AHL affiliate for Philadelphia Flyers undergoing period of transition

By Chris Shafer
Photo: In only his first professional season, Eric Wellwood has ascended the Flyers depth charts and is among their most NHL-ready prospects. (Photo courtesy of Holly Gunning/HF)

It is almost a feeling of deja vu as the Flyers’ organization presses forward with their prospect pool on the Phantoms. It seems as though just a year ago they cleaned house after a disappointing year in Adirondack. Now, after another disappointing year, they may be switching quite a few things yet again.

One thing that will not change again is the Head Coach. After locker room issues divided a team and cost the organization a few prospects, the Phantoms are going to move forward with Greg Gilbert’s successor, Joe Paterson.

Paterson, who took over the position of Head Coach on December 20th, 2010, led the Phantoms to a record of 25-16-8 and brought the team out from their entrenched position in the league basement.

With plans to eventually move back to Pennsylvania and the discussions heating up for an arena in Allentown, there is pressure for some sort of success out of a prospect pool hanging by threads after the departures of many prospects on June 1st, including top prospect Joacim Eriksson, and many likely coming on July 1st with the start of free-agency. Once again it is an offseason of change for the Flyers’ prospect pool and the Adirondack Phantoms.

It is now in the hands of new additions like Matt Read, Tom Sestito, and Oliver Lauridsen, as well as a cast of players joining the roster starting next season, to change the fate of the Phantoms in 2011-12.

Forwards

Eric Wellwood, LW, 21

A three-game NHL stint was all it took for Flyers’ fans to fall in love with Eric Wellwood‘s speed. He only registered an assist, but it was an overall satisfying glimpse into the kind of NHLer that the two-time Memorial Cup Champion could become.

While he finished with less points than his older NCAA-prospect teammates, Holmstrom and Testwuide, Wellwood was still the first forward the Flyers opted to call-up during the regular season. He finished his first AHL season with 16 goals for 28 points in 73 games, but the two-way speed demon and brother to NHLer Kyle Wellwood has some more tricks hidden up his sleeve. Whether or not he makes the Flyers’ roster out of camp is another matter even though the potential for that certainly exists. There are those looking for big things from him in the future.

Tom Sestito, LW, 23

The Flyers liked the 6’5 Sestito enough to trade their first selection in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, 3rd round pick Michael Chaput, for him along with veteran AHLer Greg Moore. With only an 11-game Adirondack stint under his belt, it is hard to determine whether or not Sestito has had a positive impact on the team. During that time he had two goals, an assist and 45 penalty minutes. He managed two goals, two assists, and 40 penalty minutes in nine games with the Columbus Blue Jackets in the NHL this season.

Sestito has actually accumulated 13 NHL games in his four-year professional career. Even though he is scheduled to become a restricted free-agent on July 1st, the Flyers will likely lock him up before it comes to that. Before being traded to the Phantoms, he was in the middle of a career year in the AHL with 11 goals and 21 assists for 32 points in 46 games. That is what the Flyers want to see out of him next season.

Andrew Rowe, LW, 23

After a solid preseason, many were expecting more from Andrew Rowe, who managed only seven goals and five assists through 55 games. The 23-year-old winger had a talent for working the boards and keeping the puck with him during his three seasons at Michigan State University, but both the Flyers and Rowe himself were looking for better production this year. Rowe also played 10 games in the ECHL with the Greenville Road Warriors accounting for six goals and two assists.

Harry Zolnierczyk, LW, 23

The former captain of Brown University, Harry Zolnierczyk, does not come without his baggage, but that did not stop the Flyers from giving the two-year standout of the Bears a year to try his luck in the NHL.

It is not as though Zolnierczyk is coming in without his talents either. The strong skating forward finished second in scoring on the Bears in his junior year and tied for first in his senior year. Through his efforts he was named the 2010-11 Ivy League Player of the Year.

After leaving the Ivy League, his team, and his captaincy behind him, Zolnierczyk stepped onto the Phantoms’ roster as a 23-year-old rookie. Though he failed to impress the way Matt Read did, he did manage to make some waves of his own including three goals and two assists through 16 games.

Garrett Klotz, LW, 22

In an attempt to find a physical winger with size who could drop the gloves, the Flyers extended themselves a bit by taking Garrett Klotz with a third round selection in 2007. Since then the 6’5 enforcer had scored a total of three goals including one in 52 WHL games and two in two seasons with the Phantoms totaling 109 games.

