The most obvious factor in the Flyers’ failure to win a Stanley Cup during the last two decades of their 37-year championship drought is the absence of an elite goalie. There is, however, a more subtle reason for that failure, and it is related to the draft.
The Flyers have drafted very well. Just ask the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings won the Stanley Cup with former Flyers first-round picks Mike Richards (2003), Jeff Carter (2003), Simon Gagne (1998) and Justin Williams (2000), as well as third-round pick Colin Fraser (2003).
Remarkably, not one of these players was a top 10 pick. Carter, at No. 11 overall, was the highest selection among these players. Gagne was selected 22nd overall, as was current Flyers star Claude Giroux in 2006. Richards was selected 24th; Williams was picked 28th.
The Flyers’ success late in the first round is a good sign for this weekend’s NHL draft, when the Flyers’ have the 20th overall pick.
So what’s the problem? The problem is that all the players listed above are forwards. There are no defensemen. We have to go all the way back to the 1970s to find a top-notch defenseman drafted and developed by the Flyers.
This drought is particularly relevant because the Flyers are likely to select a defenseman with their first-round pick Friday night (draft begins at 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Network, formerly Versus) in Pittsburgh. There is considerable depth at defense in this draft. But history indicates that if there are elite defensemen in this year’s draft, the Flyers are unlikely to select them.
The Flyers have had some terrific defensemen since last winning the Stanley Cup in 1975. Hall of Famer Mark Howe, Eric Desjardins, Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen are the best of a distinguished bunch. But the Flyers have had to use assets to trade for defensemen or spent big money to sign them via free agency. Why? Because they haven’t been successful at drafting and developing elite defensemen of their own.
Let’s take a not-so-pleasant walk down memory lane. The Flyers selected defensemen with the 20th pick – the same pick they have this year – in both 1986 and ’87. In 1986 they selected Kerry Huffman. The following year they selected Darren Rumble. Huffman had a solid, but not spectacular, NHL career. Rumble, to put it mildly, did not.
In 1973, the Flyers selected defenseman Larry Goodenough with the 20th overall pick (second round). His nickname was “Izzie” – think about it! – which tells you all you need to know about how Goodenough worked out. The less said about defensemen Steve Smith (1981, 16th overall) and Mike Stothers (1980, 21st overall), both of whom barely had time for a cup of coffee in the NHL, the better.
More recently, the Flyers selected defenseman Luca Sbisa with the 19th pick in 2008. Sbisa was subsequently traded to the Ducks as part of the deal that brought Pronger to the Flyers.
The highest pick the Flyers have used on a defenseman was in 2002, when they selected Joni Pitkanen fourth overall. Pitkanen has had a decent career, but certainly not one befitting the fourth selection in the draft.
The prior year, 2002, the Flyers selected defenseman Jeff Woywitka with the 27th overall pick. Woywitka has kicked around the NHL, with some detours to the AHL, for the past seven seasons.
The Flyers have found some good values in later rounds, such as Dennis Seidenberg in the sixth round of the 2001 draft, Chris Therien in the third round of the 1990 draft and Murray Baron in the eighth round of the 1986 draft. But they haven’t had much success in the first round.
Flyers assistant coach Kevin McCarthy was a Flyers first-round pick in 1977 (17th overall). McCarthy had a solid career, becoming a captain for the Vancouver Canucks and even being selected for the All-Star Game in 1981.
The year after drafting McCarthy, 1978, the Flyers’ selected defenseman Behn Wilson with the sixth overall pick (they selected center Ken Linseman with the seventh pick). Wilson had a good nine-year NHL career, even making the All-Star Game in 1981, the same year as McCarthy’s lone appearance. Wilson was an elite fighter, but inconsistency prevented him from becoming an elite defenseman.
The best defenseman the Flyers drafted was Jimmy Watson, way back in 1972. The Flyers selected future Hall of Fame left wing Bill Barber with the seventh overall pick, then selected defenseman Tom Bladon in the second round. Fortunately, Watson was still available in the third round. He made the All-Star Game five times in his 10-year NHL career, all spent with the Flyers, and was a two-time winner of the Barry Ashbee Award as the team’s best defenseman.
It’s been 40 years since the Flyers selected Watson in the third round. Their track record for selecting defensemen in the first round has been poor.
If they had selected better defensemen over the years, perhaps they could have used their assets or money to acquire an elite goalie instead of a parade of defensemen.
The Flyers have a plethora of talented young forwards. Giroux, Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn, James van Riemsdyk and Wayne Simmonds all appear to have bright futures. But they don’t have any elite young defensemen to grow with that group of young forwards.
The Flyers have an opportunity to break from past history Friday night in Pittsburgh. Whether they select at No. 20 or trade up, ending their failure to draft a top defenseman in the first round could be a major step toward ending their Stanley Cup drought.