DALLAS — Having already selected a forward at No. 14, many believed Ron Hextall would utilize the 19th overall pick for a defenseman to solidify the Flyers' first round at both positions.
Instead, Hextall took a chance and decided that the safe pick was not the way to go.
“I’ve never been one to be safe. I don’t think it’s a good philosophy,” Hextall said after the Flyers drafted Jay O'Brien 19th overall (see story). “I don’t think you can be successful that way.”
To the surprise of many, O’Brien was the Flyers' next guy up on the list, a center from Thayer Academy in Braintree, Massachusetts, that many scouting experts had ranked outside the top 30. The Hockey News even had O’Brien listed at No. 61 and there was little expectation he would go off the board in the first round.
So did Hextall reach too high for a player that may have been available in the second round?
“There is risk when you take a kid out of that level,” Hextall said. “If you want to say there’s a concern, he has not played at a high level. So people call that a risky pick because he hasn’t played at a high level. Quite honestly, it’s a tough evaluation no doubt about it, but I feel confident in our scouts. They do a great job and we felt very strong about it.”
Having expressed a desire to add another highly-rated defenseman, Hextall chose to pass up on USNTDP defenseman K’Andre Miller, who the Rangers traded up to No. 22 to pick, and Mattias Samuelsson, the son of Kjell Samuelsson, who was not chosen in the first round.
O’Brien’s numbers from his senior season at Thayer Academy jump off the page, scoring 43 goals and 80 points in just 30 games, but again, the level of competition has to be taken into consideration.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” O’Brien said. “I play the same everywhere I go. I think after playing with the U.S. team and some USHL games and some college games, that’s why I got picked where I got picked. Not just because I played prep school and I know it’s hard for teams to compare and contrast to the OHL to the Q to the USHL. It’s tough.”
O’Brien, who’s committed to play at Providence College next season, had a strong feeling about the Flyers, who spent more time scouting him than other NHL teams.
“I had a great, great meeting with Philly and it was the place I wanted to go,” O’Brien said. “It was a place I wanted to play, such a storied franchise and I couldn’t be happier.”
Perhaps the Flyers' GM felt he could take a risk having already selected Joel Farabee five picks earlier (see story), but under Hextall’s direction, there’s a trust factor within the scouting department and the pre-draft rankings, and the Flyers clearly didn’t want to deviate from that.
“He just has the traits of a hockey player,” Hextall said of O’Brien. “Just his timing of passes, when to shoot, when to pass. He’s a really smart hockey player. He’s competitive. He’s strong. He’s got a little agitator in him. He’s a really good hockey player.”
Right now, there are 31 NHL GMs who love their picks.
Give it four or five more years and we’ll see if that love affair has rubbed off.