Philadelphia Flyers pro prospects adapting to new defensive systems

By Jason Lewis

Jason Akeson - Philadelphia Flyers

Photo: Forward Jason Akeson currently leads the Adirondack Phantoms with 16 goals and 42 points through 45 games. Akeson was signed by the Philadelphia Flyers to an NHL deal in 2011. (courtesy of Bill Streicher/Icon SMI)

The Adirondack Phantoms have had a rough couple of seasons in the AHL recently, but a fresh injection of youth and sophomore head coach Terry Murray are trying to right the ship. With Murray putting a heavy emphasis on defense-first hockey, the Phantoms are one of the best defensive teams in the AHL.

However, they are also one of the lowest scoring teams in the AHL. With this offensively stifling sort of system many players with high-offensive upside, like Petr Straka and Nick Cousins are finding it difficult to adapt. Five rookies have also suited up with regularity for the Phantoms which has also added to the season struggles.

NHL

Michael Raffl, LW, 25

For all intents and purposes, Raffl has been a fantastic off-season find by general manager Paul Holmgren. One of the top players in the Allsvenskan the last couple years, Raffl was signed as a free agent in September of 2013. He has since played in 44 games with the Flyers and has 17 points and six goals.

The Austrian has played on every line and in a variety of different capacities this season, though he has recently taken a lot of shifts on the fourth line. He will also be competing in the Olympics for surprise qualifier Austria, which will be a tremendous experience for him. While no one really paid much mind to the signing of Raffl when it happened, he has played his way into NHL regularity with his performances and has looked quite competent in the process.

AHL

Cal Heeter, G, 25

The former Ohio State University netminder has been one of the bright spots in a season of troubles for the Adirondack Phantoms this season. Now going on his second season with the Phantoms, not only has Heeter wrestled away the primary starting job from veteran Yann Danis, he has been a saving grace at times for a very low scoring Phantoms team. Despite a 15-16-0 record on the year, he holds a 2.38 goals against, a .919 save percentage, and four shutouts. Unfortunately for Heeter, he receives some of the worst goal support in the AHL. Adirondack is the third lowest scoring team in the league with 108 goals on the season. This is to be expected of defensive-minded coach Terry Murray and the system he implements though.

Jason Akeson, RW, 23

Akeson is an interesting prospect, who despite putting up solid numbers for a third straight season, remains overlooked when it comes to call ups by the big club. In his third season in the AHL, Akeson is pushing a point per game pace with 42 points in 45 games. With these numbers he is by himself among the top of the Phantoms lineup, clear of the next best player by 12 points. In such a stifling defense first system it is pretty impressive that he has been able to continue to produce the way he has. The work ethic has been solid, but with so-so skating and a somewhat diminutive size at 5'10, it is hard to say if he will get a shot with the Flyers. He is skill guy, and the Flyers current necessity is on the bottom lines with role players. Regardless, the undrafted forward currently sits at 10th in AHL scoring.

Petr Straka, RW, 21

Straka enters his first year in the Flyers organization after being drafted in the 2010 second round by Columbus, who opted not to sign him at the conclusion of the 2011-12 season. It has been a good outing in his rookie year thus far, with 20 points in 40 games. He has struggled at times with his consistency, but that is to be expected of a rookie in his first year at the pro level. With a naturally offensive style, Straka has done well to make the best of his opportunities playing primarily from the third line until recently when he was promoted to the top-six. If he can continue to find the net on a semi-regular basis, while proving not to be a liability defensively, he could be a potential call up for the Flyers.

Matt Mangene, RW, 24

Mangene is seeing a more regular role on the bottom lines this season compared to his first season with the Phantoms in 2012-13 in which he dressed 36 games all year. As usual, he has not been an option for offense, but rather for a good defensive game and speed on the forecheck. He has just five points in 41 games but is only a minus-two rating. Having converted from defense to forward late in his collegiate career, Mangene has done a good job in his own zone which has made him a common option on the bottom lines. However, given his size at 5'11 and lack of offense, it is difficult to say whether or not he has any utility outside of an AHL fourth liner. Regardless, he has done a decent job in that role so far this season for the Phantoms.

