting ability. He wanted to make sure Clarke got a fair shot at the NHL before he was labeled damaged goods.

At Ginnell’s insistence, Clarke visited the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, to undergo a battery of tests. Doctors agreed there was no reason Clarke couldn’t play pro hockey if he took care of himself. The physicians put their conclusions in writing. Even so, Clarke fell out of the first round of the draft, allowing the Flyers to snap up their future team leader with their second pick.

Thirty-eight years, two Stanley Cups, three Hart Trophies, a Selke Trophy and a Hockey Hall of Fame induction later, Clarke remains the single most important draft selection the Flyers have ever made.  Meanwhile, the Flyers started to assemble the “Broad Street Bullies” crew of tough role players with their fifth and sixth-round selections.

In the fifth round, 52nd overall, the Flyers drafted Swift Current Broncos left wing Dave Schultz. In junior hockey, Schultz fancied himself more of a goal scorer than a tough guy. But the man who would eventually become known as “The Hammer” and set the NHL single-season penalty minute record started to warm to the enforcer role in his draft year. Although he lacked top end speed, Schultz’s muscle and fisticuffs made him a valuable part of the Flyers’ championship mix.

Schultz became the preeminent Broad Street Bully during his four seasons with the Flyers. As beloved at the Spectrum as he was despised in every other building, Schultz even managed to score 20 goals during the 1973-74 season. During the run to Flyers’ first Stanley Cup, he scored a playoff series-winning overtime goal against the Atlanta Flames and assisted on Clarke’s famous overtime goal in the second game of the Stanley Cup Finals against Boston.

In the sixth round, 64th overall, the Flyers grabbed tall, lanky right winger Don Saleski of the Regina Pats. Although Saleski was sometimes labeled an enforcer during the Broad Street Bullies era, he was really more of a checking winger who became a penalty killing standout as his career progressed.

Only once in his eight-season NHL career did Saleski top 150 penalty minutes (1972-73). But he scored 20 or more goals for the Flyers in three straight seasons and scored six goals during the team’s run to the 1976 Stanley Cup Finals.  Known as a clutch goal scorer, 20 of Saleski’s 118 regular-season goals with the Flyers were game winners and he tallied 11 shorthanded goals.

The Class of 1972 (Barber, Bladon, Watson, MacAdam)

Three years after drafting Clarke, Schultz and Saleski, the Flyers struck pay dirt with a second group of selections. The club’s 1972 draft produced a second Hockey Hall of Famer, a perennial all-star defenseman, an underrated offensive defenseman and a prospect who became a key trading asset in landing a future all-star forward.

Jimmy Watson
Considered by many to be the best all-around left wing of his generation, Bill Barber primarily played center during his junior career with the Kitchener Rangers. With Kitchener, he centered a high scoring line with left winger Jerry Byers and right wing Al Blanchard. Barber scored 127 goals and added 171 assists over his three seasons with Kitchener.

Debate raged among OHA devotees as to which team had the best line in the league: the Rangers’ Three B’s (Byers-Barber-Blanchard) or the Toronto Marlboros’ trio of Steve Shutt, Billy Harris and Dave Gardner. All six forwards from the rival Kitchener and Toronto lines were chosen in the first round of the 1972 NHL Entry Draft.

Harris was taken first overall by the Islanders. Shutt went fourth to Montreal. Barber’s name was called by the Flyers at, appropriately, number seven. Gardner came up eighth overall with the Canadiens’ second pick of the first round. The New York Rangers took the Kitchener Rangers’ Blanchard 10th and, finally, Byers was selected 12th overall by the Minnesota North Stars. The players enjoyed varying degrees of professional success, but the cream of the crop was clearly Barber and Shutt.

Converted to left wing shortly after joining the Flyers, Barber provided the perfect complement to Clarke. A two-way force that could also play the point on the power play, Barber was a perennial 30-to-40 goal scorer and a crucial component of the Flyers’ two Stanley Cup teams. Inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1990, Barber later went on to a successful scouting and coaching career in the Flyers and Tampa Bay Lightning organizations.

In the second round of the draft, 23rd overall, the Flyers selected defenseman Tom Bladon from the Edmonton Oil Kings. An offensive-minded blueliner with a deft shooting and passing touch, Bladon bypassed the minor leagues and joined the Flyers for the 1972-73 season.

