Flyers ‘comfortable' at pick No. 18, hope to cash in on ‘forward-deep' NHL draft


It’s neither as strong nor as deep as last year’s NHL draft.

In fact, there’s a fair amount of talk that past the top three or four players, there’s not much difference among the next 20 or so players, which means many clubs can choose based on need rather than pure athletic ability.

At the same time, Friday’s draft in Buffalo, New York, figures to be one of the strongest drafts ever for American-born players as nearly a dozen U.S. players are ranked among the top 25. That’s impressive.

The list is headed by 18-year-old centerman Auston Matthews, who bypassed college and junior to play professionally in Zurich, Switzerland.

Matthews leads a strong American presence that also includes fellow forwards Matthew Tkachuk (son of Keith), Max Jones, Kieffer Bellows (son of Brian), Luke Kunin and Riley Tufte, to name just a few.

Best draft ever for American-born players?

“I would say one of,” Flyers director of scouting Chris Pryor said last week. “If you look progressively, it seems to me it’s progressively getting better every year, which speaks volumes of the program itself, for the number of kids playing, the job USA Hockey is doing at the youth level, the roots, from a development standpoint.

“You can see throughout the country now, it used to be certain pockets — Minnesota, Massachusetts, Michigan area. Now there still are those pockets, but those pockets run pretty deep as far as a country standpoint.

“There’s kids coming out of California, Arizona, Florida. I don’t think there’s any one area that produces the volume as it once was. Again, it talks about the depth of USA Hockey going forward.”

Matthews was born in Northern California but grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona, and shined with the U.S. National Team before heading overseas.

The Flyers enter the draft with 10 picks. Last time that happened was 2006 when they chose two future NHLers — Claude Giroux (No. 22 overall) and Andreas Nodl (second round, No. 39 overall).

Choosing 18th overall, the Flyers need size and speed on the wings. There are enough quality players in this draft to accomplish that task (see Pryor's breakdown).

“It’s a fairly good group of forwards,” Pryor said. “The top end is obviously very good, and usually when the top end is as good as it is, it has a trickle-down effect. If I had to give it a grade, I’d say A-minus, B-plus.

“I think it’s extremely a forward-deep draft, especially the top group. It’s exciting because when the top end is as good as it is, it does push everybody down a little bit. So we’re hoping that we see some of that.”

Now here’s the rub. Many think after the top three or four, the next 20 or so are players of equal talent. So unless a club can leap to the very top, there’s not much incentive to move up. Unless there is a specific player a team absolutely covets.

Theoretically, that implies the Flyers and others can afford to draft based on need, which in this case is forwards.

“I would tend to agree with that,” Pryor said of drafting for need. “I know there’s some conversation, and I’m not saying that I agree with it, but I know there’s conversation that when you get by one and two, you hear scuttlebutt out in the field as far as [who] three [will be].

“So that’s probably fair to say. You get by those first three guys and there is interchangeable pieces depending on need there. It is something that’s probably going to be debated amongst those teams from a needs standpoint. If they do view everything equal, there are probably some people there that can be interchanged.”

The Flyers are already so deep on defense with prospects, they may not have enough room to move all their blue-line talent into the NHL. They are also deep at goalie, where they chose three last year.

“Compared to our defense, I think it’s fair to say,” general manager Ron Hextall said. “We have a little more defense prospects than we do forward prospects.

“It’s no different. Last year, we didn’t have a lot of goalies so we loaded up last year, a little more than I anticipated. This year, there’s a little bit of a focus on forwards, for sure.”

Hextall admits because the talent is so evenly spread out after the top tier, their pick at No. 18 will likely be better than usual. Again, there may be no reason to attempt a move upwards, unless the club has interest in Tkachuk or Canadian left wing Pierre-Luc Dubois.

“I think it’s fair to say that we feel pretty comfortable where we’re at,” Pryor said. “There’s a group of players that we’ve earmarked that we think we have a chance to get. So we like where we’re at right now.”

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