This year Klotz managed nine goals, but they were all with the Bloomington PrairieThunder of the CHL. On top of his 49 games in Bloomington, Klotz played 13 AHL games with the Phantoms and another three with the Greenville Road Warriors of the ECHL. With his contract up at the end of the season and another big, physical forward in the pool in the form of Tom Sestito, it appears as though the Flyers and Klotz will part ways.

Matt Read, C, 24

With all of the talk surrounding French national Stephane Da Costa, who recently signed with the Ottawa Senators, it is easy to see why the older and less flashy Matt Read was swept onto the media back-burner. The first line center, senior, and captain of the 2010-11 Bemidji State Beavers had led his team in scoring for three straight seasons despite falling to second his final year with the team by one point.

Read had spent four years with the Beavers even leading them to their first ever Frozen Four appearance in 2009. Even so, with an NHL entry-level contract and a new team to support, he moved on to the Adirondack Phantoms in the middle of a late season revival. In just 11 games, his ability to find open space, aptitude for making plays at high speed, and dedication to playing at both ends of the ice was evident as he finished out the season with 13 points off of seven goals and six assists.

Though not as dazzling or as young as some other prospects, Read gives the Phantoms a little bit of something they had been missing in prior years. With some tough cap related decisions on the horizon for the Philadelphia Flyers, it is also entirely possible that Read challenges for an NHL spot as a versatile forward capable of playing left and right or up and down the lineup.

Ben Holmstrom, C, 24

Another under-the-radar signing for the Philadelphia Flyers has been the former University of Massachusetts-Lowell captain Ben Holmstrom. The two-way, gritty forward has been moved from the wing and placed in the middle as the Flyers look for him to possibly challenge for a spot as a defensive center in the future.

Often listed as one of the Flyers’ top prospects according to General Manager Paul Holmgren, Holmstrom’s praise has not been without merit. In 79 games during his first full professional season, he may have only managed 16 goals for a grand total of 38 points, but the benefits of his presence in the lineup run deeper than offensive production. If the Flyers decide to go with cheaper options on the lower lines, particularly a defensive role on the bottom line with veteran leader Ian Laperriere likely to remain sidelined, Holmstrom may be their go-to guy as early as 2011-12.


Luke Pither, C, 22

Despite being used in roles at various times in which he could not excel, Luke Pither was able to awaken a little bit of his untapped offensive potential in the second half of the Phantoms’ season after the coaching change. His talent to be a legitimate offensive threat whenever he touches the puck certainly exists, and he displayed that in 2009-10 when he finished third in the OHL in scoring. It is a different matter entirely to get into a position where a player’s specific skills can benefit him the most. That is what Pither needs to work on.

Though 20 points in 67 games is hardly the jump start that Pither was looking for in the AHL, there was a lot of things outside of his control. With an introduction to the professional game behind him, it will be up to Pither to adjust if he is going to have a long professional career.

Jon Kalinski, C, 24

Once one of Paul Holmgren’s top prospects, Jon Kalinski has had a fairly rapid fall from grace. He had appeared in 22 games for the Flyers coming into the 2010-11 season notching a goal and five assists during his efforts. He had proven himself to be a hard-working and talented defensive forward and was even in the middle of being groomed for a future position as the fourth line center when the 2010-11 season came around.

A lot of the problems in Adirondack that caused the team to drop dramatically to the AHL basement through the first half of the season were due to locker room disputes between a number of players and the coaching staff. Reportedly Kalinski was a member of those most outspoken about the coaching staff in Adirondack, and since then, he has not appeared to be in the Flyers’ future plans. With his contract up and a conflicting history of service within the organization, it is unknown what direction the Flyers will go regarding Kalinski’s contract this offseason.

Rob Bordson, C, 22

Acquired when the Flyers opted to move Patrick Maroon and David Laliberte to the Anaheim Ducks, Bordson was in his first professional season after an outstanding breakout year with the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs in which he notched 40 points in 40 games. In 76 AHL games spread across two teams, he was not nearly as productive this year. His AHL career now consists of eight goals and 16 assists. In the 61 games he played with the Phantoms, he did manage an impressive plus 13 rating.

