Updated Flyers Prospect Report

By Bill Meltzer

Stepping Up:

* The two best prospects in the Flyers system continue to be goaltenders
Maxime Oullet and Antero Niittymäki. The strong play of both youngsters
pretty much cancels out any loss of organizational goaltending depth
suffered when Jean-Marc Pelletier was traded to Carolina in the Keith
Primeau deal.

Oullet, coming off a spectacular World Junior Championships, continues to
be the best goaltender in the Quebec League. Oullet is now being widely
hyped around the hockey world as a potential franchise goalie. Arguably,
he’s the best goalie in junior hockey today, although the Finley contigent
might dispute that. The buzz around Oullet coming off the WJC is not quite
equal to the hype that surrounded Roberto Luongo but it’s arguably on par
with the excitement created by Marc Denis and Martin Biron as they
progressed at the junior ranks.

Niittymäki, selected the best goaltender in the Finnish Elite League during
the first half of the season, faltered a tad at the World Juniors
(particularly in Finland’s game against Russia) and ended up splitting time
in goal with Devils draftee Ari Ahonen. It’s also true that Niittymäki’s
teammates did not play all that well in front of him in some of their key
games. However,
Niittymäki has bounced back strong upon the resumption of league play.The
rookie continues to rank #1 or #2 in most goaltending categories in the
SM-Liiga. According to Philadelphia Inquirer Flyers columnist Tim Panaccio,
Bob Clarke has indicated that the organization feels that Niittymäki will
be ready for AHL play next season. Oullet, who is not eligible for AHL play
next season, will play one more season of junior hockey.

* In the Western Hockey League, Cam Ondrik has also come on of late.
Generally not considered more than a run-of-the-mill goaltending prospect,
Ondrik answered his critics with an excellent month of January. The
nineteen year old Saskatoon keeper was selected the WHL Goaltender of the
Month (2.52 GAA, .926 Save percentage in 11 games).

* Among forwards in the system, Czech winger Vaclav Pletka has become the
top candidate for a 2000-2001 promotion to the North American pro ranks.
Playing for Trinec, Pletka has emerged as one of the best scores in the
Czech Extraleague (21 goals, 19 assists in 40 games played to date). He is
a good candidate to make the World Championship roster for the Czech
Republic. In order for him to have a shot at ever sticking in the NHL, he
is going to have to score goals consistently. The forward specializes at
hiding himself from the traffic and then emerging into sniping position.
The other aspects of his game are average.

* After slow starts, both Ruslan Fedotenko and Tomas Divisek came on strong
for the Philadelphia Phantoms. Divisek was playing extremely well from mid
November into December but is currently out with a shoulder injury, while
Fedotenko has returned from a
demotion to the Trenton Titans to be a solid contributor in the Phantoms
surge that has erased the club’s poor start.

* Defenseman Francis Lessard has been a real bright spot for the Phantoms.
He has not been a healthy scratch once this season; which is a nice
accomplishment for a rookie playing under the demanding Bill Barber. Barber
has doled out Lessard’s ice time intelligently, gradually giving him more
responsibilities. Lessard leads all AHL rookies with a +19 rating (a shade
ahead of teammate Fedotenko).

Lessard’s biggest strength is that he does not seem to let mistakes bother
him; he seems to bounce back with more determination the next time around.
He’s even shown a couple of flashes of offensive ability, although he’ll
never be an offensive defenseman in the pro ranks. He is still a bit
reckless in looking for the big hit and can get out of position sometimes.
One of his strong points is his willingness to back up his teammates and
especially his goaltender. But Lessard still needs to be a little smarter
about taking penalties. He’s already racked up 299 penalty minutes; far too
many for a player with aspirations of being an NHL regular.

* Defenseman Jason Beckett got off to a slow start this year after a fine
WHL campaign a year ago. He’s come on strong since December, although there
are some who say that he is a slower skater than he was advertized by the
CSB. Strong and aggressive in his own end, Beckett still does not show much
puckhandling or counter-rush headmanning ability.