Nicknamed “Sparky” (because of his quiet demeanor), Bladon was an under-appreciated part of the Flyers’ success in the 1970s. Routinely cracking double-digit goals and between 35 to 53 points per season, Bladon set a single-game point record for a defenseman when he scored four goals and added four assists in a December 11, 1977 game against the Cleveland Barons.

Bladon sometimes heard boos because he was not a physical defenseman and had occasional problems with turnovers. Nevertheless, he was a +186 for his six-year Flyers career and had back-to-back seasons in which he topped +40 for the season.

Often paired with Bladon on the Flyers, third round selection (39th overall) Jimmy Watson became the backbone of the Philadelphia defense in the 1970s and early 1980s. Despite being a modest point-getter, he was chosen for five NHL All-Star games and the 1976 Canada Cup team. 

The younger brother of original Flyer Joe Watson, Jimmy was considered a solid late first-round NHL draft candidate while playing for the Calgary Centennials. For unknown reasons, he slipped all the way to the third round. The Flyers snapped him up and soon learned they had found one of the biggest steals of the draft. 

The younger Watson stepped into the NHL lineup quickly and, by the time a serious back injury forced him to retire at age 30, Watson racked up a career +295 defensive rating, good for fifth in franchise history. Among Flyers defensemen, only Mark Howe (+349) ranks higher.
In the fourth round, 55th overall, the Flyers selected high-scoring Charlottetown and University of Prince Edward Island center Al MacAdam.  Considered one of the Flyers top minor-league scoring prospects and versatile enough to play either center or wing, MacAdam earned a five-game call-up to the big club in 1973-74 and also dressed in one playoff game. After the season, the Flyers traded him to the Oakland Seals as part of a deal for right winger Reggie Leach.

Leach, who was Clarke’s linemate on the Flin Flon Bombers, teamed up with Clarke and Barber to form the LCB line, the most prolific scoring line in Flyers history over a multi-season period. MacAdam, meanwhile, went on to a long and productive NHL career of his own, topped off by a 42-goal, 93-point season for the Minnesota North Stars in 1979-80.

The Class of 1979 (Propp, Wesley, Lindbergh, Carson, Eriksson, Kerr)

The 1979 NHL Entry Draft is generally considered the deepest class in NHL history, highlighted by the likes of Hall of Famers Ray Bourque, Mike Gartner, Mark Messier (who was a third-round pick), and Michel Goulet.  For the first time since 1974, the NHL allowed the drafting of underage players. This draft also included underage players from the WHA, which had merged with the NHL in the spring of 1979. The Flyers cashed in on the talent bonanza, putting in place several key components of their 1980s success.
Pelle Lindbergh

With the 14th overall pick of the draft, the Flyers selected Brandon Wheat Kings scoring machine Brian Propp. In the second round, 35th overall, the Flyers took AIK Solna goaltender Pelle Lindbergh from Sweden.   Later that year, they signed an undrafted rookie free agent named Tim Kerr who slid through the cracks of the ’79 draft.

For arguments’ sake, we’ll consider Kerr’s acquisition as an extension of the 1979 draft.

Propp and Kerr turned out to be two the most prolific offensive players in team history. The speedy, crafty Propp and the powerful Kerr were dissimilar in style, but achieved similar levels of dominance on the ice. Lindbergh, meanwhile, went on to become the first European to win the Vezina Trophy as the best goaltender in the league.

Along with Mark Howe, Dave Poulin, Brad McCrimmon (who was originally chosen by the Boston Bruins one pick after Propp in the ’79 draft), Ilkka Sinisalo (like Kerr, an undrafted free agent) and the young Rick Tocchet, these players were the backbone of a team that reached the 1985 Stanley Cup Finals.

The 1979 draft class also produced two other players who played roles in the Flyers’ teams of the 1980s. The Flyers took checking winger Lindsay Carson in the third round (56th overall) and Swedish defenseman Thomas Eriksson in the fifth round (98th overall).

For good measure, Philly tabbed yet another future NHLer, defenseman Blake Wesley, with the first pick of the second round, originally acquired from the Colorado Rockies in exchange for Don Saleski. Wesley played briefly for the Flyers and was subsequently traded to the Hartford Whalers, along with aging Cup-era star Rick MacLeish, for a package of players and draft picks that included the 1982 first round pick used to select future team captain Ron Sutter.

The Class of 1983 (Zezel, Smith, Tocchet, Eklund)

It is very difficult to decide whether the Flyers had a “better” draft year in 1982 or 1983, because the two drafts combined to bring a wealth of talent to the Flyers throughout the 1980s.

