One Big Step Forward

By pbadmin

When you look at the list of prospects in the Philadelphia Flyers system, it is hard to miss the long list of potential future NHL defensemen. That old axiom “there is strength in numbers” may very well describe the situation as far as youngsters climbing the depth charts in Philadelphia is concerned. As detailed in an earlier edition of Hockey’s Future, the Flyers have a big stable of defensemen that would turn any NHL general manager green with envy. So with all of these young blueliners about to make the jump up to the bigs, why is the only name that anybody in the hockey world talks about when they speak of the Flyers’ prospects is that of a forward?

Two words.

Simon Gagne.

Not only is that the name of the hottest prospect to be drafted by the Flyers since Russ Farwell made a reach and tabbed a quiet kid named Peter Forsberg as his top choice in 1991, but it is also basically the complete list of NHL-caliber forward prospects in the Flyers’ coffers. There are a few names like Wesenberg and Fedoruk that may have what it takes to crack the NHL roster but this update on the Flyers forward prospects was so close to being entitled “The Simon Gagne Report” because Gagne is buffered from the other forwards on the prospect chart by a herd of defensemen.

Gagne had a stellar year in the QMJHL for the Quebec Remparts. His 120 points and +52 plus/minus rating was by far tops on his club. Simon has quickly established himself as a player that understands how to play complete two-way hockey. He made the Canadian National Junior Team as a checking line center before he unveiled his offensive prowess during the course of the tournament last winter.

Swift afoot, Gagne combined his natural speed with sparkling vision on the ice to turn the heads of NHL GM’s and scouts this past winter in the QMJHL. His name was on the top all of the wish lists of inquiring GM’s as Bobby Clarke tried in vein to find some permanent answers to the big question marks on his floundering club down the stretch. One would have to be crazy to trade a blue-chipper like Gagne for a fill-in veteran. Holding on to Gagne was an obvious correct decision. How they handle the center from here on out will be very interesting to watch.

Gagne’s immediate future can take one of two paths. He can either skate with the Flyers through the preseason and gets sent packing back to Quebec at the final cut. Or he is able to flash his “A” game during camp and legitimately makes the NHL team. Since he is 19 years old he is prohibited from playing for the AHL Phantoms. Bobby Clarke has already been quoted in the local Philadelphia press saying that there is little chance of Gagne securing one of the top four pivot jobs with the Flyers. If Gagne is sent back to juniors, he will no doubt be the cornerstone of Canada’s national junior team next winter. Aside from the junior championship tournament, there is little for Simon to benefit from by spending another year playing in the QMJHL.

But if Gagne is good enough to turn some heads in camp, then this fall will be very interesting in Flyerland. The Flyers offensive woes revolve around this management staff’s refusal to admit that Rod Brind-Amour and his remedial offensive game is sorely retarding this club’s offensive production. Talents on the wing like Mark Recchi, Mikeal Renberg and John LeClair need a center with good vision and natural playmaking ability for them to score the puck on a consistent basis. Brind-Amour’s infamous signature offensive move, the pull-up as he gains the opponent’s blueline, is not only easily defended against but also keeps our scoring wingers from getting the puck quickly and driving to the net. Rod’s holding of the puck stops guys like Renberg and Recchi from scoring almost as well as Martin Broduer and Dominic Hasek could ever do on either goalie’s best night.

Gagne’s game has shown that he has the ability to deliver the puck to the correct teammate at the correct time. Grant it, it is going to take Simon some time to get used to the speed of the NHL game but that would be the case no matter when the team calls him into service. Why not play him now? Size should not be that much of a worry since the diminutive Daymond Langkow has his little hands firmly grasped around the third line center job. Yes, Gagne is going to need to build some muscle but why not do it in Philadelphia as he is honing his craft. That way the Flyers can be more hands-on as he tries to pack on the muscle. And during the actual season, there is only minimal weight training so whatever muscle that Gagne puts on this summer is most like it for the season.

The most amazing part of this story is that if Lady Luck was working with the Flyers that afternoon in Buffalo last summer, Gagne would not be Flyers’ property right now. The Flyers were hoping against hope that big Mathieu Biron slipped past the Los Angeles Kings and fell to them at draft selection number twenty-two. But the 6’6″ defenseman was scooped up by Kings GM Dave Taylor, leaving the Flyers to go to their back-up plan. The Flyers may want to consider hiring Lady Luck as a permanent member of its’ scouting staff. Having two drafted players on its’ season ending roster is not a smashing endorsement of a club’s scouting department.

Aside from Gagne, the forward ranks below the NHL level has little in the way of strong NHL talent. Brian Wesenberg is a favorite of many here at the Philadelphia desk of Hockey’s Future but great concerns over his skating arose after watching him the few times he actually got to skate with the top team over the course of last season. His skating is just a notch below the NHL level right now. He needs to make some major improvements in that area to truly push for an NHL job. His size and other skills are very good though. Wesenberg is a gritty competitor with a nice nose for the net. He is one of the best in the AHL at drawing penalties and if his skating improves by a half of a stride, Brian may have a bright future in the bigs.

Todd Fedoruk is a big hitter with a nice stride. He put on about 25 pounds of pure muscle since the Flyers tabbed him late in the 1997 draft. Fedoruk was one of the most feared hitters in the WHL playing for the Prince Albert Raiders. He plays hard and seems to fit into the mold that GM Clarke settled on towards the end of last season. The problem there is that it seems that Clarke is totally void of a basic concept for his big club and tomorrow Fedoruk’s size and grit will take a back-seat to whatever new plan the team chooses to follow. Fedoruk has already inked a deal with the organization and should play for the Phantoms next season. Jesse Boulerice’s year was a complete washout. The guy needs to make a fresh start next fall and if he can put the trial in the back of his mind, he has some nice natural skill to carve himself out a future in pro hockey. We love his skating and size. Now he only needs to get his mind cleared of the Long incident and play smart, tough hockey. Jesse has talent and if and/or when he learns from that horrible mistake, he could very well surprise in camp next fall.

Much has been written about that stick swinging incident and in the process some have painted Boulerice as some sort of a monster. Like most aggressive on-ice players in the game today, it would be difficult to find a nicer kid than Boulerice. Let the courts have their say and then let the man go on with his life.

Look for the Flyers to draft more forwards early at this year’s draft. There is a need for some natural skill so don’t be surprised if you see them reach across the pond and into Europe for a few scoring prospects before they wrap things up in Boston late in June.

At least that is what they would do if they were smart enough to sign Lady Luck on to the scouting staff by then.

Next up…..a look at the goaltenders.