Drafting players in any sport can be a tricky thing. Every year there seem to be some can’t-miss prospects, but once that initial group is gone, team scouting staffs to some extent have to find a way to look into a crystal ball – especially in the first round. There’s a lot of interviewing and projecting and comparing to try and figure out which player is going to be good enough to be in the NHL in anywhere from one to five years. What happened with the Flyers a decade ago is a classic example.
Back in 2006, the Flyers had the 22nd selection, and when their turn came there was a small center from the QMJHL named Claude Giroux who was still available. The Flyers nabbed him, of course, and the rest is history. Of the seven players picked immediately before Giroux – selections 14-21 – two never made the NHL and three others have combined to appear in 72 NHL games. Giroux, meanwhile, has played 574.
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Looking a little deeper, when considering the 15 players selected in the entire second half of the 2006 first round, Giroux is one of only six to appear in more than 70 games. It’s hard to practice revisionist history, but who knows what the Flyers would look like today if Giroux had played those 574 games in the uniform of San Jose or Anaheim or even the New York Rangers, all of which were among the teams that passed him up before the Flyers took him.
It’s going to be a long time before the Flyers know how the 2015 NHL Draft turns out for them, but the early returns are looking very good. The 2015 draft was hailed as a bit of a diamond mine – a draft that was compared to the 2003 draft, which has been lauded over the past decade or so as one of the most talent-laden drafts in NHL history. The 30 players selected in the first round of the 2003 draft have accounted for 18,009 career NHL games played as of the end of the 2015-16 season. (For comparison’s sake, the 30 first-round selections in the 2002 draft have combined to appear in 13,180 games.)
In both cases, the Flyers found their good fortune compounded with two first-round selections – their own, and one that had been obtained via trade. In July of 2001, the Flyers had traded Daymond Langkow to Phoenix for a pair of picks that included the Coyotes’ first-round selection in 2003, which turned out to be 11th overall. At last year’s draft, the Flyers were also in possession of Tampa Bay’s 29th overall selection, obtained in the March 2015 trade that sent Braydon Coburn to the Lightning.
Last year’s draft had two of those can’t-miss prospects in Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. Once past that, it was going to be dependent on where teams had certain players ranked based on their evaluations and their own needs. The Flyers had drafted defensemen with their first-round selection in two consecutive drafts, so various draft pundits were leaning towards the Flyers going with a forward this time around.
However, the Flyers had made it clear that they were in a mindset of drafting the best available player regardless of position, and a lot of that was going to depend on what the four teams did at picks 3 through 6 once McDavid and Eichel were gone. Defenseman Noah Hanifin and forward Dylan Strome were projected to be in the top four, but there was also chatter that Arizona and Toronto, the owners of the third and fourth picks, respectively, would trade down.
As it turned out, that didn’t happen. But something somewhat unexpected did happen – both the Coyotes and Maple Leafs decided to go with forwards. Arizona picked Strome, and then Toronto went with Mitch Marner. That left Carolina with a decision between Hanifin and Provorov if they decided to go with defense, which they did by taking Hanifin.
At that point, only New Jersey was left to pick before the Flyers did, and their organizational depth on defense combined with a severe lack of size up front all but guaranteed they would take a forward. They did, going with Czech-born Pavel Zacha of the OHL’s Sarnia Sting. That left Provorov, a player the Flyers reportedly had considered trading up to grab, sitting there for the taking.
“He has elite hockey sense and is a real good competitor,” Hextall said after the pick. “A 200-foot player.”
The selection of Konecny was a little more complicated. Tampa’s pick was 29th by virtue of the Lightning reaching the Stanley Cup Final. As the draft progressed, the Flyers were looking at Konecny and one other player. Those same draft pundits had projected Konecny as a mid-round pick, so as teams continued to come to the podium and leave with other players, the Flyers were watching closely.
Then the phone rang at the Flyers’ draft table. On the other end was Toronto with an offer – the 24th overall pick for the Flyers’ 29th and Chicago’s second-round pick, which the Flyers had obtained in the Kimmo Timonen trade a few months earlier.
“We had two guys on the board that we really, really liked, and we would have moved up for either of them," Hextall said afterwards. “Toronto called for our pick. I think it was a reasonable offer, so we discussed it and we jumped on it. We were either looking to move up, or possibly if the guys were gone, move back.”
With that, Konecny became a Flyer. And it wasn’t even 24 hours before he began earning accolades – the next day, Konecny was named the inaugural winner of the E.J. McGuire Award of Excellence, to be given annually to the “NHL Draft prospect who best exemplifies commitment to excellence through strength of character, competitiveness and athleticism.”
The award honors the memory of McGuire, a former Flyers assistant coach who was instrumental in advancing the NHL’s Central Scouting bureau upon taking it over in 2005. He passed away in April of 2011.
“Speed, skill, competitiveness,” Hextall said of Konecny. “Captain of his team at 17. We're happy with the guys we got; it's a good day for the Philadelphia Flyers.”
A year has gone by, and that day still goes down as a good one for the Philadelphia Flyers. Provorov was named the best defenseman in the entire Canadian Hockey League this past season, while Konecny put up 101 points on 30 goals and 71 assists while splitting the season between Ottawa and Sarnia in the OHL. Both will come to camp this fall with an eye on making the jump to the NHL, but Hextall has remained steadfast on being patient with his prospects.
“We're not going to change philosophically in terms of young players,” Hextall said. “They have to come in and be better than someone else that's here, and if that happens, we proved last year that we'll make room in our roster for a young player that proves to us that he's ready to play at this level and make our team better.”