Once one of the thinnest prospect pools in the NHL, the Philadelphia Flyers have managed to create a talented and diverse prospect pool over the past couple seasons. While it may appear as though everything happened all at once, particularly because of the headline offseason trades of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, this movement in Philadelphia has actually been in progress for at least two years.
With a depleted prospect pool, due almost entirely to trades to acquire high profile veterans, General Manager Paul Holmgren set out a plan to restructure the organization. His first attacks were on the free agent market as opposed to making trades to acquire draft picks. He felt that he could find a basis of talent from the undrafted players coming out of Canadian Juniors and NCAA competition.
While Holmgren did eventually tap into the trade route to restructure his young core, the Flyers’ prospect pool is not made entirely on Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier, the bounty received for their already established young all-stars. The free agents on which Holmgren was gambling are starting to show that they can be integral depth pieces on an NHL roster. Whether it was planned or just a pleasant surprise, the Flyers are now in a great position moving forward thanks to their youth, their depth, and their versatility.
Part of what makes the Flyers so versatile is their wide range of quality prospects that can fill a number of roles. One of the best examples of this is the wing position where the Flyers already have five skaters with NHL experience.
Eric Wellwood has shown to be an extremely handy defensive forward with speed and possibly some complementary offense. Harry Zolnierczyk has also shown the ability to play a more balanced game coupling speed with a heavy forecheck. Meanwhile, despite Zac Rinaldo‘s lack of an offensive and defensive game, his physical game combined with his speed can create havoc for opposing forwards.
Towering over all the other left wingers in the Flyers’ system is Tom Sestito. While he has yet to play an NHL game for Philadelphia, he has 13 NHL games to his credit with the Columbus Blue Jackets. While he has limited offensive potential, his tenacity and 6’5 frame give him a good chance to play on the Flyers’ fourth line down the road even though Rinaldo appears to be a step ahead at the moment.
Not lost among these numerous NHL-ready forwards is Brendan Ranford who, after taking the WHL by storm with the Kamloops Blazers last season, is ready for a fourth junior season. Despite ranking among the leaders in all of Canadian Juniors early in 2010-11, his numbers began to tail off by the end. He is looking to put up even more points this season.
Also on the left side is powerforward Tye McGinn, who started his professional career this season after another strong year for the Gatineau Olympiques of the QMJHL. Andrew Rowe, once a pleasant surprise in the Flyers’ 2010-11 training camp, has found himself pushed out of a roster spot in Adirondack. Instead of playing with the Phantoms, he is currently suiting up for the Greenville Road Warriors of the ECHL.
The deepest position for the Flyers is now clearly the middle where the NHL team expects immediate contributions from both Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier. There is no shortage of talent from either of them at both ends of the ice. Schenn is considered one of the top prospects in the NHL, and Couturier, despite his fall in the draft, was once touted as a first overall pick, something he is demonstrating by playing an important role for the Flyers as an 18-year-old.
Likely overlooked due to the giants above him, Nick Cousins‘ pick was also acquired thanks to the same trade that eventually brought Couturier to Philadelphia. The feisty center has yet to disappoint by improving on his point-per-game rate from last season in the early 2011-12 campaign. While many feel he is undersized, he has the slick offensive aptitude that could get him some playtime at the NHL level.
Also included in the group of centers is former college winger, Ben Holmstrom. A relative no-name coming into Flyers’ camp in 2010-11, it was soon clear why the organization attached itself to University of Massachusetts-Lowell captain. His defensive play, physical game, and impressive forecheck forced the Flyers to play him in the middle where they have started to groom him as the fourth line center of the future. He is also extremely versatile should the team decide to keep veteran Max Talbot for that role. Likewise, Jon Kalinski is another converted winger who the Flyers have already given NHL action to for his versatile defensive play.
The last center in the prospect pool is Luke Pither, who dropped 94 points as an overager with the Barrie Colts in 2009-10. He lacks defensively and physically but, should he ever get his offensive game working, he could find himself in the mix as well.
As with the left side, the Flyers’ right wing prospects hold their own talent and versatility. Matt Read is the first to show signs that he has a bright NHL future ahead of him. Though he is now 25, the former college free-agent has been pegged by a number of people as a possible NHL rookie of the year candidate for the 2011-12 season. His balanced game and usefulness in all situations is a microcosm of the Flyers’ forward core, both already at the NHL level and within the prospect pool.
Trailing just behind Read are several other free agent signings, one from the NCAA and one from Canadian Juniors. Mike Testwuide, formerly of Colorado College, has become one of the most important forwards in the Adirondack Phantoms’ lineup. His defensive game is not something that can be taken for granted, and now in his second full season of AHL duty, he will be counted on even more despite limited offensive potential. Jason Akeson, on the other hand, has already displayed an offensive prowess and vision not found in many players. He notched 84 assists with the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL last season, and now he brings his game to the Flyers’ organization as a free agent signing.
Marcel Noebels, a powerforward playing for the Seattle Thunderbirds of the WHL, Michael Parks of the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux, and Czech-born Petr Placek, now playing with Harvard University, offer some considerable depth on the outside as well. All three are still in the earlier stages of their development but could bring something unique to the Flyers’ prospect pool down the road with their different skill sets.
Rounding out the right side for the organization are Shane Harper, who is now playing with the Phantoms despite splitting time between the ECHL and AHL last season, and Derek Mathers, who the Flyers drafted in 2011 hoping that he will become an NHL heavyweight down the road.
With the graduation of Oskars Bartulis, the departure of Joonas Lehtivuori, and the injuries of Marc-Andre Bourdon, left at the forefront of the Flyers’ blue line prospect pool are two college free agent puck movers. Erik Gustafsson, who now has a long list of AHL accomplishments to his name after his first professional season, is already getting time in the NHL thanks to injuries. Meanwhile, the 22-year-old brother of NHL star Phil Kessel and former teammate of former Flyers’ prospect James vanRiemsdyk is enduring his own first professional year. Blake Kessel was drafted by the New York Islanders but earned a contract with the Flyers during training camp.
Bourdon is currently looking to rebound from a disastrous year of injury and disappointment while his former QMJHL competition, Kevin Marshall, is looking to round out his puck movement game so that he can take the next step to the NHL. Another player looking to work on his offensive game is 6’6 Oliver Lauridsen, who many expect big things from in his first full professional season.
Already out due to injury is former Chilliwack anchor Brandon Manning, who missed most of training camp with an injury that remains undisclosed. Tyler Hostetter, also fresh out of Canadian Juniors, has been loaned to the Trenton Titans of the ECHL.
With Sergei Bobrovsky already cemented as the Flyers’ back-up behind recent long-term contract recipient Ilya Bryzgalov, there is more security at the position for the organization than in decades. Because of this, the organization felt comfortable not signing former top prospect Joacim Eriksson to an entry-level contract, something they would have had to get taken care of due to the new transfer agreement.
While Eriksson is now putting up the kind of numbers in the SEL that will make the Flyers’ organization think twice about their decision, Holmgren seems confident in his recent signing, Niko Hovinen. The towering goaltender is putting up very strong numbers in the SM-liiga, once again with one of the weaker teams. While he is older and does not have the pedigree of consistency that Eriksson possesses, the organization is excited about Hovinen’s adventure to the AHL next season.
Also still in the goaltending pool, once again easily the weakest group out of the Flyers’ prospects, are Brad Phillips, now employed by the Trenton Titans of the ECHL, and Jakub Kovar, who is playing outstanding hockey for Ceske Budejovice HC in the Czech Extraliga.