Does the Flyers Prospect Pipeline Hold Answers on Defense?

Do we have Prospects or Pretenders
Mar 28, 2024; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Ronnie Attard (23) plays the puck.
Mar 28, 2024; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Ronnie Attard (23) plays the puck. / David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports

Since 2014, the Flyers have drafted 24 defensemen to build a deep and capable back end. It seems that the team’s efforts have fallen short of that objective. Of the 24 players selected by the Flyers, only three, Provorov, Sanheim, and York, all first-round picks, have played more than 150 games in the NHL. But some players may improve the Flyers’ success rate on developing defensemen, such as Yegor Zamula, an undrafted free agent, who appears to have finally found a regular spot in the lineup and has dressed 92 times for the club. In addition, there are still active picks in the pipeline who may be able to help the team shortly.

The Flyers have intriguing possibilities that have surfaced in recent drafts, like Oliver Bonk, a first-round pick in 2023, and Hunter McDonald, a sixth-round pick from 2022. Bonk upped his offensive production in juniors this season which pairs well with an already mature defensive game. Meanwhile, Hunter McDonald has taken his physical defensive game from Northeastern to the Phantoms, playing in each of the Flyers’ AHL affiliate’s playoff games. Do not sleep on McDonald, who was instrumental in shutting down a loaded Boston University team in the Bean Pot tournament.

It may be too soon to count on Bonk or McDonald, but the Flyers have several older prospects who should get chances to break into an NHL lineup. The top tier of players in the pipeline is a trio of Swedes: Emil Andrae, Helge Grans, and Adam Ginning. Andrae was a second-round pick in 2020, a pick that I eviscerated back when it was made. Andrae has grown on me, he shows smarts and poise with the puck. He plays with grit and toughness and is willing to take a big hit to make the right play.  His small stature remains the primary obstacle to making the NHL roster. Andrae plays like he is bigger, which is endearing, but also problematic.  I had concerns, and still do if he could survive the nightly beatings. The AHL playoffs, which often matches the NHL from a contact standpoint, should be a good litmus test. If Andrae can stay healthy, he has a chance to be a decent second-pair player.

Helge Grans was a player I favored over Andrae in 2020. Grans came to the Flyers from LA in the Provorov deal and has the physical attributes to be a solid third-pair NHL defender. While not a speedy skater, he has good lateral movement and a decent offensive toolbox. Grans has never been able to maximize his skill. It is unclear if it is a lack of experience, hockey sense, or compete level. But after three full AHL seasons, Grans is at the point where he has to decide if he wants an NHL future or not.

Adam Ginning was drafted in the second round of the 2018 NHL Draft.  Ginning is 24 years old and is competing in his second full season in the AHL. Ginning was scouted as a grinding defenseman who could win battles along the boards and play a physical brand of hockey.  In his two cups of coffee in the NHL, I have been impressed with his defensive acumen, especially reading plays in transition.   Ginning is at the age where he is almost no longer considered a prospect and has a contract that will expire at season’s end. I think the Flyers would benefit from Ginning in the lineup, but they have proven they are a little slow to recognize good defensemen. Yegor Zamula is a prime example.  If the Flyers opt to re-sign Ginning, I expect he will get a long look at camp.

Beyond the Swedes, there are a couple of longshots who could break into the Flyers line-up, but have time working against them. Ronnie Attard is the oldest “prospect” that has an opportunity to win a spot on the Flyers blue line. Attard is finishing his second AHL season and has played well with the Phantoms. When scouting him, my concern was that he was a mature body playing against players who had not yet reached their physical peak. My concerns seemed founded, as the primary weakness I see in Attard is how easily he is moved off the puck. While I have voiced similar concerns about other players, such as Travis Sanheim, the on-ice results are much different. 

Sanheim is typically engaged in extended puck battles where he gradually concedes possession as he is pushed out of position by larger, stronger opposing players. Attard by contrast is violently blasted off the puck and usually crumpled into a pile on the ice. It is not just the bigger players that launch Attard, but almost all players that hit him with any pace. Where Sanheim lacks strength, Attard seems to lack balance, which will prevent him from being an NHL regular.

Ethan Samson does not have time on his side, but that is because he is too young. At just 20 years old, Samson, a sixth-round pick in 2021, has been trending upwards each year since he was selected. He is in his first year in the AHL and has done a solid job for a rookie. The right-handed shot did not put up a ton of points but still managed to outscore Grans. With so many other prospects vying for NHL roster spots, Samson may not get an opportunity this season, but with his rapid improvement, he may play his way into contention.

As the Flyers reflect on this past season, they may look at a wasted opportunity. As much as I would like to either pencil or completely write off older prospects like Ginning and Attard, they did not get enough NHL minutes to make a complete evaluation. Maybe if the Flyers used them more than Marc Staal or Erik Johnson, they would know. Maybe they will find out over the first quarter of next season.

As for the other prospects, only Andrae looks like he could play consistently where he could help the team nightly. Will he stay healthy? There is only one way to find out. As for Bonk and McDonald, in either case, I do not think a bit more seasoning will hurt either player and frankly, I am not sure a Tortorella-coached team is the best spot for still developing young players. But players like Grans, Ginning, or Attard, who have seemed to top out, might be just the right projects for Tortorella.