Hextall’s strong draft record key to Flyers’ hopes

Travis Konecny

Entering his fifth offseason, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall’s biggest strength thus far has been the prospect depth he’s built through stockpiling draft picks and being bold in doing everything he can to land prospects whom he covets. The Flyers farm system has gone from near the bottom of NHL due to over-trading of assets in win-now pushes to one of the deepest prospect pools in the league; one in which players have now started to filter into the NHL ranks on a slow, but progressive basis.

In his very first Draft – the 2014 Draft in Philadelphia – Hextall nearly pulled off a blockbuster deal with the Florida Panthers that would have netted the Flyers the first overall pick; highly regarded defenseman Aaron Ekblad. Ultimately, the Panthers decided to stand pat. Hextall ended up retaining the 17th overall pick and using it on Calgary Hitmen (WHL) defenseman Travis Sanheim.

Although some described the pick as a “reach”, Sanheim’s back story is a good example of how there is often a disconnect between the pre-Draft information available to hockey fans and the work done by scouts. There is a reason why scouts make so many viewings of prospects throughout the season, other organizational scouts do crossover work to form their own observations, and the staff does supplemental homework to get first-hand information on potential draftees’ work habits, off-ice background, etc.

A largely untouted player for the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen entering the 2013-14 season, Sanheim’s stock rose with a bullet in the second half of the season; something obscured by his modest early-season point totals (which rose considerably as he earned more ice time. In my 2014 Draft profile series for HockeyBuzz.com, this is what I wrote about Sanheim on June 5, 2014:

One of the biggest late-risers in the 2014 NHL Draft class is Calgary Hitmen (WHL) defenseman Travis Sanheim. Although he doesn’t get much notice among those who rely primarily on Central Scouting’s ratings to determine the top prospects in each year’s Draft class, the 53rd-ranked North American skater is very much on the radar screen of NHL teams to the point that it would not be much of a surprise — or a reach by the team that selects him — if he is taken in the first round of this year’s Draft. Even in the Central Scouting ratings, Sanheim rose with a bullet from his mid-term (167th) to final ranking.

Sanheim reportedly met with all 30 NHL teams at the recent Combine. A team not meeting with a player is not necessarily due to a lack of interest (for instance, the Flyers did not meet with Sean Couturier in 2011 but selected him with the eighth overall pick). However, when a team does meet with a player, they do so because they like something about the player on the ice and want to find out a little more about him.

In Sanheim’s case, the odds are pretty good that even teams that were simply doing a little extra due diligence on the player but have early first-round picks would consider taking him if they were to acquire an additional pick later in the round. If he makes it to the second round, Sanheim is a strong potential candidate to be taken by the first team that does not have a higher-ranked player on their internal list fall to them.

Sanheim fits the profile of the type of defenseman that NHL teams look for nowadays. He has a 6-foot-3 frame that still needs to fill out a bit but also has good wheels and two-way upside.

 An untouted first-year WHL player, Sanheim kept things very simple early in the season. He posted three points through the first 21 games of the season as he focused mainly on developing his positional play. His physical profile, skating and first-pass ability along with his general reliability in his own zone were sufficient to get him the 167th spot on the Central Scouting mid-term list.

Thereafter, Sanheim got increasingly comfortable and started to assert himself offensively. As his role grew into that of all-situations player, Sanheim’s point totals rose steadily. Paired with fellow 2014 Draft prospect Ben Thomas, Sanheim finished the season with five goals, 29 points and a plus-25 ranking.

Sanheim also made a strong final impression on NHL scouts. Once again paired with Thomas, he had a very strong Under-18 World Championships tournament for Canada, posting six assists and a plus five rating in seven games while also taking care of business in his own of the ice.

Travis’ twin brother, Taylor, is a forward whose WHL rights belong to the Brandon Wheat Kings. He was limited to nine games — all at the Junior A level — this season. In the meantime, Travis shot up the charts among NHL scouts. The Sanheim twins turned 18 on March 29.

