In recent years, the Philadelphia Flyers have chosen a slew of promising defensemen in the NHL Draft. The organization now has four drafted defensemen -- Sam Morin, Travis Sanheim, Shayne Gostisbehere, Robert Hägg -- whom they believe have futures as NHL regulars.
Beyond this core of four, the organization has drafted at least three other defensemen, most notably Reece Willcox, 2014 draftee Mark Friedman and Valeri Vasiliev -- who at least have conceivable potential to emerge eventually as NHL candidates. There is also young AHL defenseman (Mark Alt) whose rights were acquired via trade in 2013 whom the organization believes may also find a role in the NHL at some point. Seventh-round 2014 pick Jesper "Pitbull" Pettersson is an interesting dark horse.
At the current AHL level, Brandon Manning and Oliver Lauridsen are young veteran pros at this point in their careers. Both have limited NHL potential and probably top out as potential seventh defensemen if they ever crack the NHL on more than an emergency recall basis (which is far from guaranteed). To reach that level, further improvements in at least one key aspect of their respective games will be needed. Matt Konan has struggled with injuries and has progressed slowly thus far.
It takes a lot of time and patience to nurture young defensemen through their learning curve. It's highly unlikely that all of the players will blossom into long-term NHL players. The odds have increased that a couple will someday become regulars for the Flyers. The majority will not. Perhaps someone will eventually crack the NHL on a full-time basis but will be in another organization by that point.
Nevertheless, the Flyers are setting themselves up to finally cure the long-term problem of struggling to draft and developing homegrown defensemen. If three of the aforementioned players -- i.e., half of an NHL starting blueline corps -- blossom into Flyers regulars in the years to come, the organization will have done a fine job. Even two would be quite acceptable. Four would be spectacular. Five would be the hockey equivalent of winning the powerball jackpot (don't ever expect it but it's a beautiful dream).
There is a flip side to stockpiling so much farm system depth at defense. On the other side of the coin, the Flyers currently lack forward and goaltending depth in the system.
In terms of goaltenders, there are actually only two players within the entire system. There's incoming Lehigh Valley Phantoms rookie Anthony Stolarz, who has long-range NHL potential (possibly even a future as a starter) if he continues his upward track of the last two years. Stolarz is big and athletic and not nearly as raw as he was at the time he was drafted in the second round of the 2012 Draft, but is still nowhere near NHL-ready and will need nurturing at the AHL level for multiple seasons.
The other goalie in the system is Merrick Madsen, a big-framed 19-year-old who was drafted in the sixth round of the 2013 Draft and is on track to attend Harvard University. He is a very long-term project who may need all four collegiate seasons while also keeping up with the rigorous academic requirements of the university he's committed to attending.
Side note: Madsen is actually the fourth Harvard-recruited goaltender the Flyers have selected in their Draft history. Maybe the fourth time will be the charm. If so, it will be many years until we find that out.
The other three Flyers-drafted goalies with Harvard ties -- Emmett "Tripp" Tracy, Aaron Israel and Dov Grumet-Morris -- all had minor league careers but none made it to the NHL as players. Tracy is a Carolina Hurricanes broadcaster. The still-active Grumet-Morris has been a successful minor league goalie for years but has never played an NHL game. Israel was the only one whom the Flyers actually signed to a contract, and played two minor league seasons in the mid-1990s, including a brief stint with the Hershey Bears (then the Flyers' AHL affiliate) during the 1994-95 season.
The Flyers would've liked to have drafted a goaltender at some point in the 2014 Draft. Unfortunately, there were a couple of runs on goalies in the second and later rounds and this year's draft was not all that deep in goaltenders in the first place. What ended up happening from round two onward as each Flyers selection came up was that the remaining available goalies were significantly lower than where the organization had certain positional players ranked. As a result, the team did not select any goaltenders and there are still only two goaltending prospects in the entire farm system.
As for the forward ranks, the Flyers are fortunate in that their forward nucleus currently at the NHL level -- Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier, Wayne Simmonds and Matt Read -- are all players in their early to mid 20s. Right now, there is very little forward depth in the farm system. If he can continue to show improved commitment to his play away from the puck and the need to keep his feet moving, fourth-year pro Jason Akeson will have a shot at cracking the NHL lineup out of training camp.
In the long-term, the Flyers hope that at least one among 2014 draftees Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Oskar Lindblom and Radel Fazleev someday emerges to become a solid NHL player. We will not even know for another couple years if any of them appear to be an NHL track.
I discussed all of the Flyers 2014 draft picks at length in my recent Draft wrapup
. As a side note, I will add that the Flyers 2012 Draft crop currently looks like it could produce multiple future NHL players and that several notable scouting observers, including TSN's Craig Button, think the Flyers could ultimately look back at the 2014 crop as an even better one. Only time will tell.
