Entering the 2017 National Hockey League Draft Lottery on April 29, the Philadelphia Flyers already boasted one of the deepest farm systems in the league. The organization looked forward to the opportunity of adding further quality and depth to the array of prospects in the system.
Knowing the lottery odds of moving up significantly in the 2017 NHL Draft were slim, the Flyers were fully prepared to go into the Draft (June 23-24) holding the default 13th overall selection or to even potentially drop as low as 15th based on the lottery outcome.
"We felt with the 13th pick, we would get a good player," Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said. "The last couple drafts have been bumper [prospect crops] but this is a good draft."
Veteran Flyers scout Dennis Patterson was on hand for the lottery results announcement in Toronto while Hextall was returning home from a trip to Finland to attend a life celebration on behalf of longtime Flyers player and scout Ilkka Sinisalo. Hextall arrived home in time to turn on the television and see the Draft lottery results.
Video: Go inside Draft Lottery Room as picks are selected
The Flyers didn't quite win the lottery - the New Jersey Devils did - but the team jumped up a remarkable 11 spots to hold the second overall selection of the 2017 Draft.
"This is a big point for our franchise. We're obviously going to get a very good player and hopefully in years, we'll look back on this as a turning point for us," Hextall said.
High-quality NHL players, including future stars, have been drafted at many different spots in the first round and even in the later rounds or among the ranks of undrafted players. Nevertheless, the chances of landing a potential impact player who may be NHL-ready sooner rather than later increase at the top end of the first round.
As part of the due diligence process in preparing for the Draft, the Flyers typically scout and gather information on prospects the organization projects being selected in various stages of the Draft. This is done not only in event of a sudden draft-position change (whether through the lottery or via trade) but to have a knowledge base to track many players' development and potential in case there is the possibility of acquiring the player within a few seasons of their Draft year.
Thus, even when the Flyers seemed likely to draft in the middle stages of the first round, the organization did its scouting homework on the players projected to be selected among the top handful of picks. This was especially important in a year in which it is difficult to project how the top five to 10 picks will fall into place; not just in selection order but also the crop of names themselves. Eventually, the Flyers honed most of their emphasis on their projected draft range.
"We've been preparing recently as though we were getting a 13th pick," Hextall acknowledged. "Obviously, we move up to 2, and feel like we're going to get a better player. We're excited about that."
The biggest strengths of the Flyers farm system are the organization's corps of young defensemen (with Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere already in the NHL and the likes of Samuel Morin, Robert Hagg, Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers knocking on the door) and goaltending prospects (with Anthony Stolarz and Alex Lyon at the professional level, Felix Sandstrom playing professionally in Sweden the last two seasons, highly regarded Carter Hart in the Western Hockey League and Merrick Madsen in collegiate hockey).
The forward prospects in the system has been somewhat underrated compared to the other positions. In addition to Travis Konecny already being an NHL player and 2016 first-round pick German Rubtsov dominating the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League level despite injury, the organization is high on the NHL potential of various other forward prospects in the system, ranging from recently signed Mike Vecchione and Swedish left winger Oskar Lindblom to Russian center Mikhail Vorobyov, and 2016 draftees such as Wade Allison, Connor Bunnaman and Tanner Laczynski. Lehigh Valley Phantoms stalwarts such as Taylor Leier and Scott Laughton are always in the mix to compete for NHL roster spots next season, as is Flyers forward Nick Cousins.
Nevertheless, there is always room for improvement and more skill.
The Flyers' drafting philosophy, especially in the first round, has always been to select the best available prospect (in other words, the player with the highest projected overall upside) regardless of the position he plays. In the 2017 Draft, most of the projected future impact players are skilled forwards. Thus, the Flyers have a rare opportunity with the second overall pick to not only take the best available player but also to further bolster the overall skill level of the forward prospects in the system.
Many pundits have specifically identified two players - Brandon Wheat Kings center Nolan Patrick and Halifax Mooseheads center Nico Hischier - as the two most projectable future NHL impact players available in the 2017 Draft. Other notable highly skilled players with top-notch projected upsides include Windsor Spitfires center Gabe Vilardi, U.S. high school standout Casey Middelstadt, Brno (Czech Extraliga) center Martin Necas and Portland Winterhawks forward Cody Glass.
"I know everybody talks about [those] two - and they're two very good players - but there are a couple of other guys who are pretty darn good, too. I don't know that it's a total slam-dunk that this draft is predicted, necessarily," Hextall said.
The Flyers GM said that he does not anticipate making a trade that involves the second overall pick. However, it would take something mighty tempting for the organization to even consider such a possibility.
"Do I envision moving the No. 2 pick? No, I don't. In saying that, if something comes along that we can't say no to, we'll certainly look at it, but as of right now, I'd say we'd be pretty comfortable making that pick," Hextall said.
There is no guarantee that whomever the Flyers select in the first round will immediately play in the NHL. Hextall said that the player's performance in training camp will be crucial and, if the organization feels that the player can use further development, he will not hesitate to assign the player accordingly.
As recent drafts have shown, teams with deep farm systems must be able to identify future pros beyond just the first round. Overall, the Flyers also hold one second-round pick (their own), two picks in the third round (their own and Boston's), three picks in the fourth round (their own, Tampa Bay's and the Islanders'), one pick in the fifth round (their own), one pick in the sixth round (their own) and as many as three picks in the seventh round (their own, and a pair of conditional picks).