Travis Sanheim’s rapid development this season, which was partially hastened by an injury to Hitmen captain Jaynen Rissling (a Washington Capitals prospect), was remarkable. Rather than being a “reach” of a first-round Draft candidate, he may actually be a fairly safe pick relative to the inherent risks of drafting defensemen and nurturing them through their learning curve.

Does Sanheim currently project as a franchise defenseman in the NHL? No, and he may not be a number two, either. He’s going to have to get stronger physically and become more assertive.

However, assuming he continues developing and stays healthy, Sanheim has all the tools to become the type of two-way defenseman that moves the puck efficiently, join the play on offense and provide containment-style coverage in his own zone without being outmuscled by the league’s big, strong forwards. He has a lot of offensive upside, too, as he showed as the season moved along. Those players are highly desirable.

Sanheim’s offensive game took off in the season following the 2014 Draft. He led all Western Hockey League defenseman with 65 points (15 goals, 50 assists) – and was third across the CHL – in scoring during the 2014-15 season.

The next year, injuries and his participation in the World Junior Championships limited Sanheim to 52 games in the regular season, but he led all defensemen across the CHL in points-per-game average (1.31 points-per-game; 15 goals, 53 assists in 52 games).   Entering the pro ranks, he then had to adapt his game away from leading the rush – a necessity on a Hitmen team that severely lacked forward scoring pop – back toward becoming more of a two-way player.

Overall , the Flyers made six picks in the 2014 Draft. All six were signed to entry-level contracts, but one (seventh-round pick Jesper Pettersson) is now out of the organization. Two picks – first-rounder Sanheim and fifth rounder Oskar Lindblom – made their NHL debuts in 2016-17. Second-rounder Nicolas Aube-Kubel (two AHL seasons) and third-rounder Mark Friedman (rookie season) were regulars on the Lehigh Valley Phantoms this past season and will vie next season to work their way to NHL promotions either out of camp or as in-season callup candidates. Radel Fazleev, a Hitmen teammate of Sanheim’s, has spent the last two seasons with the Phantoms, struggling to find a regular role. He is likely not part of the Flyers’ long-term plan at this point.

In 2015, the Flyers made nine picks. Five have been signed to entry-level contracts. Two selections, first-rounders Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny, have been NHL regulars for the last two seasons.

Provorov was a no-brainer pick with the seventh overall pick; a physically mature two-way stalwart with exceptional work habits, a high degree of competitiveness and strong hockey sense. In Konecny’s case, Hextall had to trade up to obtain the 24th overall pick in order to select him. This is what I wrote about Konecny in my post-Draft analysis on June 27, 2015:

Hextall did not wait around to see if the next highest ranked player on the Flyers list was going to fall to them. Philly would not have picked until 29th had they not traded up to select Travis Konecny, and there was little chance the player would still be there at that point.

As a result, the Flyers made a sacrifice. They would have preferred not to trade themselves out of the second round — although the 61st overall pick is the final pick of the round, and the Flyers still have two third-round picks — but that was an agreeable enough lure to package that asset with the 29th overall pick and choice Ottawa 67s forward Konecny.

Talent-wise, Konecny ranks right up there with anyone the next group beneath the top four or five forwards in this year’s Draft class. His pedigree is excellent — he was the first overall selection of the OHL Draft and justified it by winning Rookie of the Year in 2013-14 with a stellar season for a weak team. He also had a very solid second season when he was healthy.

Konecny has outstanding wheels and upper-lineup caliber puck skills. He always has feet moving and is a balanced offensive talent who can reliably finish scoring chances or create them for linemates. He does not lose speed when carrying the puck and moves exceptionally well going east-west as well as north-south. He will also go to the “greasy areas” for goals.

Although he plays center at the junior level, Konecny is more likely to play wing at the pro level.

For Ottawa, he has been an effective power play weapon. The righthanded shooter is effective on the off-wing half-boards and can also man a point position.

