Selecting players in any draft in any sport is a crap shoot or a roll of the dice. Sometimes you hit big and sometimes you don’t. The goal of every general manager is to look like a genius in setting up the future of his team. Sometimes, an obvious player is there waiting for you when you select. However, there are times that a GM tries to become too crafty and tries to be the “smartest guy in the room”. When that happens, it can go one of two ways. The experience the Philadelphia Flyers have had recently with former top prospect Jay O’Brien shows us how not to do it. And Daniel Briere needs to pay attention to this.
O’Brien was selected in 2018 as the 19th overall pick. Just five spots earlier, the Flyers had selected Joel Farabee and it was hoped that the two could be the bright backbone of an offensive attack in the future. So far, the returns on Farabee have been pretty good and his future looks bright.
O’Brien was an interesting choice to be picked so high. He played well in high school, but that’s high school. He scored 24 goals at the Thayer Academy in his first year and followed that up with a 43 goal, 27 assist campaign in 2017-18. Again, that’s good, but that’s against high school competition.
He didn’t perform much else anywhere else. Playing for the Youngstown Phantoms of the USHL in 2016-17, he had one assist in four games. In 2017-18, as part of the U.S. National Under-18 Team, he played in a seven game tournament and had one goal and one assist. Still, then GM Ron Hextall saw enough in him to roll the dice and take his chances on the kid.
The Hockey Writers went into depth on what they saw from O’Brien heading into the draft.
"“He demonstrates both good acceleration and speed and uses it to create space and scoring chances. He can finish as demonstrated by his 43 goals. He also has really good hands. Whether he’s unleashing a shot or making a subtle extra move to create a shooting lane, he can do that at top speed and create havoc for opponents.The obvious question that comes up with O’Brien is the level of competition he played against. We got a small glimpse of that at both the prospect’s game and when he played for the USDP. He played a game against Michigan State where although he didn’t score, he made some noticeable plays. He didn’t look out of place against more experienced competition. The thing I’d like to see is continued improvement on the defensive end. He has improved there and shown flashes. I just want to see him do it against men. He’ll get his chance to do that as his next stop is Providence to play for the Friars in 2018-19.”"
And there it is. I just want to see him do it against men. He’ll get his chance to do that as his next stop is Providence. In 23 games for Providence, he scored two goals with three assists. That’s not exactly setting the hockey world on fire. To be fair to him, he had several upper body injuries throughout the season that he had to deal with. He left Providence after his freshman season and chose to play in the BCHL, a junior league, playing for the Penticton Vees. His gamble seemed to pay off as he appeared to get some of his swagger back. In his lone season for the Vees, he scored 25 goals with 41 assists in the COVID shortened 2019-20 season.
The following season, he returned to the NCAA ranks with Boston University. Again, he struggled. In 2020-21, he put up eight goals in 16 games; a far cry from a season before. The following season, he increased his totals to 10 goals with 22 points. While that’s heading in the right direction, that’s still not what you want to see coming from a top-20 draft pick.
Things only got worse when he injured his hip. He had to have surgery and missed a lot of time. Upon returning to BU, he struggled again. While playing in a collegiate career high 39 games, he scored eight goals with 24 assists. After waiting for him to develop and overcome injuries, the Flyers realized that he doesn’t fit into their future plans any more. He was released and made a free agent.
For new Flyers GM Briere, the O’Brien experiment serves as a great warning of what NOT to do. Gambling is great if you are good at it. However, there are a reason casinos can give out big jackpots. It’s because they take in so much more. Drafting is similar in many respects. You are gambling with your picks. You never know if your selection will get hurt or get ill. These things happen and you can’t blame that on the scouts and general manager, unless you are blatantly overlooking a history of injuries.
However, there are some GMs who try to get crafty with their picks and reach too high for a guy so they can look smart. After all, can’t you be brilliant when you find a “diamond in the rough” and make him shine? Isn’t it worth drafting a project player?
Eagles fans cringe when they hear the names “Fireman Danny” Waktins and Marcus Smith. Sixers fans feel the same when it comes to Ben Simmons, Jahlil Okafor, and Markelle Fultz. First round selections are NOT for projects. You save those for the later rounds. O’Brien did not have the history behind him to justify a 19th overall selection. Yes, he had some skills that were raw and he wouldn’t have made a bad second or third round pick, but he was undeserving of a first rounder. The Flyers, at that time, were struggling to reach the playoffs and selecting projects wouldn’t help this team. Getting NHL ready, or almost ready, players were what this team needed. O’Brien wasn’t that guy.
The later rounds are where you go to find raw talent. Maybe the guy ends up like Noah Cates and appears to be a future stud or catches lightning like Oskar Lindblom once did. Or, the fifth or sixth rounder ends up as a depth piece like Olle Lycksell. Those rounds are for finding guys to develop and improve upon. Perhaps had O’Brien been taken later in the draft, the Flyers could have been more patient with him and his growth.
So far, Briere’s first draft looks like it went well. I will personally admit to being leery about the Matvei Michkov selection; not because of his talent, but more so because of KHL issues. Overall, all of the selections look promising to the future of this team. If anything, O’Brien serves as a warning to Briere because of the mistakes Hextall made. Sometimes it is better to take a safe selection than try to “outsmart” the rest of the NHL.
Yes, had O’Brien turned out to be a stud, we wouldn’t be saying all of this right now. But that’s not how it happened. History didn’t turn out that way and O’Brien didn’t become a star, simply didn’t pan out. It was not from a lack of talent or having his body demolished by injuries, although they played a small part. It was mainly because of the arrogance of a general manager who threw caution to the wind and took a long-odds chance on a player. As a result, the Flyers are down another first round selection from the 2010s.
The warning for Briere is clear. Don’t waste future first rounders on projects. Do your due diligence and get the best player possible. Save the projects for later.