Ron Hextall is determined to find that needle in the haystack.
While the Flyers' general manager has had very good success with his first-round picks throughout his four-year tenure, uncovering that diamond in the rough can be a crapshoot. A hockey organization can languish for many years if they come up with a first-round bust, but it’s the mid-to-late round picks that can elevate a franchise into championship stratosphere.
Take 2014 in Philadelphia — Hextall’s first draft as Flyers GM. So far, the majority of prospects still haven’t come close to reaching their potential, but the few teams that were able to hit a home run (Tampa Bay, Brayden Point, 79th overall; Nashville, Viktor Arvidsson, 112th overall; Anaheim, Ondrej Kase, 205th overall) have benefitted greatly for their early-career success.
“We always look for one really good NHL quality,” Hextall said. “When you’re talking about third or fourth round, first of all, don’t minimize it. I’m saying like us, for our staff. We need to still try and pick a hockey player, it’s important. Pulling guys out of late rounds is important. When you look at the cycle of a hockey team and depth and everything that we need, it’s important.”
While the attention has centered around the Flyers' two first-round selections, Hextall considers the team’s two fifth-round selections and two more in the seventh round to be equally vital to the Flyers' success.
“We have two seventh-round picks, they're friggin' important,” Hextall said. “We need to do our best to try to get the best guy and try and hit on a guy. Whether we will or not, I don’t know what the odds say, I think it’s 2.3 percent, whatever it is. They’re low odds, we know that, but we’re going to try to do the best we can to try and hit on those guys because eventually, you’re going to hit on some of those guys.”
To further Hextall’s point, 29 of the 30 first-round picks in 2014 have NHL experience. Of the next 180 players to go off the board in Rounds 2-7, you’ll find roughly that same number who have played more than just one NHL game. Oskar Lindblom (138th overall) could eventually pan out to be the late-round gem Hextall has tried to uncover.
Who might Hextall draft
After sorting out his first four drafts, where might Hextall search to find that next promising prospect?
The Flyers GM has selected at least one player from the USHL in each of his first four drafts with Phantoms defenseman Mark Friedman as the highest drafted USHL prospect, 86th overall in 2014.
Jack Drury, C, Waterloo, USHL
A slightly undersized center listed at 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, Drury is the nephew of former NHLer Chris Drury and has acquired some of the same attributes. Drury has been complemented with a tremendous work ethic and plays the game much like his uncle with a grit and determination of contributing in the clutch. Set a new USHL record with a 23-game point streak and has committed to play at Harvard University next season.
Under Hextall, the Flyers have also tapped into Sweden’s top junior league over the past four seasons drafting Lindblom, goaltender Felix Sandstrom and defenseman Linus Hogberg to name a few, and 2018 appears to be a good depth draft for the young Swedes especially among defense.
Nils Lundkvist, D, Lulea, Sweden Jrs.
While I really admire the size and reliability of Filip Johansson, there may be some value with Lundkvist who’s not quite as highly rated as Johnasson. Lundkvist is more of a defensive defenseman who plays bigger than his 5-foot-11, 175-pound frame. Both defensemen are right handed and if the Flyers can’t land a righty blueliner in the first round, they may have to wait until Round 2 or trade back into the third round after surrendering that pick to Detroit as part of the Petr Mrazek trade.
There’s a general overall belief Hextall prefers to select a center capable of converting into a winger, and while he’s admitted that many centers have that versatility, it hasn’t defined Hextall who has drafted just as many pure wingers as centers, including five in last year’s entry draft.
Niklas Nordgren, RW, Finnish Jrs.
Nordgren is small (5-9), tremendously skilled and is willing to get his nose dirty. He was one of the most impressionable players at the U-18 world juniors with a tournament-leading eight goals for Team Finland. Preferably you would like a player of Nordgren’s size to be a lightning-quick skater, but it has improved.