Before heading into his fifth season as General Manager of the Philadelphia Flyers, Paul Holmgren made it a point of emphasis to restock the cupboard. The pool was in desperate need of some kind of jolt after he traded away three straight first round selections from the 2008 draft through the 2010 draft, five straight second round selections from the 2007 draft all the way through the 2011 draft, and top prospects Steve Downie and Luca Sbisa, who were former first round selections themselves.
With Patrick Maroon stripped of his position within the Flyers’ organization, the hope of the Flyers’ prospect pool has fallen squarely onto the shoulders of another late round surprise, Eric Wellwood. He has jumped right out of an important role with Windsor Spitfires’ back-to-back Memorial Cup teams and right onto the score-sheet for the Phantoms. Not always known for his offensive abilities, Wellwood has certainly developed that part of his game.
With the Flyers in injury and suspension trouble at times through the early part of the season, Wellwood has been called up to try his luck in the NHL. The result was a surprising display of speed, talent, and composure. The 20-year-old did not look out of place next to captain Mike Richards and created a number of scoring opportunities. While he may not be a regular this season, it is possible that Wellwood could make the jump for 2011-12 as the Flyers look for cheap options on the outside.
Also on the Phantoms, Andrew Rowe has come on as a surprise. His signing out of Michigan State University flew under the radar of some of the bigger name prospect signings by Holmgren this offseason. Even so, his play certainly made an impression during preseason, and his game fits well on the Phantoms’ roster. At the same time, tough guys Garrett Klotz and Matt Clackson patrol the ice for the Flyers’ AHL affiliate for another season.
Also on the left side, two of the Flyers’ most recent draftees are jumping into the early Canadian Juniors season with a strong showing. Only nine games in, 20-year-old power-forward Tye McGinn is pacing at a point per game for the Gatineau Olympiques while the 5’10 Brendan Ranford, chosen in the seventh round, is creating some fireworks of his own. He is not only leading the Kamloops Blazers in scoring, but the 18-year-old is tied for fourth in scoring in the entire WHL.
Down the middle, the Flyers are no longer as strong in years past, but many feel that Jon Kalinski is already set to take a job at the NHL level. He’s had several successful call-ups in the past in bottom six roles both at wing and at center, and if not for the contract given to Blair Betts, he would most likely be taking faceoffs with the fourth line on the Flyers.
The more offensive players down the middle are going to take a little more time to develop. After a huge season in the OHL with the Barrie Colts, the Flyers are hoping for big things from their free-agent signing Luke Pither. He finished third in scoring behind the first overall and second overall selections in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, but because of his problems with the defensive part of his game, the Flyers are planning on taking his development one step at a time. Meanwhile Zac Rinaldo, who was Pither’s teammate in Barrie, has been moved to center and is playing with the Phantoms as well. Though the two centers are polar opposites, the Flyers are excited about what they might be able to bring to the table in years to come.
Still in Canadian Juniors, and both in the QMJHL, the Flyers have two centers waiting for their turn. The recently drafted Michael Chaput was the Flyers’ highest choice in the 2010 Draft, and he is looking for a bigger role in Lewiston. At the same time, 20-year-old Dave Lebrecque is suiting up for the Shawinigan Cataractes for a fourth straight season with the hopes of improving his numbers.
After earning a roster spot on the Flyers in 2008 even before Claude Giroux, right-wing Andreas Nodl has had to fight his way back to the roster. He was sent down to the Phantoms during the season when Giroux secured his role with the Flyers, but Nodl had been a frequent call-up. He finally fought his way back onto the team this year and is looking for a long-term role in the top nine even though his lack of offensive production has been frustrating, possibly to himself most of all.
On the Phantoms, down the right side are Stefan Legein, Mike Testwuide, and Ben Holmstrom, who has also been used down the middle during training camp. Both former college stars, Testwuide and Holmstrom, gave impressive performances during the Flyers’ preseason hoping to make the team ahead of Nodl. Legein, who is still working back into the world of hockey after a lengthy hiatus, has been left to the Phantoms so that he can continue to progress.
Competition for ice time on the Phantoms was so tight this season that another prospect signee, Shane Harper, was sent to the Greenville Road Warriors in the ECHL even after a breakout season with the Everett Silvertips of the WHL. Also on the right side, the 18-year-old Michael Parks is suiting up for one more year with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders of the USHL before heading to the University of North Dakota in the fall of 2011.
