The Flyers were officially eliminated from the playoffs Tuesday when they lost 4-1 to a red-hot Minnesota Wild team that won it’s seventh straight game and is going to make a hard push for the Stanley Cup in a Western Conference that on the surface seems to be the Colorado Avalanche and then everyone else.
Maybe it was apropos that it was the Wild that eliminated the Flyers. After all, it’s the former team of Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher and assistant GM Brent Flahr.
Many fans believe that moving on from the Fletcher/Flahr tandem was just what the doctor ordered for the Wild, who are on pace to set a franchise record for points in a season (the current projection is 109 points).
However, a closer look at the 2021-22 Wild has a lot of Fletcher/Flahr’s fingerprints on it.
At the top of their scoring chart is Kirill Kaprisov, who is making a late run at contending for the Hart trophy as the league MVP. He’s currently tied for seventh in the league in scoring with 82 points (37G, 45A), but unlike a few of the guys in front of him who have superstar teammates to help boost their point totals (Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in Edmonton, Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk in Calgary and Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner in Toronto), Kaprisov is 15 points better than his next-best scoring teammate (only Jonathan Huberdeau in Florida has a bigger disparity among Hart Trophy candidates).
Kaprisov was a fifth round pick by the Wild under Fletcher and Flahr in the 2015 NHL entry draft.
I asked Fletcher about him recently, and when he “knew” Kaprisov was going to be a special player.
“It was his second year after we drafted him,” Fletcher said. “We were a little worried about his skating initially, but once we saw that improve from one year to the next, we knew there was something special there.”
In that same draft, the Wild selected Joel Eriksson-Ek in the first round. Eriksson-Ek has 19 goals and 37 points this season for the Wild as a good secondary scoring option.
Marcus Foligno also has 19 goals this season. He was acquired via trade by Fletcher in the summer of 2017 for Jason Pominville, who had two more mediocre seasons with Buffalo before retiring, journeyman depth defenseman Marco Scandella, and a fourth round draft pick. Sounds like a good deal for Minnesota that is still reaping rewards (Fletcher also acquired Tyler Ennis and third round pick as part of that deal.
Most impressive though, are the trio of defensemen on the Wild currently that all were brought in under the Fletcher regime.
Jared Spurgeon was scooped up by Fletcher after Spurgeon never signed with the New York Islanders, the team that drafted him. and has been a pillar on defense for the Wild for more than a decade. He leads all Wild defensemen with 29 points.
Then there’s Matt Dumba, who was a 2012 first round pick, who is in his ninth season with the Wild, has become a fan favorite and community conscious player who was a finalist for the Masterton Award last season (won by the Flyers Oskar Lindblom), who just so happens to be a solid contributor as a top 4 defenseman for Minnesota.
Finally, there’s Jonas Brodin, who was their first round pick in 2011, another defensive mainstay for the past 10 years. Imagine having three reliable and talented defensemen who could play together in the same defensive corps for a decade. That’s what Fletcher and his staff brought to the Wild.
There are other players on this team as well from Fetcher’s time: Jordan Greenway, the second round selection in that fruitful 2015 draft has been a solid, bottom six forward contributor as has Brandon Duhaime, who was a fourth round selection in 2016.
That’s eight players contributing to a Stanley Cup contender four years after Fletcher was fired, that he brought to that organization.
I’m not here to tell you that makes him a rock star GM, but it is evidence that he has the wherewithal to build a winner.
The difference here in Philadelphia is, this team is a mess. And Fletcher already tried one makeover coming into this season that failed – for a variety of reasons – but nevertheless, it failed.
So, it’s fair to question his ability to fix a team that has been badly broken for almost a decade now.
Keep in mind, though, that Fletcher hasn’t been here long enough to really see any of his draft picks develop, like they have in Minnesota.
The only Fletcher draft pick for the Flyers to even play in the NHL so far is Cam York. But more are coming. The Flyers signed two of their NCAA draft picks this past week (although one of them – Noah Cates – was a Hextall pick). A third is likely coming within the next two weeks.
And the Flyers are in the hunt for at least one NCAA free agent to be as well.
When you look at Fletcher’s drafts here, there’s a lot to be excited about, especially the 2020 draft class, which could provide the Flyers with five players who eventually play with regularity in the NHL. Time will tell on that front, but the last time the Flyers had five players from the same draft class play at least 100 games in the NHL was 2003, that’s how infrequently it happens. (The others were 1990, 1979 and 1978, but those drafts were 12 rounds long, not seven).
And while fans can start to get excited about the likes of Tyson Foerster and Emil Andrae and Zayde Wisdom and Elliot Desnoyers, they should really be focused on these college additions, who could not only have an impact in this final month of the season, but even be part of the conversation when training camp opens in the Fall.
And it could have a really American feel to it.
Just to get a good, objective opinion on these players, I reached out to long-time NHL Scout with Toronto and Montreal (and a cup of coffee with Seattle) and current NCAA hockey analyst for CBS Sports Dave Starman to get his take on these players.
Here’s what he had to say:
Noah Cates (LW, 2017 5th round, #137, University of Minnesota-Duluth)
“Noah is a skill guy who doesn’t need room or time to make a play. He has excellent 1-2-3 explosion and separates quickly. I think his puck protection skills are underrated. He has that dogmeat and grit in his game if he needs it. Another part of his game that is underrated is that he’s pretty good in his own end and can navigate to where he needs to go without the puck.”
Cates made his NHL debut in Minnesota on Tuesday. He is from nearby Stillwater, Minn., and had a pretty solid game in front of family and friends. He played 14:52, got off three shots on goal, delivered three hits and had three takeaways. He even garnered some time on the penalty kill.
