Free agent signings headline Philadelphia Flyers NCAA and European prospect pool

By Chris Shafer
Photo: Simon Bertilsson is among many of the Flyers European prospects who have struggled this season. (Photo courtesy of Holly Gunning/HF)

With quite a few holes in the prospect pool, Flyers’ General Manager Paul Holmgren has been seeking help outside of traditional means, by exploring both Canadian Juniors and NCAA hockey, for prospects that can help alleviate some of the pressure placed on the late-round draft picks that have become the Flyers’ top picks in recent memory.

Last year, defenseman Erik Gustafsson was able to surprise a lot of people with his play straight out of college. Mike Testwuide and Ben Holmstrom are no different. Now the Flyers are looking to Harry Zolnierczyk and college star Matt Read to be major players within the prospect pool.

NCAA

Matt Read, C, 24
Acquired: Free Agent, 2011

Last year it was defenseman Erik Gustafsson who captured fans’ attention with a stunning performance to close out another disappointing season in the history of the Phantoms. This year, center Matt Read, former captain of Bemidji State University, got an opportunity to show frustrated and worried Flyers’ fans that General Manager Paul Holmgren may have a plan regarding these recent free agent prospects.

Read finished off his NCAA career as a senior with his first twenty-goal season and a total of 35 points. The year before he had been named the CHA player of the year, and in the year before that, he had helped Bemidji State capture a CHA championship. That same team came just short in their unexpected bid at a National Title by losing in the Frozen Four to Miami of Ohio. In his freshman year, he had been named the CHA rookie of the year.

In 147 NCAA games, Read tallied 65 goals and added another 76 assists for 141 points. Now, with 11 professional games under his belt, Read already has 7 goals and 13 points. For the offense-starved Phantoms, the 24-year-old center was late to the show, but starting next season, Read will be on full-time duty for Adirondack.

To go along with his early success, Read was named one of the Flyers’ black aces for the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Harry Zolnierczyk, LW, 23
Acquired: Free Agent, 2011

Another college senior and team captain, Harry Zolnierczyk caught the Flyers’ attention during his fourth and final season with Brown University. With 31 points off of 16 goals in 30 games, he earned the title of 2010-11 Ivy League Player of the Year.

A strong skater and crafty forward, Zolnierczyk does bring along a checkered past to the organization as well. Though that may not be reflected in his one-year trial contract, the short deal does demonstrate that the organization wants to see how well Zolnierczyk adapts to professional hockey.

In 16 games with the Phantoms, he fell short of Matt Read’s stunning debut by quite a bit, but that does not take anything away from Zolnierczyk’s play. His three goals and five points will be used as a base from which to expand on in 2011-12.


Oliver Lauridsen, D, 22
Acquired: 7th round, 196th overall, 2009

In one of the more surprising prospect moves of the season, the Flyers decided to bring the towering, 6’6 Oliver Lauridsen out of the NCAA a year earlier than expected. The long-term project was extremely raw when he journeyed from Denmark to the United States for college hockey, but he has developed the parts of his game that fit a player of his stature exceedingly well.

While there is still work to be done, his progress can only be seen as something positive for the organization’s future. Whether or not he can ever put the entire package together remains to be seen, but the cliche that you cannot teach size adequately fits Lauridsen’s position within the Flyers.

Just two games into his start with the Phantoms, Lauridsen suffered a shoulder injury that sidelined him through the rest of the season. While his debut arrived in the 2010-11 season, he will have to wait until next year to fully demonstrate what he has been able to develop since being drafted.


Europe

Andrei Popov, RW, 22
Acquired: 7th round, 205th overall, 2006

It has been another strong year for the emerging KHL star who decided just this past offseason that life in the AHL was not for him. Despite a push made by the Flyers to bring over their former 7th round selection, Popov remained with Traktor Chelyabinsk for 2010-11. His breakout season just last year was one that earned him quite a bit of overseas attention in Philadelphia, but for now, there is no evidence that Popov will ever make the journey to North America.

With 22 points in 54 games including 10 goals, there is probably still someone from the Flyers’ organization keeping an eye on his progress.


Joonas Lehtivuori, D, 22
Acquired: 4th round, 101st overall, 2006

It appears as though Lehtivuori’s play has stabilized after a disappointing start to 2010-11. After demonstrating his ability to anchor an AHL defense in 2009-10, he fell far back from where he once was early on this season. At some points, it was even enough to earn him a healthy scratch here and there leading up to his loan overseas to Finland.

