“Ask me in 3-4 years!” responded noted NHL draft guru Craig Button late Saturday after a tweet asked him which team had the best draft.
“You won’t have to because most of the answers will be in. I’m not smart enough to do that exercise right after the draft. It’s self-serving because [the] highest grades go to teams that selected players a person rated favorably.”
By that narrow scope, Ron Hextall’s eight 2018 picks would not put him at the head of the class. With five defensemen off the board before he made his first pick, Hextall and his scouts chose who they believed to be the best player available in winger Joel Farabee, then raised more than a few draftnik eyebrows by choosing high school centerman Jay O’Brien at 19. O’Brien is headed to Providence College.
The Hockey News rated O’Brien as the 61st best prospect. TSN’s Bob McKenzie ranked him 34. Button had the Rangers taking him at 26, assuming, as many did, that at least one of the Flyers’ top two picks would be a defenseman.
Button thought the Flyers would grab defenseman Bode Wilde at 19. He fell to the Islanders at 41. What’s striking is that eight of the 12 picks that followed the choice of O’Brien were defensemen. So not only did Hextall and his staff reach for O’Brien, according to most observers, they bypassed eight defensemen deemed worthy of a first-round pick by other teams.
With other Flyers regimes, this would be alarming. Hextall? Well, he should have built your faith by now, at least when drafting. Hall of Fame defenseman Mark Howe has said on numerous occasions that if the 2015 draft was held today, Ivan Provorov would be the overwhelming first choice. Hextall got him at 7, and used a second first-round pick, 24th overall, to pluck Travis Konecny. The year before, Travis Sanheim was selected with the 17th pick overall, and Hextall took a flier on a slow-skating, hockey-smart Swedish 17-year-old named Oskar Lindblom in the fifth round.
“I’ve never been one to be safe,” Hextall said over the weekend. “I don’t think it’s a good philosophy. I don’t think you can be successful that way, so if we believe in something we do it.”
Ah, but there’s the rub. His boldness begins and ends with the draft. Offering an unrestricted free agent such as John Tavares a multi-year deal, offering some of these prized prospects to acquire an established star via trade – in that, Hextall plays it as safe as your local fire department does celebrating the Fourth of July.
Neither Dale Weise or Jori Lehtera has panned out as well as hoped, but it’s really hard to gauge Hextall’s acumen when it comes to trades – often the final touches of a team’s rebuild. He simply hasn’t made enough impact deals, and appears in no rush to get that started. It’s the unanswered question about how well Sam Hinkie would have done had he been allowed to continue, and it is the single most important reason why Ed Wade was in Houston when his draft picks (Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, etc.), and young finds (Carlos Ruiz, Shane Victorino) paraded down Broad Street in 2008.
Wade’s trades often did not turn out well. See Dennis Cook and Turk Wendell.
Last June, of course, the Flyers traded away Brayden Schenn after selecting Nolan Patrick second overall, receiving the Blues’ first-round pick (27th overall) in 2017 and the first-round pick that netted Farabee this year. Picking center Morgan Frost at 27 seemed a reach to some if not most draft observers, although Chicago had paid particular attention to the small but skilled player before the draft and seemed poised to use their first-round pick, the 29th overall, to draft him.
“There are very few guys where our whole staff likes the guy, and our whole staff liked this guy,” Hextall said at the time.
In his final season with Sault Ste. Marie of the Ontario Hockey League, Frost had 42 goals and 70 assists and an amazing plus-minus of 70. He will attend his second development camp in Voorhees this week. Listed at 5-11, he has added more than 10 pounds since being drafted a year ago and weighs more than 180. He turned 19 on May 14.
Headed to Boston University in the fall, Farabee, listed at 6-feet, weighs 164.
“I definitely need to put on some weight in college,” he said on draft night.
Speaking from experience, it’s a good place to do that.
Hextall is banking on it. He has proved to have a good gut on such matters. Less certain is what happens when he starts taking risks beyond draft day. The Flyers have about $20 million in cap space this summer. How he bets it or doesn’t, how he fits in some missing pieces – four years into Hexy’s ambitious rebuild, it’s still his great unknown.