Flyers Midterm System Review Part I: Graduated Prospects

By Bill Meltzer

Graduated Prospect Report: :

The best news in the Flyers development system this season has come from the NHL level. The team leads the NHL in goals scored by rookies. Additionally, 20 year old NHL sophomore Simon Gagne , coming off a strong rookie campaign, has taken the next step toward the stardom that seems inevitable if he stays healthy.

The NHL news is not all positive, however. Defenseman Andy Delmore has lacked consistency and goaltender Brian Boucher has fallen victim to a horrendous sophomore slump and has had the starting goaltending job snatched away from him by 29-year old Roman Cechmanek , a veteran Czech league and international star who finally decided to give the NHL a try after the Flyers drafted him in the 2000 entry draft and gave him the type of contractual flexibility he sought– enabling him to have the choice to return home if things didn’t work out here. Obviously that is no longer an issue. Cechmanek has more than proven that he belongs in the NHL. Indeed, Cechmanek has arguably been the Flyers most valuable player to date. However, since he does not qualify as an NHL rookie and was already a known quantity– at least in the international hockey community– Cechmanek will not be considered a “graduated” prospect.However, give Flyers head European scout Inge Hammarström full marks for recommending that the Flyers use a draft pick on the veteran.

Simon Gagne: Gagne started out slowly this season due to a nagging groin pull. Since then, he has gone on two goal scoring tears that have propelled him to the team lead in goals and points. Defensemen are starting to dread the thought of taking on the lightning fast Gagne one-on-one. Gagne accelerates to full speed in a flash and his offensive instincts are terrific. He’s also a clever passer. Not content to be a one-dimensional finesse player, Gagne has added some upper body strength since last year and his already above-average defensive play has remained strong. Gagne has really clicked on a line with center Daymond Langkow and veteran right wing Rick Tocchet .

Justin Williams: The Flyers first round pick in the 2000 entry draft was not even expected to make the Flyers NHL roster this season but a strong training camp propelled him onto the opening night roster– on the top line, no less. Williams could hardly have dreamt of a more auspicious NHL debut, scoring a goal and adding two helpers in the Flyers 6-3 opening night win over Vancouver. Since then, Williams has had all the expected ups and downs of a teenage rookie in the NHL. New head coach Bill Barber has been using Williams on a fairly limited basis of late– the rookie starts but usually plays on a non-scoring line and rarely plays more than about 10-12 minutes a game.

Williams does not look out of place in the NHL. He is responsible defensively and he is unafraid to get hit to make a play. He keeps his feet moving at all times and is accomplished and creating powerplay opportunities for the Flyers by drawing penalties on the opposition. The rookie also has shown plus speed and pretty good hands, although not quite of the caliber that Gagne displayed last year. Williams’ biggest drawback is is lack of strength. He often gets manhandled by opposing players and simply lacks the strength to power his way to the net.

Williams seems to have the potential to be a championship team caliber second line winger in the future. But will it be the short term future? I have some doubts. I suspect that his progress may come at a slower pace than Gagne’s. The Flyers will need to remain patient with Williams over several seasons and not brand him an underachiever if he doesn’t emerge as a consistent offensive player as a second or third year player. Flyers General Manager Bob Clarke may preach patience but his track record has shown that he is not patient with the struggles of young players.

Ruslan Fedotenko came into this season merely hoping to have a good American League sophomore season and if everything went well, perhaps getting in a few games with the Flyers. He’s done a lot more than that.

Fedotenko was largely overlooked in training camp, as flashier players like Williams, Petr Hubacek , and Vaclav Pletka drew most of the attention. Fedotenko started the season with the Phantoms. The young Ukrainian forward, a rookie free agent signing last year who went on to share the Phantoms rookie-of-the-year award with Tomas Divisek got off to a slow offensive start this year. Like the rest of the Phantoms, the points simply weren’t coming. “Rusty” had one goal and no assists in eight games. The poor offensive stats belied the fact that his all-around play was solid.

On October 24, when the Flyers traveled to New York to play the Rangers, they called-up Fedotenko as an emergency fill-in for Mark Recchi . The call came so late that Fedotenko did not arrive in the Big Apple until the game was already underway. Once he finally suited up, Fedotenko played well in the game. Few, however, expected him to stay around very long.

Fedotenko simply would not give the Flyers a reason to send him down. He skated hard shift-after-shift. He forechecked and backchecked. He hit and backed up his teammates. He cycled the puck and crashed the net. He got open for scoring chances and passed the puck intelligently. He kept his shifts short. Before too long, the offense started coming.

Although Fedotenko hit a 13 game goal drought in mid-November, he was still getting a few assists. After 23 games, he had a respectable 9 points (3 goals). However, it was Fedotenko’s energy on the ice and infectious enthusiasm that kept him around while the goals weren’t coming.

Fedotenko scored a five-hole goal against the Devils Martin Brodeur on December 19. It was a shot that the Devils keeper probably should have stopped. Soft goal or not, it gave Fedotenko a big boost of confidence. He has been scoring regularly ever since. At present, he is skating on the top line with Keith Primeau and Recchi and has not looked out of place.

