Fourth and final in a series.
LET'S PLAY a little game.
Out of the Flyers' previous eight first-round picks, dating back to 2003, how many of them were spent drafting a defenseman?
The answer would be one: Luca Sbisa in 2008.
Seven of the Flyers' last eight first-round picks were forwards: Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Steve Downie, Claude Giroux, James van Riemsdyk, Sean Couturier and Scott Laughton. You probably can argue that only Downie, selected 29th overall in 2005, is a bust - but he's been marred by injuries.
Sbisa, now 23, a Swiss, was thrust into the Flyers' lineup in 2008 - less than a full calendar year after making the jump to North American hockey - and played 39 games before being sent back to juniors. At the 2009 draft, Sbisa was gone.
Paul Holmgren dealt Sbisa to Anaheim with Joffrey Lupul and two first-round picks in exchange for Chris Pronger and Ryan Dingle. It was a trade Holmgren would likely make 10 times out of 10 - especially as Sbisa continued to dance among the NHL, AHL and juniors until finally landing a full-time job last season with the Ducks.
What does all of that information tell you?
The Flyers aren't particularly adept at drafting and nurturing defensemen. Developing a defenseman takes time - usually years to get accustomed to the speed, size and nuances of the game - and the Flyers' brass and their fans are accustomed to results and instant gratification.
In 2003, fourth overall pick Joni Pitkanen lasted a little more than three seasons with the Flyers (206 games) before being traded to Edmonton for Lupul and Jason Smith.
In fact, perhaps the Flyers' only example of homegrown defensive talent over the last decade is Marc-Andre Bourdon - a third-round pick in 2008 - and his career is on hold because of concussions after only 45 NHL games. (Erik Gustafsson was an undrafted free agent.)
There has been a long list of failures: 2005 third-round pick Oskars Bartulis played 66 games before being bought out of a $1.8 million deal; 2006 second-round picks Mike Ratchuk and Denis Bodrov have never played in an NHL game; 2007 second-round pick Kevin Marshall has played 10 NHL games and was traded in 2012; and 2009 third-round pick Simon Bertilsson never even made it to North America.
The Flyers finally were able to nab a seemingly can't-miss defender in Shayne Gostisbehere (pronounced GOSS-tiss-bare) in the third round last summer. Gostisbehere, 20, needs to continue to grow into his body and learn the tricks of the trade at Union College.
Other teams have turned out more shots in the dark by accident - such as seventh-rounder Oliver Lauridsen (2009) - than the Flyers have recently. It really is astonishing.
It's also part of the reason the Flyers have one of the most barren farm systems in hockey. For the third straight spring, the Flyers were ranked last among all 30 teams in prospect talent by HockeysFuture.com. The other issue is that the Flyers went two full drafts - 2009 and 2010 - without either a first- or a second-round pick because of trades.
The NHL draft is June 30. Naturally, many of the mock drafts have the Flyers targeting a tough defenseman - whether it's Finland's Rasmus Ristolainen or Darnell Nurse, who is the nephew of Donovan McNabb - with the No. 11 overall pick.
Holmgren is a shrewd talent evaluator, the man responsible for most of the Flyers' drafting under Bob Clarke. The one benefit of the 119-day NHL lockout this winter was giving Holmgren an opportunity to travel and personally scout many of the prospects available.
Even with the 11th pick, Holmgren said he is "confident" the Flyers will get a good player. He said likely six or seven players can make an immediate NHL impact in the fall.
Which direction do the Flyers go next month: draft for positional need or draft the best player available? This franchise is starving for a cornerstone defenseman. Amazingly, every full-time defenseman on the Flyers' roster was acquired either via trade or free agency.
The Flyers have a clear strength at evaluating forwards and shepherding them to the NHL. At No. 8 two summers ago, the Flyers passed on two top-flight defensemen in Dougie Hamilton, whose talents are on display with the Bruins in the playoffs, and Jonas Brodin, who was snubbed as a Calder Trophy finalist this year for Minnesota, to take Couturier.
Don't be surprised if the Flyers stick to their strength. Seven sure picks out of eight is better than one brutal, first-round miss. Plus, as we may find out this summer, you can always move one of those picks to find that defensive help you've always needed.
Next week: A look at the
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