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Smaller Draft Picks Hoping for Big Results

by Bill Fleischman / Philadelphia Flyers
In all my years of covering hockey, I've never known an NHL team to declare, "We did a terrible job in the Entry Draft. None of these kids have a chance to ever play for us. Our scouts should be shipped to Siberia."

Generally, team officials are optimistic about their draft choices. In many cases, those feelings are justified. In others, it's all a smokescreen.

In the Flyers case, they genuinely feel that some of their 2006 selections will be wearing orange and black within a few seasons. We'll all have to wait and see if any of them become stars, but mark down Claude Giroux, Andreas Nodl and Michael Ratchuk as names to remember.

Giroux is a creative forward. Nodl is a scorer with speed and size. Ratchuk is an offensive-minded defenseman. All three could be productive players in the new speed-and-skill oriented NHL.

"The biggest change for us is, in the past we wouldn't have looked at too many 5'10'' players," Paul Holmgren, the Flyers' assistant general manager, said following the draft.

Giroux, chosen in the first round, is 5'10'', 170 pounds. Ratchuk, who will attend Michigan State, is listed as 5'10'' and 175 pounds. (Be suspicious of athletes in any sport listed as 5'10''; it often means they are really 5'9''. But, if they can play, who cares? See: Jimmy Rollins in baseball).

Referring to Ratchuk, Holmgren said, "He's got big hands, we think he'll grow. He can really skate and really handle the puck. He likes to throw his weight around."

If Ratchuk wants to speak with someone about what it takes to play in the NHL, he can consult his older brother, Peter. He was a first-round draft choice (26th overall) of Colorado in 1996. Peter, now 28, recently signed with the Minnesota Wild after three seasons playing in the German Elite League.

Peter (6'1'', 185) made his NHL debut in 1998-99, playing 24 games with the Florida Panthers. Except for eight games with Florida in 2000-01, Peter spent five seasons in the American Hockey League. With Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in 2001-02, Peter collected 16 goals and 23 assists in 75 games.

Nodl, a native of Austria, played the last two seasons with Sioux Falls in the United States Hockey League. This season, he'll play at St. Cloud State (Minnesota), a member of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. Holmgren said Bob Motzko, the St. Cloud coach, brought Nodl to the USHL. Motzko previously coached Sioux Falls in the USHL.

"We think (Nodl) has great speed and great skills and good size," Holmgren said. "We're really happy with all our second-round picks."

It probably will take a few years for these prospects to work their way into the Flyers' lineup. But NHL executives have been surprised before. After the Flyers chose Justin Williams in the first round of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, his father asked Holmgren what the odds were of Williams making the team. "I said, you mean the Flyers?" Holmgren recalled. "He said, `Yeah.' I told him Justin was just a young kid. But he ended up making the team. You never know."

Giroux will forever be known as the first-round draft choice whose name Bob Clarke forgot. As Clarke, the Flyers' general manager, stepped to the podium at General Motors Place in Vancouver to announce that the Flyers had chosen Giroux he couldn't remember his name.

Holmgren said that when Clarke apologized to Giroux, the young man graciously said, "That's OK, it's a tough name." Save, Claude Giroux.

Holmgren doesn't think the New York Rangers purposely kept Bobby Sanguinetti, the offensive defenseman from Lumberton, N.J., away from the Flyers by selecting him 21st, just ahead of the Flyers.

"We didn't think (Sanguinetti) would fall that far," Holmgren said. "We thought he'd be gone by the 10th or 12th pick. There were two guys in the group that we thought would be there when we picked, and Claude was one of them."

The Rangers also were surprised that Sanguinetti was still available. Don Maloney, the Rangers' assistant GM, told, "Everybody sort of had him rated in the (No.) 10 to 15 range, so we were pleased that he was there."

It turns out that Sanguinetti is a Rangers fan. The Rangers! (At least he's not a Devils fan). Sanguinetti's father, Bob, is a native New Yorker who is a Rangers season ticket holder.

If Sanguinetti is as successful for the Rangers as Mike Richter, another Philadelphia area product was, the team will be delighted.

All aboard Rod's squad

One of the rules we learn in Sports Writing 101 is, don't root for the teams or players you cover. That doesn't mean you can't be friendly with them and, if they are nice people, be glad they have success.

During the Carolina-Edmonton Stanley Cup Final series though, I set aside the don't-root rule. I wanted to see Rod Brind'Amour win his first Stanley Cup. I wasn't screaming "Go 'Canes" at my television set, but was hoping for Brind'Amour's sake that Carolina would prevail.

When he played for the Flyers, Brind'Amour was a hard working, stand-up guy. The trade to Carolina that brought Keith Primeau to the Flyers hurt Brind'Amour. But he recovered and went on to lead the Hurricanes to their first Cup.

It was also nice to see Carolina's Mark Recchi celebrating another Cup. He previously won in Pittsburgh. At age 38, Recchi is near the end of his outstanding career. What a way to go out. In two tours with the Flyers, Recchi was always a hard worker and a team-oriented player.

TV ratings predictable

Carolina-Edmonton was a riveting championship series. Rallying from a three-games-to-one deficit to tie the series, the Oilers displayed tremendous heart. But, backstopped by Conn Smythe Trophy winner Cam Ward, the 'Canes won the decisive game.

Raleigh, North Carolina, and Tampa, Florida, are the homes of the last two Stanley Cup champions. Welcome to the "new NHL."

Predictably, with two small-market teams facing off, the television ratings weren't strong. Games Three through Seven on NBC averaged a 2.3 and 4 share. The lowest rated game was Game Three with a 1.6. The highest was a 3.3 for Game Seven, suggesting that even casual hockey fans know an important event when they see it.

"The ratings were in line with our projections," said Brian Walker, director of communications for NBC Sports. "Would the ratings have been better with Philly and Detroit? Sure, but all we can do is put the best possible product on the air."

Hockey on TV will never out-rate football, baseball, basketball or even NASCAR. But the NHL has made its game more appealing. Perhaps higher ratings will follow.

"The hockey this season was tremendous," Walker said, "and the rule changes had the desired effect of increasing the flow of the game and allowing the skill players to do what they do best."

Walker said that NBC's commitment to hockey shows in its decision to carry four additional regular season games and three more playoff games next season. With OLN having its first season of NHL telecasts completed, it should be even better next season. Led by Mike Emrick, John Davidson, Bill Clement and Keith Jones, OLN clearly has quality on-air people.

I wish training camp started next week. To paraphrase Darrell Waltrip on Fox's NASCAR telecasts, let's play hockey, boys.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.

Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sports writer. He was the Flyers' beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of "Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of "The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1981, he has been an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.

He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.
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