Three of the Flyers' picks from 2012 will be pro rookies this season. The organization's first-round pick, two-way center Scott Laughton may crack the NHL roster this season. It could possibly out of training camp if he makes himself impossible for Craig Berube to cut or may happen later in the season if Laughton is sent to the AHL and does well there. We already discussed Stolarz, the team's second-round selection, and third-rounder Gostisbehere.
Taylor Leier, the Flyers' fourth-round pick from the class of 2012, will be a pro rookie this season with the Phantoms. A speedy and versatile two-way forward, Leier is believed to have future third-line potential at the NHL level if his development continues steadily at the professional level. It probably won't happen this year, but at least there is a foundation from which Phantoms coach Terry Murray can work.
Beyond Akeson, the holdover prospects at the AHL level are pretty slim pickings. Nick Cousins, the club's third-round selection in 2011, had a bumpy rookie AHL season as he began trying to make the transition from a somewhat undisciplined and one-dimensional junior hockey offensive standout to a more well-rounded pro. He played well late in the 2013-14 season, and needs to pick up where he left off.
The same thing goes for second-year pro Petr Straka. Signed by the Flyers last year as a free agent after a big overage QMJHL season, the former Columbus Blue Jackets second-round pick had some difficulties as a rookie with the Phantoms last season. The winger finished pretty well, though, and will need to pick up the pace in his second AHL season. Straka is primarily a scoring-line prospect, so he'll need both to score more frequently and also pay a little more consistent attention to the other details of the game. As with Cousins, Straka's second season with the Phantoms will be a crucial one.
Brandon Alderson, a winger signed as an overager free agent in 2013, quietly had a solid rookie AHL season in 2013-14 (including 14 goals). He is a dark horse candidate to emerge as an NHL role-playing prospect, as he has good size and did a commendable job handling the responsibilities Murray gave him last season.
Currently, none of the forward prospects in the Flyers system project as a likely top-six forward at the NHL level. Laughton could surprise offensively but can more conservatively be projected as a gritty third-liner who is tough to play against.
It is the lack of current top-half of the forward lineup candidates in the farm system plus the potential availability of either one or two lineup spots in the top-six (the trade-vacated Scott Hartnell spot plus Vincent Lecavalier's spot when and if he is traded by the start of next season) that leads me to believe the Flyers would be among the NHL teams most heavily interested in winger Kevin Hayes if the Chicago Blackhawks' 2010 first-round pick declines to sign a contract with Chicago and opts for unrestricted free agency on August 15.
Acquiring Hayes is far from a certainty, either following a trade for his rights or via free agency in mid-August. The Hawks still want to convince him to sign and he will have a slew of alternative options if he wants to go elsewhere.
If it would be a trade, the Flyers would have to top the automatic 2015 second-round pick compensation the Hawks will receive from the NHL if they lose Hayes to unrestricted free agency. It would take a lot of boldness and risk-tolerance to trade something such as the San Jose 2015 third-round pick acquired in the Tye McGinn deal plus the Flyers own 2016 second-rounder (they don't have a 2015 second-rounder due to the Andrew MacDonald trade with the Islanders) for the right to negotiate with Hayes prior to Aug. 15.
The Flyers would probably ask for permission to talk to Hayes' agent Robert Murray first to get a sense of Hayes' willingness to play for the Flyers. The reason why Hayes appears reluctant to sign with the powerhouse Blackhawks is that the 22-year-old wants to play in the NHL next season and get a crack at the top six. That is unlikely to happen in Chicago. In Philly, Hartnell's old spot is being penciled in right now for veteran R.J. Umberger and second-year NHLer Michael Raffl and possible Akeson could also compete for a spot on the first or second line. A Lecavalier trade would open up another job to be won.
If Hayes were signed via free agency, the Flyers would have to make a better pitch than other teams that also have openings in their lineups. The most that Hextall and Craig Berube could or would tell Hayes is this: "We can't guarantee you a top-six spot or even an NHL job to start the season but we can promise that you will get a fair shot at earning a spot. The rest will be up to you, because we can't just hand you a spot."
However, it is also pretty clear that Hayes would instantly become the Flyers' top forward prospect (and its most immediately NHL ready) if they could somehow land the 22-year-old Boston College prospect. His body type and skating ability both fit right in Ron Hextall's wheelhouse of what the organization is looking for and the fact he plays wing -- a position of need at the NHL level -- is all the more fodder for mutual interest.
If the Flyers cannot acquire Hayes -- and the odds of doing so are less than 50-50 -- then Laughton remains the Flyers undisputed top forward prospect and the closest to being immediately NHL ready. The others fall in line a significant step behind him right now.