Brandon Alderson, RW, 22

Alderson, another free agent acquisition by the Flyers, has been a staple of the bottom lines for the Phantom in his first season aboard. The big 6'4 forward has also been heavily utilized on the power play, usually being placed right in front of the net to create havoc for defenses and goaltenders. His 10 points in 41 games is a decent start to his AHL career, and his willingness to grind it out along the boards and behind the net has been well used at times. Playing alongside Straka and Cousins the majority of games, the trio have formed a decent third line option for the Phantoms this season.

Derek Mathers, RW, 20

With a reputation as one of the best fighters in the OHL, Mathers has carried that over into the AHL when the opportunity has arisen in 2013-14. He has nine fights this season in just 22 games. However, Mathers is nothing more than a fourth line heavy weight with little to no contribution offensively. He has yet to record a point this season and has been a press box occupant for about half of the Phantoms games this season.

Tye McGinn, LW, 23

The former Gatineau Olympique has found himself as a frequent tweener from the AHL to the NHL. He has 23 points in 38 games currently, though he has a minus-12. However, despite some difficulties this season, he remains one of the best and most suitable NHL-ready options for the Flyers bottom lines.

Maybe part of the struggles at the AHL level is due to McGinn playing on a scoring line for the Phantoms, a role he may not be best suited for. He has primarily been a fourth line role player with the Flyers when called up and has performed admirably. It may be just a difference in style and utilization, but McGinn has looked more comfortable in the NHL than the AHL this year where he has less focal and prominent role.

Marcel Noebels, LW, 21

Noebels has been quiet but effective in his role with the Phantoms this season. Always coined as a defense first forward, he has seemed to excel in the Phantoms new system. Unfortunately he has had an injury setback this season, dealing with a concussion in early December that sat him down for nearly a month. Since returning he has difficulty finding the scoresheet. However that is not Noebels' game. He has been one of the better defensive forwards for the Phantoms and is seeing a lot of time on the penalty kill. His ceiling is somewhat limited with that in mind, but he has done well so far this season in proving his utility as a bottom-line defensive specialist.

Eric Wellwood, LW, 23

The sixth round pick of the Flyers in 2009 suffered a freak injury late in 2012-13 season which has kept him out for the entirety of the 2013-14 season. While falling in the corner Wellwood cut four tendons in his right ankle, including a major artery, and nearly died of blood loss. While he has a return on his mind the original recovery time has been slated at between 9-12 months. Wellwood is currently eight months into that window and hopefully a complete and healthy recovery is in the cards.

Tyler Brown, LW, 23

In his third season with the Phantoms many were considering it a make or break year for Brown. Unfortunately after a good rookie season, he saw his offense drop off a cliff in 2012-13 and has continued that trend into 2013-14. He has sputtered offensively this season, having only recently registered his first goal, and missed almost the entire month of January due to a separated shoulder.

Nick Cousins, C, 20

The former 100-point scorer for the Soo Greyhounds in the OHL was expected to perform well in his rookie season with the Phantoms. However, the pro game has not come easy to Nick Cousins, and he has just 13 points in 44 games so far this year. While those are not bad numbers for a rookie, Cousins has not been nearly as dynamic a scorer and playmaker as some had hoped. The defensive part of the game has been something that the young forward has needed to develop though, and the lack of offensive production this season could very well be attributed to him learning to play in his own zone. The first year of pro hockey versus junior level hockey is always has a tough learning curve, and Cousins is definitely feeling the growing pains.

Kyle Flanagan, C, 25

Flanagan was signed in March, 2013 as an undrafted free agent from St. Lawrence University. He had been a standout in his four years at the collegiate level, and in 2012-13, managed 15 goals and 32 assists in 35 games.