Although Rusty doesn’t exactly have a dynamic shot, he goes hard to the net and has a knack for scoring on deflections, rebounds into open cages and goals from sharp angles. That may or may mot translate into long-term NHL-level scoring success. Even so, for now, Fedotenko ranks second among all NHL rookies with 10 goals and few doubt anymore that he belongs in some capacity in the NHL. Fedotenko is rapidly becoming a favorite among many Flyers fans.

While Roman Cechmanek has taken the NHL by storm and the trio of Gagne, Williams, and Fedotenko have been mainstays in the Flyers lineup, the 2000-2001 season has been a nightmare for 1999-2000 rookie sensation Brian Boucher . The Flyers second year keeper has struggled all season to control rebounds and to make big saves when the defense breaks down in front of him. His confidence has gone from sky high to all-but-shattered. Now ex-coach Craig Ramsay constantly preached patience with Boucher, absolving him of blame for how his season had gone. New coach Bill Barber , however, recently ripped into Boucher after the goalie coughed up a third period lead when a flu-riddled Cechmanek was forced to leave a game in Washington after two periods.

Barber subsequently followed up his aggressive stance with soothing words, saying that he was still high on Boucher in the long term. That has not stopped the coach from going exclusively with Cechmanek since the Czech goalie recovered from his illness. Boucher has been working with goaltending coach Rejean Lemelin , trying to regain a semblance of the sharpness and confidence he displayed last year in leading the Flyers within a game of the Stanley Cup finals.

Boucher has already reached a dangerous crossroads in his professional career. Nobody could have reasonably predicted he’d do as well last year as he did– going into last season, there was open debate over whether he was even NHL-ready yet. Even after his great rookie year, many doubted that he had true star potential. However, Boucher showed enough ability as a rookie that it would also be wrong to write him off as a one year wonder. The hardest part of the game for young players– especially goaltenders– to master is the mental part. The question is whether Boucher’s pysche has been damaged beyond repair (as happened to Jim Carey) or if he can summon the inner resolve to overcome his problems and re-establish himself as #1 caliber NHL goalie. The pressure on Boucher to make a quick recovery is even greater now that Cechmanek is playing so wel and Maxime Ouellet finishes his last season of junior play.

Andy Delmore , who was a pleasant surprise in the second half of last season and grabbed headlines with a sensational offensive series against the Penguins in the Eastern Conference semi-finals, has not had a good second NHL season. His defensive play is just adequate enough to stay in the NHL if he is producing points at a regular clip. The points,however, have come irregularly and Delmore’s decision-making in pinching and man-to-man coverage still leaves a lot to be desired. He joins the rush well and plays a reasonably physical style but has just not done the things the Flyers have needed him to do. Because the Flyers blueline is the weakest area of the club, Delmore has remained in the lineup. It should be said, however, that his play has picked up somewhat since Barber has taken the reigns as coach. Delmore is currently paired with Chris Therien .

Last year, when I asked Flyers assistant GM (and de facto Philadelphia Phantoms GM) Paul Holmgren about rookie forward Todd Fedoruk , Holmgren shook his head and said cryptically, “he’s got the tools but he’s got some growing up to do.” I did not probe the question further and Holmgren did not volunteer any other statements. I wondered if he was referring to an off-ice problem, as Fedoruk had suspiciously bounced around the WHL as a junior and had been unceremoniously dispatched the ECHL as a pro rookie last year. Nevertheles, I should have asked Holmgren to elaborate and allowed him to decline further comment (rather than just assuming– albeit with virtual certainty– he would).

As it turned out, Holmgren was indeed referring to Fedoruk having off-ice problems. The rookie was spending too many nights out drinking and not enough time practicing. This past offseason, Fedoruk made the decision to stop drinking and work harder on hockey. The results have been dramatic. From the first day of training camp, Fedoruk impressed the Flyers with his strong skating, crunching body checks, and heavyweight fighting ability. He also showed a modicum of skill to boot- including a heavy (but unrefined) shot. Although Fedoruk did not break camp with the big team, most felt that he’d get called up as an injury replacement at some point. Fedoruk had clearly surpassed Jesse Boulerice and the since-released (due to recurring drug abuse problems) Francis Belanger on the farm system’s tough guy forward charts.

Fedoruk earned his first recall to the Flyers immediately after Fedotenko. Like Rusty, Fedoruk (nicknamed “The Fridge”), made the most of his initial opportunity. He bagged a goal, threw some big hits, fought veteran tough guy Rob Ray to a hard-punching standstill, and decimated Matthew Barnaby in a fight. Fedoruk presents a challenge to fighting opponents not only because he is big and strong but because he can switch hands and fight either left or right handed.

After a string of good games, Fedoruk tailed off just a bit and was benched in favor of veteran Gino Odjick . Fedoruk was briefly returned to the Phantoms until Odjick was traded to Montreal, creating a roster space. He was then recalled to the Flyers, where he has remained since. Fedoruk’s play since his recall has been adequate. He’s been a force in some games, invisible in others. “The Fridge” has also shown that he still needs to understand the fine line between playing aggresively and taking foolish penalties. All in all, though, Fedoruk has looked to be a player who will stick around the NHL for awhile.

Incidentally, Fedoruk may have given up the bottle but he’s still every bit a character. It’s hard to ignore the big tattooed, tobacco-chewing, toothless, boisterous guy in the locker room. He definitely adds some color to a fairly reserved team.

Look for a review of minor league, junior, college, and European prospects in Part II of the Flyers Midterm System Report.