The forward rates very high in terms of sheer competitiveness. Konecny plays with a hunger for the puck that is tough if not downright impossible to teach. If he gets beaten, it’s not for lack of effort. He tenaciously stays with the play and is fearless about initiating or receiving contact. Konecny also has a knack for grating on his opponents.

The reason why Konecny, who was widely projected going anywhere from about the 14th to 25th overall pick, was slotted a tad lower than some other forwards: size and durability concerns. He gives up size to most opponents, although he is relatively low-risk in terms of being one of those “little guys who play like big guys” and are skilled enough to handle the demands of the NHL game.

The latter concern is the bigger one. Konecny’s fearless and fast-paced style of play leave him a little more susceptible to injury in a sport where everyone is at reasonably high risk. He has already had some injury issues — including concussions — in his young career. The conundrum with Konecny is that, while he has above-average skill and finesse, it is his Tasmanian devil competitiveness that puts him a cut above being just another undersized skill player who may or may not be able to handle the pounding in the NHL.

It has been said by many hockey scouts, including Chris Pryor, that is easier to tone a player down a half-notch as he matures than it is to rev up a player who lacks urgency and/or competitiveness. Konecny is not infallible in some of his decision-making. He’ll take some bad penalties and turn over some pucks in trying to make plays. He does backcheck willingly and get some takeaways but will need the usual development time to handle the 200-foot demands of today’s game. He has some penalty killing potential — and would be a shorthanded scoring threat on top of it — but that will take development to add that to his potential range of deployments as a pro.

As with any NHL Draft, only time will tell what the Flyers truly have in Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny. However, both players were easily justifiable picks for where they were selected. There was obviously thorough homework in terms of slotting the players in the first round as well as strategy behind sitting tight at seven and trading up from 29th to 24th.

Deeper into the 2015 Draft, fourth-round pick Mikhail Vorobyev played his first North American pro season in 2016-17 as a member of the Phantoms. Two other selections from Europe, third-round goaltender Felix Sandstrom and fifth-round forward David Kase, were recently signed by the Flyers to their first NHL contracts. In the meantime, third-round goaltender Matej Tomek will be a collegiate hockey junior in 2018-19 while seventh-round goalie Ivan Fedotov is playing in Russia. Fourth-round forward Samuel Dove-McFalls was not offered an entry-level contract before the Flyers had to relinquish his rights on June 1, 2017.

In 2016, Hextall took the opposite tact from the previous year; rather than sacrificing a second-round pick to trade up in the first round, he opted instead to trade down the 18th to 22nd pick of the first round in order to pick up an early 2nd round pick (36th overall).

Overall, the Flyers made 10 selections in the 2016 Draft. Five are currently under entry-level contract, with a couple more seemingly likely to follow before their rights expire.

First-round selection German Rubtsov will make his pro hockey debut next season, as will second-round goaltender Carter Hart, second-round forward Pascal Laberge, and fourth-round forward Connor Bunnaman. Third-round selection Carsen Twarynski, who made his AHL debut at the end of last season, will play his first full pro year. Hard-shooting and muscular second-round power forward Wade Allison and sixth-round versatile forward Tanner Laczynski will play their junior year of NCAA collegiate hockey in 2018-19 and both could turn pro after the season. Swedish defensemen Linus Hogberg (5th round) and David Bernhardt (7th round) are playing in the SHL. Of the two, Hogberg is the more highly regarded prospect. To date, fifth-round forward Anthony Salinitri is the lone player from the Flyers’ 2016 Draft crop whose rights no longer belong to the organization.

The jury is out on how the Flyers’ 2016 Draft crop will turn out in the long run; specifically the players involved in the first-round trade down. Winnipeg took hulking OHL defenseman Logan Stanley with the 18th overall pick. So far, Stanley seems to be a good prospect. The Flyers, however, were more geared toward the forwards on their pre-Draft rankings.

Last season, despite coming over from the KHL to the Quebec League’s Chicoutimi Sagueens after suffering a broken nose and concussion at the World Junior Championships, Rubtsov produced 22 points (nine goals, 13 assists) and a plus-11 rating in 16 games in the Quebec League. He then got injured again late in the season and sat out in the playoffs. When healthy, it was a solid start to his North American career.

