Despite their overtime loss in Los Angeles on Tuesday, the Flyers have managed a 7-4-1 record since the new year began. On the campaign, they are 20-21-8 and a very different team than the one that limped into the holiday break 11-17-7. While Flyers fans will be relieved that the team has stopped the bleeding on the ice, the team has not done itself any favors in the draft lottery. Through more than half a season they are just the 9th worst team in the NHL, far from the number 1 pick and even further out of the playoffs. Perhaps a trade deadline selloff will increase their lottery odds, or the worst of both worlds season will finally doom inept GM Chuck Fletcher. For now though, the Orange and Black are out of range of Connor Bedard, a generational prospect on par with McDavid and Crosby in terms of hype. The good news? In the most loaded draft class in recent memory, the Flyers may still have an opportunity to land a franchise-changing star.
Adam Fantilli and Leo Carlsson, the top prospects from the college ranks, and Sweden, respectively, will likely be valuable consolation prizes that round out the top 3. Matvei Michkov plays in the KHL and would probably go number 2 overall if it were not for a pro contract that could keep him in Russia for years; that country has been blacklisted by the hockey community. In any case, should the Flyers get lucky and draw the 4th pick, they will doubtlessly pick whichever of the three forwards falls to them. When they do, they will have netted a steal that could have gone first in a different year.
More realistically, the Flyers will pick in the 7-10 range where, bizarrely enough, there will still be major prospects with the potential to be foundational players. Two names that will almost certainly be available on the tail end of the top ten are Colby Barlow, captain of OHL’s Owen Sound Attack, and Brayden Yager of the Moose Jaw Warriors.
Barlow is a bruising winger with elite polish on his net front game. As a skater and passer, Barlow needs work. His hands and ability to drive the net negate those deficiencies though; as the OHL’s top prospect and a likely 50-goal scorer this year, Barlow, who only just turned 18, seems a ready-made NHL power forward. His leadership qualities (Barlow captained the victorious team white in the CHL prospect game on Wednesday) will only bolster his draft stock.
Yager is regarded as the class’s elite two-way player. At the WHL level, he is not one of the elite scorers in a group that may see four players selected in the top 10, with 54 points in 46 games for Moose Jaw. He is far behind Andrew Cristall and Zach Benson (more on them later), let alone Regina’s Bedard, in terms of points, but impresses scouts with astute defensive instincts. Yager has the difficult part of hockey figured out and will only further secure a valuable middle-six role as he develops on offense.
If Yager and Barlow are safe, polished future pros, there are other top-10 picks that wow teams more with their high ceilings than their high floors. Will Smith is a lengthy center and this year’s best US Developmental Program prospect. He is regarded as having best-in-class hands and a complete game that will only improve when he joins Flyers top prospect Cutter Gauthier at Boston College. If the Flyers can deal with the tsunami of bad jokes that will follow a player named Will Smith into Philadelphia, they will have a highly-developed future star with size and skill in equal amounts on their hands. One barrier to acquiring Smith may just be his draft stock; he could be selected as high as fifth overall given the growing regard for the USDP in league circles.
If Smith would be wishful thinking and Barlow and Yager conservative picks, two players that should be available to the Flyers with truly electric qualities are the aforementioned Cristall and Benson. Both are overshadowed by Bedard’s ridiculous domination despite being on pace for 110 points or more themselves, and both could fall to the Flyers if teams are feeling preoccupied with size in the buildup to the draft.
Cristall is among the best passers in the draft and could become an elite playmaker thanks to his hands and vision. Like Mats Zuccarello, the Kelowna Rocket winger makes a major offensive impact without carrying elite physical tools. A slight player, Cristall was second to Bedard in WHL points before being leapfrogged by the surging Benson. With 26 goals and 62 points in 36 games, he is one of the standouts from the free-scoring league and can create for himself and others with the puck at his stick without taking big shots from opposing D-men. Cristall has the potential to electrify, and he may just do that in Philadelphia.
Benson is similar to Cristall in size if not style. Scouts love his scrappy attitude and willingness to win puck battles despite weighing in at just 160 lbs. They love his speed and on-ice awareness even more; Benson is one of the best skaters in the draft and knows where to be at all times on either end of the ice. Unlike Cristall, his offense is generated more from his brain than his stick. A leader on a talented Winnipeg Ice squad, Benson’s game is not unlike that of Travis Konecny, enjoying his best-ever season this year for the Flyers, or the faster-developing Brayden Point.
The Flyers are slowly returning to relevancy thanks in no small part to young players like Cam York and Noah Cates. Tyson Foerster, now with the AHL Phantoms, and Gauthier will bolster that group before long. Adding a player with the pro tools of Barlow or Yager will make a burgeoning youth movement in Philadelphia all the more interesting. If the Flyers can draft the size/skill combination offered by Smith, Cristall’s mercurial skill set, or Benson’s end-to-end focus, though, they will have their most intriguing crop of talent since the days of Richards and Carter.