One for the mantle for the Minnesota native. pic.twitter.com/KEYEe2DPVN
— Philadelphia Flyers (@NHLFlyers) March 30, 2022
Starman compared Cates to Montreal forward Ryan Poehlig, who was taken in the same draft in the first round at pick No. 25.
“Really, how much difference is there between Noah and Ryan? Not much. They’re not going to be big scorers at the NHL level but the way they play the game and with their hockey IQ being so high, they’re going to be regular contributors to the bottom six for their teams.”
Considering Poehlig, who also played in the uber-competitive NCHC at St. Cloud St., was a first rounder and Cates was a fifth rounder, this should turn out to be a win for the Flyers, and could be one of the few Ron Hextall draft picks that really works out for the franchise.
Ronnie Attard (RD, 2019 3rd Round, #72 overall, Western Michigan University)
“I can’t believe Attard wasn’t in the Top 10 for the Hobey Baker Award (given to the best player in college hockey). He can be a special player. His skating is really good. He can get up the ice quick. He also has fast instincts – he sees opportunity and he goes. He can start a breakout and attack the next layer with confidence. He’s like a fourth forward in the offensive zone. He has a very accurate shot and is really good at finding a secondary shot lane when the first one isn’t there. Honestly, I think he’s been miss-sold. He’s really good defensively. The knock is Ronnie defends with his feet first and foremost, but he can be physical and breakup plays. He’s not a power play quarterback either. He’s better as an off-defenseman. I think he’s a No. 4 defenseman in the NHL. I know a lot of people in Philly really liked Shayne Gostisbehere. I’ll tell you, Attard is a much better version of Gostisbehere.”
Attard, 23, signed his entry-level contract with the Flyers Tuesday. He should meet them back in Philly on Friday for practice and well-could make his NHL debut against Toronto on Saturday.
Bobby Brink (RW, 2019 2nd Round, #34 overall, University of Denver)
“Oh boy, Bobby Brink is the craftiest little shit out there. Seriously. There’s been such a growth in his game. He’s a hockey player, now. He’s always been skilled, creative, fast and making a highlight reel play every time you look up, but he’s a player now. By that I mean he’s off the perimeter and he’s in the soup. He takes puck to the net. He’s not afraid to go in front and get the puck and find a way to cash in either himself or with a pass. He’s unbelievable attacking the offensive zone. He’s the best player in college at coming into the zone under-numbered and by the time he gets rid of the puck it’s at least even-numbered or to his advantage. He leads you to believe he’s going to make the simple play, and the next thing you know he’s passing it to the third trailer who is wide open and was nowhere near the play when Brink came into the zone. He’s also a great power play guy with a big shot who can score from distance and doesn’t have a problem getting his shot off. You’ll see him real soon, but I do think he’s the kind of player who could use 80-to-100 games in the AHL before he’s really ready for the NHL, but once he gets there, watch out.”
Brink is only a junior at University of Denver, and has led his team to the Frozen Four, where they will face University of Michigan on April 7 in the National Semifinal. While it’s always possible that he could go back to Denver for a senior season, the thought around the Flyers organization – and really everywhere – is he will sign with the Flyers as soon as his NCAA season ends.
Bobby Brink forces the turnover and feeds Cole Guttman to make it 1-1!
— TLY (@TheLibertyYell) March 26, 2022
Brink is one of the 10 names being considered for the Hobey Baker award, and I spoke to two people who had votes on the Hobey who believe he will be announced as one of the three finalists. Brink had 56 points (14G, 42A) in 39 games for Denver this season.
Starman believes that Michigan forward Matty Beniers, who was drafted No. 2 overall by the Seattle Kraken in the 2021 draft, is the slight favorite over his Wolverine teammate, Freshman defenseman Luke Hughes (eligible for the 2022 draft), and Brink, but added that this is the most wide-open race for the Award in years.
There’s one more college name I wanted to share with you though that could be linked with the Flyers:
Ben Meyers (LW, Free Agent, University of Minnesota)
“He’s a great offensive player. He’s another guy with a great release and a great ability to play in traffic. He’s able get a hard shot and heavy shot through traffic too, which not a lot of guys can do. He’s really gifted that way.”
Like Brink, Meyers is still playing in the Frozen Four as his University of Minnesota squad will face Minnesota St. in the other National semifinal on April 7.
Also like Brink, Meyers is one of the 10 names up for the Hobey Baker Award.
Unlike Brink, Meyers was undrafted and will be a free agent, assuming he doesn’t decide to go back to Minnesota for his senior season.
However, he’s already 23-years-old, and NHL teams are interested. So, he may jump at a chance to get a pro contract.
Meyers co-captained Minnesota to a regular season Big Ten championship, after scoring 36 points (16 goals, 20 assists) in 30 games. He also has a 58.4 face-off winning percentage this season and scored four points (2G, 2A) in four games for the United States at the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
Why am I giving you information on Meyers? A few sources (two from within the Flyers and one from outside the organization) have told me Meyers is a player they covet and would like to sign next week.
However, reports were out earlier Wednesday that the Wild could be the frontrunner for Meyers, who like Cates and Brink is another Minnesota native (Attard is from Michigan).
Starman wondered though if signing with the Wild would be the right thing for Meyers and suggested going elsewhere – like the Flyers – might be a better move.
“The standard belief is it’s better to finish your career at home than start your career at home,” Starman said. “(Signing with the Wild) would be the dumbest thing in the world for him. It hardly ever pans out. With the exception of (New York Rangers defenseman) Adam Fox, how many other players start their career at home and succeed there?”
Keep an eye on Meyers to see if he choses to stay home or not. Because if he’s ready to leave Minnesota, the Flyers will make a big push (although I also heard Steve Yzerman and the Detroit Red Wings are interested as well…. and that could be a more appealing locale for Meyers). We’ll see.
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