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Flyers NHL Draft Memory: Bad Bounce

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The Philadelphia Flyers have existed since 1967 and their one constant has been success. They leaped from expansion franchise to Stanley Cup Champion in seven years and they remained a perennial contender throughout the remainder of the 1970s and 1980s. For this proud franchise run by Ed Snider, the five year period spanning the end of the 1980s into the 1990s was the only true blemish in their storied history. In that period, the Broad Street Bullies had morphed into the Broad Street Bullied. However, in June 1992 a newfound savior wearing #88 rescued the Flyers from sinking further into a period of futility. Eric Lindros led the Flyers into an era of measurable success that would continue for the next two decades, with one glaring exception: the 2006-2007 season.

In the franchise’s 40th anniversary season, the Flyers would start out slow, fire their Stanley Cup winning coach, and stumble into their worst season ever. They lost a great deal of their leadership when Keith Primeau and Eric Desjardins retired in the off-season. But their rapid fall from grace came alarmingly without warning as they had made the playoffs the year before and still had plenty of talent. Now, this team was the cellar dweller of the entire league. They finished dead last! Never before had the Flyers finished with the league’s worst record. In fact, they had only missed the playoffs seven times before in the franchise’s forty year history.

The only glimmer of hope to this miserable season was the prospect of obtaining the first pick in the upcoming draft. The odds were certainly on their side. The Flyers had a 25 percent chance, but this was far less than the 100 percent chance last place teams had enjoyed in the past. The draft lottery system had been put into place in 1995 and ultimately prevented the Flyers from the first pick; instead they would pick at number two. That pick would fall into the hands of the lowly Chicago Blackhawks, an original six NHL franchise that was once proud but had been run into the ground by ownership in recent years. As the fifth worst team in the league, the Blackhawks had only an 8.1 percent chance at the first pick. The Flyers had been denied a great opportunity. Still though, previous second picks have gone onto become stars (Alexei Yashin in 1992, Jason Spezza in 2001, and Eric Staal in 2003), current superstars (Evgeni Malkin in 2004) and even probable Hall of Famers (Brendan Shanahan in 1987 and Chris Pronger in 1993).

On the night of June 22, 2007, the Flyers entered the draft room looking to turn their miserable season and draft lottery misfortune into something special. With the first pick, the Chicago Blackhawks selected Patrick Kane out of Buffalo, New York. The Flyers then selected James van Riemsdyk (referred to often as JVR) out of Middletown, New Jersey. It marked the first time ever that two American born players were selected with the first two picks. It was immediately clear that Kane was more NHL-ready as van Riemsdyk was set to attend the University of New Hampshire. But the domino effect of cruel misfortune was still ahead.

In the two years since the draft, Kane has been a star in the NHL, earning the 2008 Calder Trophy as league’s top rookie. He has completely rejuvenated hockey in the city of Chicago and lead the Blackhawks to the 2009 Western conference finals, tallying a playoff hat trick along the way for good measure. Meanwhile, van Riemsdyk has not yet played in the NHL; he finally signed a contract with the Flyers in the spring of 2009 to forego his final two years of college hockey. As of now, the Flyers have nothing to show for their pick. This must be why some people don’t play the lottery.

To make matters worse, Kane shines so brightly in his uniform #88, worn only before by Eric Lindros, himself a top overall draft pick. Lindros was labeled “The next one” when he came to Philadelphia. He was a part of a plan to bring home multiple Stanley Cups to the city of brotherly love. Instead, he departed Philadelphia sans Lord Stanley’s Cup in 2001 and retired from the NHL in November 2007, just a month after “the new #88” began his own career in the league. As a consolation, JVR has been compared to John LeClair, a tremendous goal scorer for the Flyers in the 1990s, but always second fiddle to Lindros’ immense talents. JVR is a big, strong kid with a great amount of potential to become a player of LeClair’s caliber, but that much remains to be seen. Promise is just that. Promise.

So, for those of you Flyers fans who currently view the 2007 draft as comedy of errors and some sort of cruel irony, you are not alone. The parallels are impossible to ignore. But here’s the real kicker: Are you aware of the reason that the NHL installed the draft “lottery” in 1995? What is, therefore, the true reason the Flyers could not select “the next great #88” Kane with the top pick in 2007? The answer, of course, is Alexander Daigle. (Oh, you mean you didn’t guess him either?). Yes, THAT Alexander Daigle. The Ottawa Senators top pick in the 1993 draft. The illustration of unrealized talent last seen off the ice and dating Pam Anderson. The guy who came to the Flyers in a January 1998 trade and failed to resurrect his superstar promise. The player selected one pick ahead of aforementioned Hall of Fame candidate Chris Pronger! Yes, Chris Pronger was the SECOND pick in the 1993 NHL draft. Oh, how cruel!

It turns out that the Ottawa Senators were accused of purposefully losing games at the end of the 1993 season in order to obtain the top pick to draft Daigle. As a result, in 1995, the NHL installed the draft lottery system much like the NBA had years earlier in order to guard against losing the game’s integrity. It was a perfectly reasonable reaction and a sensible system. Plus, as a perennial Stanley Cup contender, the Flyers were never affected.

The misguided actions of the 1993 Ottawa Senators had no effect on the Flyers until twelve years later on a June night that has already changed the fortunes of two storied franchises. The Flyers have a talented kid filled with only potential. He still may be John LeClair or even better. The verdict is not yet in; it is only the beginning of round three. But, what we do know is that the Blackhawks have their star. They have their own version of #88. Hockey has officially returned to Chicago.

Looks like the ping pong ball bounced the wrong way for the Flyers. This time the city of brotherly love lost another team’s gamble. I can only hope that somewhere in the windy city Clark W. Griswold is rejoicing.