Pletka was no surprise, having been one of the top scorers in the Czech Extraleague last season. The degree of skill refinement shown by Williams and Hubacek were more surprising.
A review of the Flyers top prospects and returning second year players follows.
Brian Boucher– Recently signed to a lucrative long-term contract after his sensational rookie season, Boucher came to camp knowing he had the starting job sewn up. He has had a decent preseason. The true test of whether he’s the next Martin Brodeur, the next Jim Carey, or something in between will come over the long season. For now, Boucher looks poised and confident to show that he’s for real at the NHL level.
Simon Gagne– Coming off a 20 goal season and a strong playoff run as a teenage rookie, the only question about Gagne coming into camp was whether the Flyers would play him at center or wing. The indication is that he will remain at wing. Gagne missed most of the preseason with a groin pull but is now back in action.
Andy Delmore– Delmore was a pleasant surprise last season. He rebounded from a subpar 1998-99 season with the Philadelphia Phantoms to have a great training camp with the Flyers and, by the latter part of the season, was a regular starter on the Flyers blueline. In the playoffs, he played well against the Sabres and sensationally against the Penguins before struggling against the Devils. Delmore has become a more physical player than he was in the past but he is still no more than average as a defensive player. He has to join the rush and put up points to keep his job in the NHL. Delmore had an unremarkable preseason, although it should be noted that he had defensive problems in the Flyers first meeting with the Devils. Delmore enters the season with a spot in the Flyers starting six on the blueline but cannot yet be considered a lock to maintain that position all season.
Mark Eaton– The Flyers always seem to expect more of Eaton than what they see from him. Although Eaton is, in my opinion, less turnover-prone than Delmore, the Flyers currently seem more comfortable the progress of Delmore than Eaton. The organization constantly harps on how they want Eaton use his speed more effectively and be more aggressive. He is not especially strong physically, so he has to use finesse to contain forwards. He had trouble doing that during the preseason. In the offensive end, he still prefers not to take a lot of chances pinching and has not yet consistently shown that he could have an offensive impact at the NHL level. Eaton’s roster spot at the start of the season is in jeopardy, especially after the acquisition of 25 year old Chris McAllister from Toronto. McAllister is practically the polar opposite of Eaton- huge, slow, uncoordinated, and unskilled with the puck. However, the Flyers GM has always seemed to value size first and foremost when it comes to defensemen. The Flyers have said that they expect McAllister to be their 6th or 7th defenseman at the start of the year (the back injury to veteran Chris Therien pushes everyone below him up one notch in the lineup, so McAllister may be a starter early in the season). That leaves Eaton either hanging on with the Flyers by a thread or getting demoted once again to the Phantoms.
NOTE: Shortly after the completion of this article, the Flyers traded Eaton to Nashville for a 3rd round draft pick.
Maxime Ouellet– Ouellet has looked sensational in goal during the preseason. His footwork and glove are lightning quick. If he has a fault, it is his tendency to butterfly on almost every shot attempt. A star last season in the Quebec League and the World Junior Championships, Ouellet’s excellent play has caused a roster dilemma for the Flyers. Over the summer, they drafted 29 year old Czech standout Roman Cechmanek to be the backup to Brian Boucher. Cechmanek has played decently in limited preseason action. His contract does not allow for him to be sent to the Phantoms. He must either be allowed to return to the Czech Republic or remain with the Flyers. Ouellet, meanwhile, is prohibited from playing in the American League due to AHL rules excluding players with remaining junior eligibility at the start of the season. The Flyers now face a tough decision which, as of this writing, has not yet been made.
1. Carry three goalies. This rarely works. There is simply not enough playing time to go around. At least one goalie and often two end up rusty and unhappy. This may be what the Flyers end up doing at the start of the season, however.
2. Carry Boucher and Ouellet. They could either try to trade Cechmanek to another team or let him return back home. I don’t think this is a smart option. First of all, it is not advisable to carry two such young and inexperienced goalies. If Boucher falters, there would be a world of pressure of the rookie Ouellet. Conversely, if things go to plan and Boucher is a workhorse, Ouellet’s development could be stifled. Goalies need to play to learn. Boucher had two AHL seasons under his belt before being phased in by the Flyers last year. For all of Ouellet’s junior accolades and marvelous potential, he does not have a single pro minute under his belt. While Cechmanek is new to the NHL, he has a lot of big game experience against professional players. Additionally, the Flyers maneuvered in the draft expressly to be able to draft Cechmanek to be the Flyers backup this year. He was not cheap to sign, either. To change the plan and toss him out without first getting an extended look at him would be foolish.