The 1982 class featured Ron Sutter, his twin brother Rich (drafted by the Penguins 10th overall but soon acquired by the Flyers in trade), a fiery goaltender by the name of Ron Hextall, veteran Czechoslovakian defenseman Miroslav “Cookie” Dvorak, feared enforcer Dave Brown, flash-in-the-pan scoring sensation Todd Bergen and Swedish left winger Magnus Roupé.

Peter Zezel
The next year brought fewer players who made it to the NHL, but included a pair of impact players, one of the biggest fan favorites of the decade and a useful role player. What’s more, the Flyers did so without the benefit of a first-round pick that year.

In the second round of the 1983 draft, 41st overall, the Flyers chose Toronto Marlies center Peter Zezel. A high-scoring player (he racked up 35 goals in his draft year and 133 points the following year), Zezel was considered a sub par skater. But he quickly found a role on the Flyers and became a productive forward for four-plus seasons, topped off with a 33-goal, 72-point campaign in 1986-87 when the Flyers returned to the Finals, pushing the Edmonton Oilers to seven games.

With his matinee idol looks, Zezel was one of the most popular Flyers in team history among female fans. More importantly, he earned respect from the fan base at large for his skills on the ice, which enabled him to play in 873 NHL games. After being traded by the Flyers to St. Louis in 1988, he played for the Blues, Washington Capitals, Toronto Maple Leafs, Dallas Stars, New Jersey Devils and Vancouver Canucks.

Three picks after Zezel, the Flyers’ turn came up again. They chose forward Derrick Smith from the Peterborough Petes. Although he was never a big scorer at the NHL level, Smith was a solid foot-soldier for seven seasons with the team.

In the sixth round, 125th overall, the Flyers unearthed a diamond in the rough in Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds right wing Rick Tocchet. The rugged Tocchet started out primarily as a checker and enforcer, but through sheer hard work, became a high-scoring power forward. Tocchet started to come into his own during the 1987 playoffs, when he recorded 11 goals and 21 points in 26 games.

Thereafter, Tocchet became a threat to beat opponents with his goal-scoring prowess as well as his fighting ability. After topping 40 goals twice for the Flyers and serving a stint as team captain, Tocchet was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a deal that brought the Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh and rising young superstar Mark Recchi to the Flyers. Tocchet returned to Philly at the 1999-2000 trade deadline and finished his playing career with the Flyers.

In the eighth round, 161st overall, the Flyers took AIK Solna center Pelle Eklund. A prolific playmaker with world-class speed, Eklund proved to be arguably the third-best pure setup man in Flyers history, after only Bobby Clarke and Peter Forsberg.

Eklund’s crowning achievement was his dominant performance in the 1987 Stanley Cup
Playoffs, especially in the semifinals against the Montreal Canadiens. In addition to his stellar work on the power play, Eklund proved to be a fine penalty killer, too. He won the Bobby Clarke Trophy as Flyers’ MVP in 1990-91 and topped the 50-assist mark three times despite frequent injuries.

The Class of 1990 (Ricci, Simon, Renberg, Therien, Kordic, Soderstrom)

The Flyers’ 1990 and 1991 drafts provided the crux of the package the team used to acquire the rights to 1994-95 Hart Trophy winner Eric Lindros and build a club that reached the 1997 Stanley Cup Finals. The nod here goes to the 1990 crop over the 1991 crop because of the sheer number of 1990 draftees who made it to the NHL, and the fact that 1991 first rounder Peter Forsberg did not join the Flyers until 14 years later.
Mikael Renberg

In terms of individual players selected in the two drafts, however, none surpasses the Flyers’ gusty selection of Forsberg in 1991. Pegged as a late first-round or early second round pick by most scouts, Flyers scouts Inge Hammarström and Bill Dineen saw something special in the young Swede, and convinced General Manager Russ Farwell to “go off the board” and take Forsberg sixth overall.

Forsberg and Flyers 1990 first round pick, Mike Ricci, were both dealt to Quebec in the Lindros trade. Ricci, a gritty two-way center, scored 20 goals both seasons he played in the orange and black while displaying remarkable resolve while dealing with the terminal illness of his father, Mario. Tough guy Chris Simon, a second-round pick (25th overall) in the 1990 draft, also ended up going to Quebec.