Currently buried on both the AHL and organizational depth charts, it is unclear what kind of future the 22-year-old Bordson has with the Flyers.

Mike Testwuide, RW, 24

Another in a line of hard-working college acquisitions by the Flyers, Testwuide’s first professional season went by rather quietly. The two-way college standout only managed to finish with a plus-12 rating playing big minutes through 79 games on a team that finished a minus-51 for the season. Realizing his incredible defensive numbers, his offensive outing as fourth best on the team with 18 goals for 39 total points is that much more impressive.

It is hard to imagine where a guy like Testwuide can find his way into the Flyers’ lineup, and that has nothing to do with a lack of ability. While the organization seems to have a more clear-cut vision of where a forward like Holmstrom fits in their plans, it seems as though Testwuide’s options are far less limited. With the size and offensive abilities of someone who can successfully pull off a complimentary role with many different lines, it is worth seeing how he will progress within the Flyers’ system.


Stefan Legein, RW, 22

Despite quitting hockey for a lengthy period of time, there were many in Philadelphia that hoped a new start would do wonders for the energetic winger drafted 37th overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2007. Things seemed to be going well when Legein managed to score 26 goals in 77 AHL through 2009-10, but with the Phantoms’ early season struggles this year, Legein accounted for only 17 total points in 41 games. The rest of his time was spent nursing an injury, on the bench as a scratch, or even in the ECHL, where he spent two games with the Greenville Road Warriors.

Like Kalinski and Maroon, who was traded to the Anaheim Ducks, reports claimed that Legein was involved in locker room problems early in the season that involved former Head Coach Greg Gilbert. With his contract up at the end of the season, the future is uncertain for Legein.

Zac Rinaldo, RW, 20

A lot has been made of Rinaldo’s ability to stir the pot, even when certain pots do not need stirring. There is no question that he has the capacity to cross the line every now and then, but his ability to build up tensions as well as frustrations may be exactly what the Flyers are looking for in the 20-year-old agitator.

Earning nearly a hundred more penalty minutes than everyone on the Phantoms with 331 is certainly evidence of a great agitator. It also does not hurt Rinaldo’s case that he finished second in the AHL in that esteemed category. He is among a list of General Manager Paul Holmgren’s prospects that he says will play in the NHL, but Rinaldo, regardless of where he plays in the lineup, will need to learn to keep things in check if he is going to stay on the roster. He only helps if he is throwing others off their game or taking them to the penalty box. He does the Flyers no good if he is being suspended or sitting in the penalty box himself.

Shane Harper, RW, 22

Under Greg Gilbert, Shane Harper was sent to the ECHL where he put up a dominating performance for the Greenville Road Warriors with 22 goals and 23 assists in 48 games. With changes happening within the Phantoms’ organization, he received his opportunity to play in the AHL for the first time since a five-game stint to close out 2009-10.

In 20 games with Adirondack this season, Harper scored only one goal and added only two assists. He will be looking to have a more significant impact on the AHL team next season, but he will still have to fight for a spot on the roster first.

Defensemen

Erik Gustafsson, D, 22

This season, Gustafsson’s first full professional season with the Adirondack Phantoms, confirmed all of the hopes that the Flyers’ organization had for the young Swedish, free-agent defenseman after a seven point, five-game stint with their AHL team following his signing in 2010. Along with Joonas Lehtivuori‘s dramatic fall from grace came the rise of a talented, young puck-mover who finished second on the team in scoring with 49 points in 72 games.

Perhaps the most impressive and telling part of Gustafsson’s season is his second half in which his production took a dramatic downturn from the first half of the season when the Phantoms were easily the worst team in the AHL. As the Phantoms began to climb in terms of wins under new head coach Joe Paterson, Gustafsson settled down defensively in a significant way. Though he finished without the claim to the Phantoms’ scoring leader for 2010-11, he had rounded his game into one that will benefit him at the professional level.

The now 22-year-old has already seen a brief glimpse of NHL action, something that could change very quickly. With the team possibly moving significant pieces this offseason, a position could open up for Gustafsson.

Joonas Lehtivuori, D, 22

After having the most exciting season of any Flyers’ prospect last year, Joonas Lehtivuori had what is likely the most disappointing year by a Flyers’ prospect in a long time in 2010-11. Because of his incredible performance in 2009-10, many believed that he was on track to become a special defenseman, one who could control the speed of the game around him while playing effectively in all zones.