3. Carry Boucher and Cechmanek and send Ouellet back to junior hockey. That seems like the best option to me. There is no such thing as being too prepared for the NHL, especially where young goalies are concerned. However, the Flyers seem convinced that there is nothing left for Ouellet to prove in junior hockey and another season in the Q would just be a wasted season for him.
Justin Williams– Very few 18 or 19 year old players belong in the NHL. But the Flyers seem convinced that Williams already belongs in the NHL, perhaps even on one of the top two lines. He has shown excellent
speed and surprising patience in the offensive zone. Although he severely lacks strength, Williams is not afraid to take a hit to make a play and he works hard to help out on the backcheck. Flyers coach Craig Ramsay and GM Bob Clarke have all but made official that Williams will get a trial period on the big team at the start of the season and then a decision will be made whether to send him back to the OHL before he loses a year of waiver draft exemption or keep him with the Flyers for the rest of the season. On the surface, this seems like a good solution but it can be a dangerous proposition. If a prospect gets sent back to junior hockey before NHL opening night, he can take positive things back with him. If he starts the year in the NHL and then gets sent back, many youngsters would have a hard time viewing it as anything but a demotion- he couldn’t cut it in the NHL. As mature as a young player may seem, the mental part of the game is still a challenge. The truth of the matter is that very few teenagers–even ones with skill, speed, and maturity—belong in the NHL. We’ll see if Williams is the exception.
Petr Hubacek– Hubacek started fast, struggled in the middle, and ended on a strong note last season in the Czech Republic. The right-handed shooting center was signed to a Flyers contract over the summer and ticketed for the Phantoms. Hubacek had something else in mind. From the start of rookie camp right up through the preseason, Hubacek has shown an intriguing package of skill, poise, and grit. He has NHL size and strength. Rick Tocchet compared Hubacek’s demeanor under pressure and vision of the ice to that of Teemu Selänne. Others have compared his style to Mats Sundin. I think those comparisons may be going overboard. But Hubacek is definitely very smooth and surprisingly polished for a player that was not yet considered a star in the Czech League. He has just about pushed Derek Plante and Peter White out of the picture for the Flyers third line center spot. If Hubacek does start the year with the Phantoms, there is a strong chance his AHL stay will be short.
Vaclav Pletka– Pletka has shown more grit than expected but he gets taken off the puck and ridden out of the play too easily. Nevertheless, his offensive instincts and hands are first rate. He scored the game winning goal in the Flyers second preseason game and seems to get at least one good scoring a game, even when his ice time is limited. The decision has been made to send Pletka to the Phantoms to start the season, letting him continue his transition to the smaller rink and North American playing style. He still has work to do defensively as well.
Tomas Divisek– Divisek came on late in training camp and played a sensational game in the Flyers second preseason match (vs. the New York Islanders). He was arguably the Flyers best player on the ice in that game, although he somehow came away without a point. Unfortunately, it was learned shortly thereafter that Divisek had separated his left shoulder- the same injury that sidelined him for over a month last season with the Phantoms. At first it seemed as though surgery would be needed. The Flyers seem have backed off that plan for now and Divisek will try to rehab the shoulder without surgery. He is out indefinitely. When he returns to the lineup, he will skate on the Phantoms first line.
Francis Lessard– The hyper-aggressive Lessard was the Flyers best young defenseman in training camp. He worked on his skating over the summer and seemed to have improved some of his positional play. Unfortunately, Lessard suffered a badly broken jaw in the first preseason game and is out for up to six weeks.
Todd Fedoruk– A crash-and-bang player, Fedoruk has thrown his weight around with abandon during the preseason and engaged in several fights. He has impressed sufficiently with his skating and forechecking to still be with the big squad late in the preseason. Fedoruk has emerged as a possible fill-in for the Flyers 4th line and should be able to hold a roster spot with the Phantoms this season.
Mikhail Chernov– Chernov outplayed some of the Flyers veterans in preseason action but still appears to need a little more AHL seasoning. He should be ready for the NHL by this time next year and could be a call-up at some point this season.