It’s hard to say exactly what happened to Rubtsov’s offensive game in 2017-18, as his production for the Quebec League season dropped below a point-per-game and he had a just-OK performance for Team Russia at the WJC. Likely, there were a variety of factors that played into it, and not just one. It should be said up front that his play without the puck was solid even when his offensive game was sporadic.

Rubtsov’s 2017-18 season was interrupted several times; first by a paperwork holdup for the Russian forward to be able to play again in the Quebec League this season, then by a trade from a now-rebuilding Chicoutimi team to a much-deeper Acadie-Bathurst team, and also by some injury-related absences in addition to the WJC. Another possible factor is that Rubtsov is a natural center and has primarily played right wing for the Titan.

Rubtsov was eligible to play in the AHL in 2017-19 at age 19 because he was drafted out of Russia and not the Quebec League. This is purely speculative thinking, but perhaps there was a period of time during the season where, after leaving the KHL track to come to North America early, he felt a bit sorry for himself to be playing junior hockey in Quebec and New Brunswick rather than in a pro league.

Whatever the reasons, Rubtsov’s 2017-18 season fell short of expectations despite playing for the Quebec League champions and eventual Memorial Cup champions. He never got into a sustained groove offensively.

Rubtsov’s defensive awareness is fine. His skills with the puck and smooth skating are obvious when he asserts himself. In Game 3 of the finals against Blainville-Boisbriand, Rubtsov scored a nice deflection power play goal and took 1st-star honors. But there are also lengthy stretches where Rubtsov is hardly noticeable at all; neither for good plays nor for miscues.

Different players develop at different rates. That said, Rubtsov needs to pick up the pace a bit to eventually become a top-six caliber NHL forward. Generally speaking, “skills” players who do not do not dominate at the junior level have trouble finding regular spots in the NHL (although junior dominance is by no means whatsoever a guarantee of similar success as a pro). There are exceptions, though.

For example, the Dallas Stars drafted Kitchener Rangers center Radek Faksa with the 13th overall pick of the first round in 2012. Faksa never went on to average even a point-per-game in the Ontario Hockey League with Kitchener or the Sudbury Wolves. When he turned pro, Faksa spent the better part of two seasons in the AHL with the Texas Stars, developing at a gradual but steady pace. Eventually, he graduated to the NHL, and has become a solid all-around player for Dallas. At age 24, he’s coming off a 17-goal, 33-point, plus-21 season for an underachieving Stars club that missed the playoffs.

Regardless of what happens in the Memorial Cup, Rubtsov has a lot of work to do before he’s NHL ready. It would not be a surprise if he spends at least a full season in the AHL with the Phantoms. Keep in mind, though, that he doesn’t turn 20 until June 27. There is still plenty of time for him to get on track. At absolute worst, he could become a serviceable bottom six forward. The potential is there to score, too, but he needs to push himself to realize it.

Laberge entered the 2017-18 season looking for a bounceback year. His 2016-17 season was an unpleasant surprise for all parties.

Signed to an entry-level contract on July 14, 2016 after the Flyers selected him with the 36th overall pick of the 2016 Draft, the conscientious and skilled native of Chateauguay, Quebec, set out to improve upon an excellent 2015-16 season that saw him produce 68 points in 56 games for the QMJHL’s Victoriaville Tigres.

Unfortunately, during an early season game against the Moncton Wildcats, Laberge fell victim to a predatory blindside hit by defenseman Zachary Malatesta and was rendered unconscious. Malatesta was suspended for seven games. Laberge, meanwhile, had a rough time for several months. He experienced severe post-concussion symptoms.

Even after he returned to the Victoriaville lineup, Laberge did not play to the standards he set in his draft-eligible campaign the previous year. He finished the season with just 32 points (12g-20a) in 46 regular season games and two goals in four playoff matches.

