Over the last month, the Flyers have ushered in a “new era of orange” by hiring president of hockey operations Keith Jones and removing the interim tag from general manager Danny Brière. But for assistant general manager Brent Flahr, his preparation for the upcoming draft on June 28 and 29 in Nashville remains business as usual.
His relationship with Brière as it relates to their predraft process has stayed mostly the same as it was last season when Brière served as assistant to the general manager. Brière was out on the amateur scouting circuit this season, often with Flahr to watch the top prospects in the draft, just like he was last year.
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“As he gets into more of a GM role in the future, he’s got a lot of other things to do and it’s harder to get out there,” Flahr told The Inquirer. “But he’s had live viewings of a lot of these guys, and it just makes it easier with him, when you’re communicating about a player back and forth, and we’ve already had those conversations.”
Flahr added that the front-office changes haven’t impacted scouting and the Flyers’ general approach to the draft.
“Danny has his own thoughts on certain types of players or certain things we need, but I think a lot of it, on the draft side, it falls in line with where we’re going,” Flahr said.
Now, Flahr and the Flyers’ scouts are gearing up for the annual NHL scouting combine in Buffalo, N.Y., from June 4-10. He spoke with The Inquirer about various topics related to the draft and Flyers prospects ahead of an important month for the team’s future.
Approach to the draft
The Flyers had a big draft last year, not only in terms of importance, but also in terms of the physical stature of the prospects they selected. Five of their six picks were at least 6 feet tall, and four of the six were at least 6-foot-2.
In some cases, Flahr said the size aspect of their drafting was intentional. But in others, the way the board fell, it just kind of worked out that the Flyers ended up with physically larger prospects. This year, Flahr reiterated that the Flyers want the “biggest, most skilled, fastest, hardest-working” players. It’s every team’s goal to win the Stanley Cup, and to compete in the “heavy game” that characterizes the playoffs, Flahr said it helps to have size.
But he also acknowledged that in this year’s draft in particular, there are players at the top end who don’t possess that coveted size. Top-ranked, undersized players in this class include 5-10 Connor Bedard (the projected No. 1 pick) and 5-9 Zach Benson, No. 6-ranked North American skater by NHL Central Scouting.
“You’ve got to be careful,” Flahr said. “Can’t just be going for size at that point. You’ve got to make sure you’re not walking by elite skill and hockey sense and things like that. So it’s a fine line.”
For all players, and especially for the undersized ones, Flahr views hockey sense and competitiveness as two important traits that can’t be taught. In some cases, players can work on their skating and their shot, they can get stronger, and improve their individual skills, but in Flahr’s experience, hockey sense and competitiveness are difficult to come by.
Flahr also said that skill is an important aspect for the Flyers to focus on in this draft, whether it’s on the back end or up front. Part of the challenge of preparing for the draft is assessing whether it makes sense to take a risk on an offensively skilled player who may have more physical limitations than a well-rounded prospect who is deemed safer.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to each individual case, and the Flyers work all year to compile as much information to make the best-informed decision on risky but potentially high-ceiling players.
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“There’s some players that if the risk is too great, and you have a chance to get a very important player for your organization, maybe he doesn’t quite have the same offensive ceiling, it could weigh out that way,” Flahr said. “And it’s been like that in the past. Sometimes, though, in the high end of the draft, a lot of times you’re trying to hit a home run as well.”
Similar to last year, Flahr said the Flyers will be taking the “best player available” at No. 7. Most prospects at the early end of the draft won’t make an impact at the professional level for at least two to three years. The Flyers’ needs in two or three years will be different than their needs now, underscoring the importance of prioritizing best available over positional preference.
“If all being equal, if we have players rated the same, maybe you go by position,” Flahr said. “But especially early in the draft, we’ll go best player available regardless of position.”
Impressions of the 2023 class
At the 2022 trade deadline, then-general manager Chuck Fletcher showed high regard for the 2023 draft class with his preference for acquiring picks in 2023 over picks in 2024. Flahr said it’s an especially strong draft at the top of the first round and even into the second round.
Flahr also pointed to this year’s class being particularly deep with talented forwards. While there are a handful of defensemen and maybe a goalie or two who could hear their names called in the first round, Flahr added that it’s not as deep of a draft at those two positions.
At the top of the draft, Flahr estimates that there are only two to three players who are currently NHL-ready. Whether those teams want to bring those NHL-ready prospects on board immediately is another question, as it may not be in the player’s best interest to do so.
Gauthier grabbing attention
Flahr recently returned from Tampere, Finland, where he watched prospects Cutter Gauthier and Ronnie Attard compete at the IIHF Men’s World Championships for Team USA. Gauthier, the Flyers’ first-round pick in 2022 (No. 5 overall), had an eye-catching preliminary round of the tournament.
In seven games, Gauthier posted a team-best six goals (second-most in the tournament), eight points (third on the team), 44 shots (most in the tournament), and is a tournament-best plus-10 . Flahr watched on as Gauthier grew more confident from game to game and made an increasingly big impact, relishing the opportunity to play with NHL players at a high level.
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Gauthier’s elite shot aside, Flahr has been impressed by the fact that Gauthier has “the look of a player.”
“He’s big; he’s strong; he’s a powerful skater,” Flahr said. “He really stands out even with men and the pace of his game. But when you see when he’s moving his feet and engaged in attacking the offensive zone with speed, I think he’s hard to defend, even against older players.”
At the tournament, Gauthier is playing on the wing. But in his first season at Boston College, Gauthier made the full-time transition back to center after playing wing at the U.S. National Team Development Program. Flahr was pleased with his progress at the position and he still envisions Gauthier playing at center for the Flyers.
“That’s what we’re hoping for and obviously his play will dictate that,” Flahr said. “Sometimes players start on the wing and move back to center as they find their comfort level. But he’s determined to play center, and we’re obviously all for it if he can.”