In one year’s time, Lehtivuori went from 66 games played to 32, from five goals scored to two, from 23 total points to nine, from a minus-seven rating to a minus-24, and from defensive anchor to regular healthy scratch.

It was then that Lehtivuori was loaned to KalPa Kuopio of the SM-Liiga, and as he was leaving Adirondack, he openly discussed how frustrated and unhappy he was in the middle of nowhere in New York state. Once back in the SM-Liiga, it did not take long for Lehtivuori to regain similar form to his 2009-10 season which is a good sign for his status within the organization moving forward, but with one year left on his contract, it is not yet known whether he will be returning to Adirondack.

Kevin Marshall, D, 22

Looking at just the numbers you would never suspect that Kevin Marshall had a strong year of progress in the AHL. The young defenseman only produced 14 total points in 78 games and finished the year with a minus-nine rating, but he became much better at managing the game as a shut-down defenseman at the professional level.

While the NHL might not be quite within his grasp just yet, Marshall’s progress is a good sign that some of the defensemen within the pool are growing into their roles. Next season the Phantoms will be looking for him to anchor a pairing defensively which will be even more of a test on just what Marshall, now a 22-year-old professional, is capable of.

Marc-Andre Bourdon, D, 21

For the second year in a row, injuries were a point of emphasis in Marc-Andre Bourdon‘s season. While he played 61 games in 2009-10, this year he played only 46 before receiving a concussion during a fight on New Year’s Day. Up until that point he had scored only a goal while notching another nine assists. It is still a far cry from the kind of production that made him the QMJHL defenseman of the year in 2008-09.

Going forward Bourdon still has a lot to prove. His skating flaws have become more evident at the professional level and have not made a significant enough leap forward to the point where they correct themselves. The Flyers can afford to be patient with the now 21-year-old defenseman, but they will be looking for an improvement in 2011-12. Bourdon will hope to be an important player next season for the Phantoms as they look to continue on the success that they had during the second part of the season after Head Coach Joe Paterson’s arrival.

Tyler Hostetter, D, 20

Hostetter, signed after the 2009 draft, spent a long time in the OHL with the Erie Otters despite having a contract waiting for him when he joined the Flyers’ organization. Though he only managed 36 games this season with his junior team, he posted the same kind of offensive production (around 20 points) as he had in prior seasons of 61 and 59 games. He then joined the Phantoms for a three-game stint, and though it was not a long look at what he will playing against next year, it was a good chance to prepare himself for the 2011-12 season.


Oliver Lauridsen, D, 22

The Flyers decided this year that Oliver Lauridsen was ready to make the jump to the professional game a year before many people expected him to join the Phantoms. The 6’6 defenseman had been progressing well at St. Cloud State, but at the end of his third NCAA season, he joined the Phantoms. He played his first two professional games but was sidelined for the rest of the year with a shoulder injury. He will be back for 2011-12 and hoping for a bigger role as he continues to develop.


Goaltenders

Nicola Riopel, G, 22

On June 1st, the Flyers chose to forego their rights to Nicola Riopel who, despite an incredible and at times record-breaking career in the QMJHL, never managed to put things together professionally. He played 10 AHL games in 2009-10 with a 3.35 goals against average and .893 save percentage before being loaned back to the Moncton Wildcats of the QMJHL.

Riopel’s 2010-11 season was not much better, playing only 11 games and finishing with a 3.55 goals-against average and a .874 save percentage. Even during his time with the Greenville Road Warriors of the ECHL, he posted an extremely mediocre 2.79 goals against average with a .906 save percentage.

Brian Stewart, G, 26

In 10 games played with the Phantoms, Stewart had a few good games but finished with a 3.05 goals-against average and a .891 save percentage. Those are not strong stats for the Northern Michigan University product who dominated for a major part of his collegiate career. He also played for two different ECHL teams including three games for the Greenville Road Warriors, where he put up a 2.68 goals against average and a .918 save percentage, as well as 26 games for the Bakersfield Condors, where he finished with a 2.20 goals against average and a .929 save percentage.

With his contract up at the end of the season, it is uncertain whether the Flyers will renew his contract or choose to go in another direction as in the case of Nicola Riopel.