* Forward David Nyström had a promising rookie year for Troja/Ljunby and a
solid showing for Sweden at the World Junior Championships. Solid in his
own end of the ice, he showed some unexpected flashes of offensive ability;
albeit against a lower grade of competition. is emerging as a candidate for
Elitserien play in 2000-2001, perhaps rejoining the Västra Frölunda program
(he played his junior hockey for Frölunda before transferring to
Troja/Ljunby for his first senior level play this season).

Holding Steady:

* Bruno St. Jacques, a pleasant surprise at the Flyers 1999 rookie camp, is
having a good campaign for an improved Baie-Comeau club. A smooth skater,
he is a candidate for minor pro play next year.

* Jeff Feniak, a player in a similar mold to Beckett, played decently, if
unspectacularly, for Calgary early in the season. After being traded to
Tri-City, he has continued to play solid and aggressive defense. There has
been a disturbing trend in the Flyers system for defense prospects to get
off to good starts after being drafted and then to stagnate or regress.
Hopefully, Feniak will avoid that pitfall.

* Garrett Prosofsky is a good WHL offensive player, particularly on the
powerplay. However, he’s not nearly to the level he’d need to be if he were
an NHL prospect. He might be placed with the Phantoms or the Titans next
year but it’s hard to project him cracking an NHL lineup at his current
rate of development.

* Marko Kauppinen did not initially benefit from his offseason transfer
from JyP to Jokerit. True, he was now playing for a considerably better
team. But he was going into a situation where the pressure to win meant
that there was little time
to suffer through the growing pains that any second year defenseman goes
through. Kauppinen saw little use over the first couple months of this
season. However, his ice time and production have picked up in recent
weeks. He’s still a longshot for NHL play but eventually he could become an
above-average offensive defenseman in European or North American minor
league play.

Stock Falling:

* The two players involved in the boating accident that took the life of
Flyers defenseman Dmitri Tertyshny have both suffered through lackluster
sophomore seasons after promising AHL rookie campains.

Mikhail Chernov has been one of the system’s bigger dissapointments so far
this year. He had seemed to be improving at a rapid rate in the last two
years, but he has a taken a step backward this year. His play hasn’t really
been awful, but he has been a non-factor. He is not playing as aggressively
or with the same confidence that he displayed in the second half of his
rookie season.

Francis Belanger, meanwhile, continues to drift in and out of Bill Barber’s
doghouse. He is basically a two-dimensional player. He can play the
enforcer role at even strength and he can screen goalies and collect some
deflection and rebound goals on the powerplay. Skating, defensive play, and
puckhandling are not strengths of his games. As last season progressed,
however, he had shown some improvement in those areas. He has gone backward
again this year.

Even if neither player shows great improvement the rest of the year, the
Flyers organization will probably bear with both players and write off
their uneven on-ice play as part of the aftermath of the unspeakable
tragedy of last summer. But it also true that if the entire campaign turns
into a lost season development-wise, both Chernov and Belanger will have to
make up considerable ground next year to get back on track and avoid other
players passing them by.

* Jesse Boulerice is a case in point of how much damage a lost season can
do to a once-promising prospect. He has struggled just to crack the AHL
lineup and was once again demoted from the Phantoms. The organization is
uncertain whether he’d be better off remaining at forward or moving back to
defense (where he had played his first two junior seasons).

* Lubomir Pistek blasted out of the gates for the Kelowna Rockets early
this season. He scored 5 goals in the first 8 games. But then his play slid
backward once again. After a while, he was pretty much confined to spot
even strength duty plus powerplay action (both last season and this season,
most of his production has come on the man advantage). Soon after that, he
was out of the loop entirely. Pistek was dealt to Saskatoon, for whom he
got off to a decent start but has subsequently leveled off. A non-factor in
Slovakia’s surprise run in the last world junior championships, Pistek did
little to impress this time around, either.

* Ian Forbes has begun to fill out physically but the big Guelph defenseman
is still raw and mistake-prone. There is no way he’ll be an NHL player in
the near future; he’s currently still a project even as an AHLer.

* Pär Styf’s offensive game has been nowhere to be seen for Timrå, nor has
he been a top defensive player for the current leaders of Super
Allsvenskan.

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