The Finnish-born Lehtivuori admitted to reporters that he was unhappy in Adirondack after the move was made, and once with KalPa of the SM-Liiga, he became one of the more prominent defensemen on the team almost immediately. Though his departure from the Phantoms could have an impact on his future with the organization, it seems that most expect him to return next season in order to finish out his contract. Whether he will continue with this success or revert back to a slump remains to be seen.

Simon Bertilsson, D, 19
Acquired: 3rd round, 87th overall, 2009

Coming into 2010-11, the oft-injured Simon Bertilsson had yet to complete a season in the SEL. It was therefore no surprise the two-way defenseman only played 36 games because of injuries this season. He did however manage to play for Sweden in Buffalo, NY for the 2011 World Juniors and in six games, he registered an assist as Sweden fell to the United States in the Bronze medal game.

As of right now, Bertilsson’s future is in question. With the recent signings of prospect Oliver Lauridsen and free agent prospect Brandon Manning, the Phantoms’ blue line appears to be filling up rather quickly. It is more than likely that he will return to Brynas for yet another year as the Flyers keep a close eye on him.

Denis Bodrov, D, 24
Acquired: 2nd round, 55th overall, 2006

Denis Bodrov, the Flyers’ prospect defenseman that could never catch a break, may have finally put things together for a season. He became a strong player in the Russian league before it became the KHL and, at one point, was even discussed by Holmgren as a player who could immediately make the jump into the North American game, possibly the NHL lineup as well.

Locker room troubles, contract disputes, and injury sent Bodrov on a tour of a number of teams including the Adirondack Phantoms for a stint that lasted 17 games in 2009-10. Injury cut short his North American debut, but mediocrity did not help.

Bodrov then returned to Spartak Moskva for the 2010-11 KHL season where he played 45 games with one team, something he had not done since 2007-08 with Lada Togliatti. What is more important for Bodrov though is that his game finally started to come together once again. He had ten points on the season off of seven assists and notched another two assists in four playoff games.


Jakub Kovar, G, 22
Acquired: 4th round, 109th overall, 2006

Not too long ago, Kovar was a prospect that not many people paid attention to. The now 22-year-old Kovar was trapped behind veteran and former NHLer Roman Turek, who had been backstopping for Ceske Budejovice of the Czech Extraliga since 2005-06. However, the resignation of Turek just before the 2010-11 season left the door wide open for Kovar to get his first real opportunity to display his talent.

In 52 games as the starter for his club, Kovar posted a 2.47 goals against average and a .924 save percentage all the while capturing the attention of many fans and scouts overseas in Philadelphia. It has been an important season for Kovar, but his immediate future is still uncertain. The Flyers do have numerous goaltending options locked up within the organization as well as other prospect commitments. He will likely return to Ceske Budejovice for another season at the very least.

Despite the unlikelihood that Kovar makes the World Championships roster, he is still attending camp until other NHL goalies, already out of playoff contention, make it to camp.


Joacim Eriksson, G, 21
Acquired: 7th round, 196th overall, 2008

It was not the year that Joacim Eriksson hoped for, but for his first adventure into the Swedish Elite League, it was not too bad. The young goaltender played 17 games in relief of veteran starter Andreas Hadelov in which he registered a 2.56 goals against average and a .907 save percentage.

As of now, Eriksson is watching from the bench, as he has for the entirety of the Elitserien playoffs, while Skelleftea has fallen into a three-to-one hole against Farjestad with the SEL Championship on the line.

Next year Eriksson will be returning to the SEL. Despite a lot of discussion in prior offseasons about his desire to play in North America as soon as possible, it appears as though the Flyers’ organization feels this may be the best thing for his development.


Jakub Kovar, G, 22
Acquired: 4th round, 109th overall, 2006

Not too long ago, Kovar was a prospect that not many people paid attention to. The now 22-year-old Kovar was trapped behind veteran and former NHLer Roman Turek, who had been backstopping for Ceske Budejovice of the Czech Extraliga since 2005-06. However, the resignation of Turek just before the 2010-11 season left the door wide open for Kovar to get his first real opportunity to display his talent.

In 52 games as the starter for his club, Kovar posted a 2.47 goals against average and a .924 save percentage, all the while capturing the attention of many fans and scouts overseas in Philadelphia. It has been an important season for Kovar, but his immediate future is still uncertain. Because the Flyers have numerous goaltending options locked up within the organization, as well as other prospect commitments, he will likely return to Ceske Budejovice for at least another season.

Despite the unlikelihood that Kovar makes the World Championships roster, he is still attending camp. That however could change with the pending arrival of NHL goaltenders on teams who are out of the playoffs.