This past season, Laberge was healthy but his production remained sporadic. He was traded mid-season to the Quebec Remparts after playing 31 games this season for Victoriaville (six goals, 20 points). It took awhile for Laberge to get going with his new team but he closed with a rush to post five goals and 14 points over the final 11 games. Laberge finished with 11 goals and 27 points in 33 games for Quebec. In the playoffs, he posted five points (two goals, three assists) in seven games.

The streak-scoring Laberge is at his best when he plays with some feistiness in his game and gets to the scoring areas with regularity. He has been much less effective when he confines his game to the perimeter. Although he played more at center than on a wing in junior hockey, he will likely play a wing when he moves up to the Phantoms next season.

Entering the 2017 Draft, the Flyers internally put an emphasis on upgrading the skill, size and depth of the forward corps in the farm system; a process started the previous year.

Overall, the Flyers made nine picks (seven forwards, one goaltender, one defenseman). To date, five of the picks are under NHL entry-level contract and the other four are either in the collegiate or European hockey ranks where there are lengthier time periods under which a player’s rights are retained than the two-year signing window for players in the CHL circuits.

Selected second overall, Nolan Patrick made an immediate jump to the NHL in 2017-18. With the 27th overall pick obtained from St. Louis in the Brayden Schenn trade, the Flyers selected Morgan Frost. In 2017-18, the playmaking center was the first runner-up for both the Ontario Hockey League most valuable player award and the OHL scoring championship.

Second-round forward Isaac Ratcliffe, a raw but athletic left winger with a nearly 6-foot-6 frame, came on strong in the second half of the 2017-18 season to enjoy a 41-goal season and then scored a goal for the Phantoms in the debut game of his two-game AHL cup of coffee after his junior campaign ended. Fourth-round forward picks Matthew Strome and Maksim Sushko also took steps forward in their respective games, and Strome has made some early steps toward improving the skating deficiencies that knocked him out of the first three rounds of the Draft.

The four 2017 draftees who are not yet under NHL entry-level contracts all quietly made strides in their development during their draft-plus-one year, although none are on the brink yet of being ready for North American pro hockey.

Third-round goaltender Kirill Ustimenko enjoyed a very strong season in the Russian junior hockey league (MHL) and is a candidate for a roster spot at the 2018-19 World Junior Championships. After a slow start to the campaign, fifth-round forward Noah Cates enjoyed a breakthrough first full season in the USHL and is a highly anticipated freshman arrival at the University of Minnesota Duluth for the 2018-19 season. Cates will take part in the 2018 Team USA summer showcase; the first step in competing for a roster spot at the World Juniors. Swedish forward Olle Lycksell made his SHL debut in 2017-18 and held his own (five goals, seven points in 26 games) at age 18. He, too, is a potential WJC candidate next season. Wyatt Kalynuk, a 20-year-old collegiate freshman last season at the University of Wisconsin, showed promise as a puck-moving defenseman who can also play on the power play.

With the 2018 Draft now at hand, the Flyers hold two picks in the first round (14th and 19th overall) among the nine picks they currently have. The 14th overall pick came over from St. Louis in the Schenn trade, while the 19th pick is Philadelphia’s own selection. Will Hextall stand pat? Will he trade up? Will he trade down? All options are on the table.

On an ongoing basis, the GM said he intends to continue build through the middle with centers (some of whom may be converted to wingers as pros, ala Konecny or Simon Gagne) and mobile defensemen with good two-way games. ideally, the candidate will also have good size and at least one or two will add more righthanded players to the system blueline mix.  Among forwards, the GM said he would like to add a standout goal scorer – whether a natural center or winger –  if the organization is in position to select one, but an organizational emphasis on 200-foot play remains the bigger objective.

It may not be possible to check off all these priority boxes in a single Draft year, but these are Hextall’s stated top priorities with the 2018 Draft on tap this weekend.

Bill Meltzer
About Bill Meltzer 2 Articles
Bill Meltzer is official site contributor http://Flyers.NHL.com , content manager for Flyers Alumni Association (http://flyersalumni.org ), blogger for http://HockeyBuzz.com

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