On April 29, the Flyers’ fortune changed 10 years after the same event dealt them a blow that may have altered the team’s narrative over the last decade. This time, they won.
The Flyers, by the fruit of blind luck, jumped 11 spots in the draft lottery to No. 2. It was the largest hurdle in lottery history. It could be a moment we look back on as a game-changer. It could be many things. What it’s not is what happened on April 10, 2007, when the Flyers, who finished with an NHL-worst 56 points in 2006-07, lost the lottery to the Blackhawks.
Ten years ago, the lottery operated under a different system. Until 2013, the lottery consisted of the five teams with the fewest points in the standings. No team could move up more than four spots, and the team with the fewest points (the Flyers) could only pick either No. 1 or 2 in the draft. The Flyers had a 25 percent chance of getting the No. 1 pick.
We know the story. Chicago, which had an 8.1 percent chance at the top pick, won the lottery, and the Flyers, who had the worst season in franchise history, got sloppy seconds. The lottery system changed in 2013. Now, any team that does not qualify for the playoffs is eligible to win the lottery, which paved the avenue for the Flyers’ climb last month.
"I'm not sure it really matters," Paul Holmgren, then-Flyers' GM and now team president, told NHL.com on April 12, 2007, of losing the lottery. "The thing about having the first pick is you get the first pick. Now, we don't, but I'm confident we're still going to get a good player. As I've said all along, I'm not sure there's an immediate impact guy there anyway."
That is where the 2007 and 2017 similarities come into play. Ten years later, we know how the 2007 draft panned out, with Patrick Kane, the top pick, being head and shoulders atop the class, and James van Riemsdyk, whom the Flyers drafted No. 2, now playing in Toronto.
There was an immediate impact player in the 2007 draft, which is where Holmgren was wrong, and it was Kane, who scored at a 0.89 points per game clip in his rookie season, finishing with 72 points in 82 games.
van Riemsdyk never developed into an impact player with the Flyers. In 2013, the Flyers traded van Riemsdyk to the Maple Leafs, where he’s matured into a solid complementary scoring winger with a 30-goal season under his belt and two 60-plus-point campaigns.
“We were both put in different situations and we were both in different stages, I guess of our hockey development,” van Riemsdyk told The Daily Herald, a Chicago-area newspaper, May 27, 2010. “I did what I thought was best for me to be a better player, and he was obviously ready to make that jump right after the draft. He made it happen right away.”
If we go back to 2007, it was not considered to be a slam dunk atop the draft. It was a three-player race between Kane, van Riemsdyk and Kyle Turris, who went No. 3 to Arizona. There was thought that even if the Flyers had the top pick, “JVR” would have been the pick.
“All three of these kids were very close. Very close,” Holmgren told Kevin Kurz, now with NBC Sports Bay Area, after the draft on June 23, 2007. “We’d have been happy with any of them, but you have to make a decision and James ended up on top.”
Fast forward to this year. The Flyers’ luck shifted. They finished with 88 points, seven points out of a playoff spot. Without the lottery, they would have picked 13th in what general manager Ron Hextall has described as “an average draft” — like it was in 2007, a draft that generated five All-Stars, including the Flyers’ Jakub Voracek, who was drafted seventh overall by Columbus, and van Riemsdyk is not one of them. There were several big misses in the draft.
This year, it's widely considered a two-player draft, with Brandon Wheat Kings center Nolan Patrick and Halifax Mooseheads center Nico Hischier as the cream of this year’s crop. Barring any unforeseen surprises, the Flyers will come away with either Patrick or Hischier come June 23. It really is as simple as whoever New Jersey does not take at No. 1.
But that is where we see the difference between 2007 and 2017 for the Flyers. Ten years ago, the Flyers played their way into a top-two pick and rotten luck cost them the top pick. Their choice was between the two players Chicago didn’t take — van Riemsdyk and Turris.
In van Riemsdyk, the Flyers were drafting a player who came up in the USA Hockey National Team Development Program and still needed years to develop. He decided to play at the University of New Hampshire before turning pro after his sophomore season.
With either Patrick or Hischier — it seems to be a pick-your-poison situation — the Flyers will be getting a player closer to making an immediate impact than they did in 2007. Neither will have the impacts we have seen from the No. 2 picks from the last two drafts — Jack Eichel and Patrik Laine.
When asked about Patrick and Hischier’s NHL readiness on May 8, Hextall refused to tip his hat about his views on the prospects, sticking to his mantra that any kid has to earn a spot.
“We would like to think we know that, but until the kid comes in and shows you what he can do … you make an educated judgment and then you go from there,” Hextall said. “A player has to come in and prove that he’s ready, and at this age, not many are.”
Patrick has three years of experience in the Western Hockey League, and there is some belief he will not benefit from a fourth season in the WHL. Despite battling groin and abdominal injuries last season, he still produced above a point-per-game pace (1.39).
As a 17-year-old two years ago, Patrick put up 102 points in 72 regular-season games and led the Wheat Kings to a WHL championship with 30 points in 21 playoff games. He still will have to prove his worth to either the Flyers or Devils, but one has to believe the likelihood of him making an immediate impact is far greater than him going back to junior.
Hischier broke out during the world junior championships for Switzerland, scoring four goals and three assists in five games. With Halifax during his rookie season in the QMJHL, Hischier finished as a 1.5 points-per-game player, putting up 86 points in 57 games and earning the league’s Rookie of the Year award. Dan Marr, the director of NHL Central Scouting, describes the Swiss center as “definitely worth the price of admission.”
There are a plethora of reasons why 2007 and 2017 are different for the Flyers. Luck is atop the list. But the player they’ll be getting this June is one they should be able to reap immediate benefits from, something they weren’t getting in 2007.