By Sam Bush
You have to hand it to Flyers general manager Ron Hextall, who has been cleaning up the mess left by his predecessor Paul Holmgren.
And this just-concluded NHL draft is a good example.
After several years of finding outstanding defensive prospects in the draft – one of which has already materialized in Shayne Gostisbehere – Hextall and the scouting staff used their first five selections on forwards and ended up with a total of seven, while also taking a pair of defensemen as well as the first goaltender selected in the draft.
“We’re happy,” Hextall said. “Moving into the draft, we knew we’d be heavy with forwards. We ended up that way.”
After taking Russian center German Rubtsov with the 22nd overall pick on Friday night, the Flyers started early on Saturday with the sixth pick of the second round thanks to their trade with Winnipeg. They took 6-1, 174-lb center Pascal Laberge of the QMJHL’s Victoriaville Tigres, who was projected as a low-first-round pick by Sportsnet’s Damien Cox. Laberge had 23 goals and 45 assists for Victoriaville last season, leading the team in both assists and points.
“We had a good chat here at the combine,” Laberge said. “They looked interested in me. I think my style of play [fits] good with them. So I had a good feeling.”
The Flyers then had two additional picks four spots apart in the second round – their own at No. 48 and Chicago’s at No. 52, which they acquired in the Kimmo Timonen trade in 2015. The 48th pick was goaltender Carter Hart, the first netminder taken in the draft. Hart had an outstanding season for the WHL’s Everett Silvertips, playing 63 of the team’s 72 games in the regular season and putting together a 35-23-4 record, a 2.14 GAA and a .918 save percentage along with six shutouts. He was named the Canadian Hockey League’s goaltender of the year, making him now the second Flyers prospect to receive such an honor – last year’s first-round pick, Ivan Provorov, was named the CHL’s defenseman of the year after this season.
Probably most importantly is the mental part of [his game,] Hextall said. “That’s a big part for a goaltender and he seems to have everything in place. [He has] all the things you look for bouncing back from bad games. Those are the type of things you look for. Couldn’t be more excited to have him.”
“It’s a little surreal right now.” Hart said, “Just to hear your name called… there’s no words to describe it. I was just hoping to get drafted. To be able to go to such a classy organization like Philadelphia, it’s an unbelievable feeling.”
The Flyers returned to the forward position four picks later with the 52nd, which they used on USHL right-winger Wade Allison. The 6-2, 204-pounder won a Clark Cup championship with the Tri-City Storm last season, picking up 47 points (25G, 22A) in 56 regular season games before catching fire in the playoffs with nine goals and seven assists in 11 postseason contests. Five of those goals and four of the assists came in the course of three Clark Cup Final games. Allison will play at Western Michigan University this fall.
The team’s third-round pick was left-winger Carsen Twarynski out of Calgary of the Western Hockey League. The 6-2, 196-pound forward played with both Travis Sanheim and Radel Fazleev on the Hitmen this year, contributing 20 goals and 25 assists for 45 points in 67 games. Twarynski had a plus-21 rating to lead the Hitmen, and was tied for the team lead with four shorthanded goals.
“I talked to Travis a little bit at the end of the season and asked him about how all of this is going to go down and how it went for him,” Twarynski said. “He just told me to enjoy it. He’s told me a lot of good things about Philadelphia.”
In the fourth round, the Flyers brought in 6-1, 208-lb center Connor Bunnaman of the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers. Bunnaman is coming off a 16-goal, 38-point season for the Rangers, more than double his point production from his rookie year of 2014-15. The Flyers briefly held a second fourth-round pick that they obtained from Arizona, which conveyed it to complete last year’s trade for Nicklas Grossmann after acquiring the pick from San Jose earlier in the week. But the Flyers flipped that pick to the New York Islanders in exchange for a fourth-round pick next year.
“We had a lot of picks,” Hextall said. “Sometimes you get a little too greedy and you want to use your picks, and you forget about next year or the year after. I wanted to move one or two. We have nine picks next year.”
The latter rounds saw the Flyers dip into the Swedish hockey system to pick up a pair of offensively-gifted defensemen. The first selection came in the fifth round, where the Flyers took 6-1, 176-lb blue-liner Linus Hogberg with the 139th pick. Hogberg has spent the last two seasons in the Vaxjo Lakers system, splitting time between their U-18 and U-20 teams. Most of that time has been spent with the U-20 club, which plays in Sweden’s second division. He had seven goals and 18 assists for 25 points in 39 games this year after recording just three points (1G, 2A) in 40 games for that team a year before.
In the seventh round, the Flyers took 6-3, 203-lb defenseman David Bernhardt with the 199th pick. Bernhardt has played in the Djurgårdens IF system since 2012 and has spent most of the last two seasons on its U-20 team in the SuperElit, the same league as Hogberg’s Vaxjo squad. Bernhardt had 10 goals and 28 assists for 38 points in 45 games last year, which was the second-highest point total of any defenseman in that league last year. Bernhardt was the 17th-ranked European skater in NHL Central Scouting’s midterm rankings, and although he fell to 38th in the final tally, he was still rated considerably higher than where he was taken by several draft pundits.
In between those two picks, the Flyers grabbed two other centers with their pair of sixth-round picks – their own, and one obtained last year from Los Angeles when the Flyers traded down with the Kings in the 2015 draft. Their own pick brought in a second USHL product, center Tanner Laczynski. The 6-0, 174-pound Illinois native went undrafted in 2015 but posted a total of 63 points in 52 games last season split between the Chicago Steel and the Lincoln Stars. Laczynski will suit up for Ohio State University in the fall.
The other sixth-round pick went to select 5-10, 168-lb center Anthony Salinitri of the OHL’s Sarnia Sting. Salinitri posted 17 goals and 30 points in 62 games for Sarnia, where he played with Flyers prospect Travis Konecny. He was a first-round pick of Sault Ste. Marie in the 2014 OHL draft, but Sarnia thought highly enough of him to trade Anthony DeAngelo, a 2014 first-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning, for him at the 2015 OHL trade deadline.