Andrei Popov, who created a lot of buzz this offseason after the Flyers’ offered him a contract hoping he would finally make the journey over to North Ameri
ca, remains with Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL where he hopes to improve on a breakout season.
With Oskars Bartulis having been temporarily loaned back to the Phantoms, the top end strength of the Flyers’ prospect blue line has all assembled in Adirondack. Bartulis joins recent addition and surprise Erik Gustafsson as well as Joonas Lehtivuori who together represent the crafty, puck-moving core of blueliners. Though Bartulis is a steady two-way defenseman, both Gustafsson and Lehtivuori, despite being smaller, are incredibly smart defensemen who are able to control the pace of the game around them.
Teaming up with those three are Marc-Andre Bourdon and feisty shut-down defenseman Kevin Marshall, who was once Bourdon’s competitor in Canadian Juniors. Those five defensemen represent a chunk of the Flyers’ hope on defense as some of the veterans like Kimmo Timonen and Chris Pronger start to age beyond their best years and while others like Braydon Coburn, Matt Carle, and Andrej Meszaros are just now entering their prime.
Still overseas are Denis Bodrov and Simon Bertilsson. Bodrov returned to the KHL temporarily after a brief and uneventful 17 games with the Phantoms last season. It is very possible that he returns after all of his issues overseas are sorted out. The 19-year-old Bertilsson, on the other hand, is just trying to finish an entire season in the Elitserien after injuries cut short his first attempt at a full SEL season last year while also forcing him off the WJC roster.
The 6’6 Danish-born Oliver Lauridsen is now playing through his junior year at St. Cloud State University after an eye-popping breakout season. The gigantic shut-down defenseman has polished his game a lot more than expected and even managed six goals along with six assists for twelve points last season. It will not be until next year though that recent draft pick Nick Luukko joins Lauridsen in the NCAA. The life-long Flyers’ fan and son of Comcast-Spectacor President, Peter Luukko, is playing for the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL this season before heading to the University of Vermont next fall.
Rounding out the Flyers’ deep pool of defensive talent are Ricard Blidstrand, who has journeyed to the Regina Pats of the WHL after a number of years in the Swedish junior leagues, and Tyler Hostetter, who has worked hard to become the lead puck-moving defenseman of the Eerie Otters for the 2010-11 season.
You could never imagine a more unexpected scenario than a Russian superstar prospect, recently signed as a free-agent, starting between the pipes as a North American rookie for the Philadelphia Flyers. With the start of the 2010-11 season, Sergei Bobrovsky became just that. He posted a win in his first ever game for the Flyers, and the young netminder has been circled by a healthy dose of media buzz to go along with some very lofty expectations ever since. Though he speaks very little English, a minor issue he is currently trying to correct, his work ethic has caught the attention of the coaching staff as well as his new teammates.
Put on the back-burner during a lot of the Bobrovsky hype that has taken over Philadelphia is 20-year-old Joacim Eriksson. After an incredible year with Leksand in the Allsvenskan, he has finally earned a trip to the Elitserien where he is suiting up for Skellefteå through the 2010-11 season. Despite rumors that he was looking to make the trip to North America this season, the Flyers felt it was better for him to get work in the highest tier of Swedish hockey.
Another reason for Eriksson’s stay overseas is the depth on the Phantoms. When Michael Leighton returns from injury, either he, back-up Brian Boucher, or rookie sensation Sergei Bobrovsky will have to be sent down to the minors, where Johan Backlund has already laid claim to the starter’s job as the Phantoms’ 2009-10 MVP. Currently backing him up is rookie Brian Stewart while QMJHL record holder Nicola Riopel was sent to the ECHL in order to get more starts as opposed to sitting on the bench for the majority of games.
Meanwhile, 22-year-old Jakub Kovar is finally making some waves of his own overseas. He took over the starting role for HC Ceske Budejovice of the Czech Extraliga and is posting some dazzling numbers.
The same cannot be said for Brad Phillips and Adam Morrison though. After such high hopes before injury, Phillips returned to the lineup for Notre Dame in 2009-10 only to find a backup role waiting for him. He made his decision to leave the school and play for the Bloomington PrairieThunder of the Central Hockey League this season. At the same time, Morrison continues as the backup for the Saskatoon Blades this year after losing his starting job last season.