He was assigned to the AHL out of training camp and has been a fairly regular member of the lineup this season, appearing in 34 of the Phantoms 45 games. While it would be maybe unfair to label his rookie pro season as a disappointment, Flanagan has struggled to produce offensively. He went through a prolonged slump in December and January, managing only a goal and an assist through 21 games. On the season, he has three goals, four assists, and only 27 shots on net.

Mark Alt, D, 22

In his rookie season in the AHL, Mark Alt already looks on the verge of being NHL ready. While some might want a little more on the offensive side of the puck considering he only has 11 points in 44 games, he has been a viable option in defensive situations like the penalty kill. He has improved his positioning and his reads overall, and has also spent time on the power play this season. While considered a project moving into the season due to the transition from the NCAA to AHL, he has tackled it very well and could be a potential call up if injuries sustain the Flyers blue line. He has emerged as perhaps the one of the better rounded Phantom defensive prospect this season, capable of fluid skating and puck-moving but also strong defensive zone play.

Marc-Andre Bourdon, D, 24

Bourdon made the mistake that many hockey players have made in the past. He hid a concussion from the Flyers back in 2011-12 and that injury has plagued even up to now in 2013-14. On top of missing the majority of last season, Bourdon has missed the better part of the season with concussion related symptoms. He was finally cleared to play in January and has appeared in six games thus far.

Oliver Lauridsen, D, 24

Danish defenseman Oliver Lauridsen needed to have a good season with Adirondack this year to show that he still has the potential to be a good stay at home defenseman in the NHL. While the depth chart of Philly is certainly stacked against him, he has had a solid season year in his role as a shutdown defenseman. His plus-seven rating is currently leading the Phantoms which is no small feat considering the entire team has a negative goal differential. He has dressed every game for Adirondack and has not been afraid to throw the body or step in and drop the gloves for teammates. He has six fights on the season thus far and 120 penalty minutes. He could still improve on foot speed in his own zone but overall he remains the Flyers best option for a call up if they need a stay-at-home defenseman. At age 24, he is starting to get into a make or break situation, but he has not let up despite getting a very limited look with the Flyers.

Brandon Manning, D, 23

Manning has been the defensive leader on the Phantoms in terms of points thus far this season.  The 23-year-old leads all defensemen on the team with 19 points in 45 games. He also has five fights on the season, tons of hits, and a whopping 131 penalty minutes. He seems to be picking up where he left off last season with the Phantoms being a leader on and off the ice. Manning still struggles with the defensive part of the game at times and gets out of position to deliver hits or pinch in the offensive zone. With so much talent coming up the pipe behind him in Morin, Hagg, and Gostisbehere, it is hard to imagine Manning will have much bigger of a window to make the NHL. He is having a solid season but his deficiencies in his own zone will probably keep him out of the Flyers defensive group and in the AHL for now.

Matt Konan, D, 22

Attempting to play in his first full regular season in the AHL, Konan has unfortunately had his efforts cut short by a concussion suffered in late December. The 22-year-old overage draftee was playing on the bottom pairing for the Phantoms. He had just two assists in the opening month of the season and has since been held off the scoresheet ever since. His lack of production combined with injury and incoming talent does not bode well for the free agent signee. The sooner he can get off the IR and into the lineup the better. No word on when Konan will return to the lineup.

ECHL

Andrew Johnston, LW, 22

After being a healthy scratch for the start of the season with Adirondack, Johnston was loaned to the Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL. With the increased playing time on one of the top ECHL team this season, Johnston has contributed 17 points in 38 games.

Maxim Lamarche, D, 21

The Flyers signed the free agent QMJHL defenseman to an entry level deal in September of 2013 at the beginning of the season. He played just a few games with Adirondack but it was clear he would not be able to crack the depth chart there and was subsequently sent to Elmira of the ECHL. He currently has three goals and three assists with the Jackals in 35 games.

CHL

Tyler Hostetter, D, 22

Playing with the Trenton Titans last year in the ECHL, Hostetter was sent down to the Wichita Thunder of the Central Hockey League for more playing time. In 19 games this season with the Thunder he has six points in 19 games with a minus-one rating.