From a Flyers standpoint, the real gem of the 1990 draft was Swedish winger Mikael Renberg. A standout for Piteå HC and Luleå HF, Renberg combined two-way play, speed, grit, finesse and a deft scoring touch. He was also one of the team’s most popular players of the 1990s for his work ethic on the ice and likeable demeanor off it.

During the 1993-94 season, Renberg set a Flyers rookie scoring record that still stands. The following year, he combined with Lindros and newly acquired John LeClair to form the “Legion of Doom” line; arguably the Flyers’ most successful unit after the LCB line of the 1970s. Renberg got off to a torrid start in 1995-96, but a serious sports hernia injury derailed him. After struggling for much of the next year, he was one of the Flyers’ top clutch scorers during the run to the 1997 Finals.

In Round Three of the 1990 draft, 47th overall, the Flyers chose Providence College and Canadian national team defenseman Chris Therien. The 6’5’’ blueliner went on to earn a spot on the 1994-95 NHL All-Rookie Team and play 764 NHL games, of which 753 were played in a Flyers uniform during two stints with the club.

Two rounds later, 88th overall, the Flyers took Medicine Hat Tigers defenseman Dan Kordic. One of the Flyers’ best fighters of the last decade-plus, Kordic played on the Flyers blueline in 1991-92. Held back by skating and puckhandling issues, Kordic went down to the minor leagues and played left wing as well as defense. He returned to the big club as a winger in the mid-1990s and formed the “Dan Line,” along with fellow tough guys Scott Daniels and Daniel Lacroix.

In the 11th round, 214th overall, the Flyers selected Swedish goaltender Tommy Soderstrom of Djurgårdens IF and the Swedish national team. A small, acrobatic keeper, Soderstrom was plagued by inconsistency during his NHL career with the Flyers and Islanders, but was also capable of some spectacular performances. As a rookie in 1992-93, Soderstrom recorded five shutouts and temporarily unseated Dominic Roussel (a 1988 third round pick) as the Flyers starter. After the 1993-94 season, the Flyers traded Soderstrom to the Islanders and re-acquired Ron Hextall.

The 1990 draft produced three additional selections – defenseman Terran Sandwith, center Kimbi Daniels and center Vyacheslav Butsayev – who made it briefly to the NHL with the Flyers.

The most notable of the three was Butsayev, a Soviet national team player considered at the time to be a potential impact player in the NHL. Taken in the sixth round, 109th overall, he played parts of two seasons with the Flyers. Daniels, a former junior scoring standout with Swift Current, suited up in 27 games for the Flyers. Sandwith never dressed in a regular season game for the Flyers, but was a spare defenseman. He later played eight games with the Edmonton Oilers.

The following year, in addition to Forsberg, the Flyers grabbed defenseman Dmitri Yushkevich in the sixth round. He went on to a long and productive NHL career, including two stints with the Flyers. Other members of the Flyers class of 1991 included the late Andrei Lomakin and Yanick Dupre, future journeyman defenseman Aris Brimanis and longtime Philadelphia Phantoms fan favorite, goaltender Neil Little.

Honorable Mention: The Class of 2003

While it’s still too early to know for certain how much impact the Flyers’ draft class from 2003
Mike Richards (left), Jeff Carter
will have on shaping the team in the long-term future,  it has the potential to someday rank among the top Flyers drafts.

First round picks Jeff Carter (11th overall) and Mike Richards (24th overall) are already mainstays in the Flyers lineup and have the chance to grow into NHL stars as they continue to develop. Defenseman Alexandre Picard (third round, 85th overall) cracked the Flyers’ lineup for lengthy stretches this past season and showed flashes of two-way ability at the NHL level. Third-rounder Ryan Potulny (87th overall) displayed offensive promise at both the AHL and NHL levels last seasons, while Stefan Ruzicka (third round, 81st overall) got off to a great start with the Phantoms last season and had several strong games for the Flyers.

* * *

Finally, no look back at the Flyers’ draft history would be complete without mentions of the 1978 and 1998 drafts. The 1978 draft brought the Flyers tough defenseman Behn Wilson (sixth overall) and skilled, ultra-irritating center Ken “the Rat” Linseman (seventh overall) in the first round. Later, the team nabbed tough guy blueliner Glen Cochrane in the third round. All three players were mainstays in the early 1980s and Linseman was the trade bait that brought the Flyers Mark Howe from Hartford.

Twenty years later, the Flyers selected Simon Gagne 22nd overall in the 1998 draft, as well as goaltender Antero Niittymaki in the sixth round.
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