It is Time for the Flyers to Produce from Within
A HF’s look at the prospects in Philadelphia by John A. D’Amico
Losing in the first round of the NHL playoffs in consecutive years is bad enough. But doing it while spending enough money to dwarf the gross national product of a small European country makes it that much worse. Flyers GM Bobby Clarke has tried to build a winner by buying the priciest free agents that the sport had to offer. Unfortunately for Clarke, a bloated price tag does not assure success. And unfortunately for the Flyers season ticketholders, (after taking the gaspipe in back to back playoff years), all they have to show for their ticket buying dollar is a rather substantial price hike for their seats.
A concerted effort to build from within is now a priority for Clarke and it looks as though he does have some nice talent on the way up. This crop of prospects could be the best group that the Flyers have had stabled since the early eighties when Hextall, Tocchet, Zezel and Smith danced their way on to Broad Street to carry the team to two NHL Finals later in the decade.
In the nineties, the team seemed to have trouble nurturing the progress of such talents like Janne Niinimaa and Dainuis Zubrus and that seems to have placed some doubts on exactly how the team plans to bring along its better young players. Does playing Simon Gagne in the NHL at the age of nineteen destined him to turn into the next Zubrus? Of course not. But it is a great concern of many in the Flyers hierarchy. Does having used their top draft pick three of the last five years on a goaltender secure the team a goalie of the future? Again, of course not and there are some that believe that having so many high pedigreed young goalers lumped together is a not the healthiest environment to develop a backstop.
So amassing talent is just half the battle in Philadelphia. The club now has to prove to the hockey world that it knows what to do with a young talent once they get their hands on them. Several young players have the chance to make the NHL club this fall which will give Clarke a great opportunity to show the city that he can also cultivate NHL players as well as pluck them off of the free agent wire.
Now on to the long overdue Flyers Top Ten update.
1. SIMON GAGNE- Gagne is signed and will be participating in his first NHL training camp this fall. The team has pelted the media with many quotes saying how it fully expects that Simon will be returned to Quebec of the QMJHL for his third junior season. The tune is much different off the record. It would be more than a mild surprise if Gagne does not don a Flyers jersey on opening night of the NHL season this year. And that is where the fun begins.
Gagne has to play center and he is easily the second most complete pivot in the organization behind Eric Lindros. Marc Bureau centers the checking line so that leaves two center spots behind Lindros up for grabs. Clarke has not yet signed Daymond Langkow and having Gagne in the fold only strengthens Clarke’s position in those negotiations. But Clarke says that he plans on signing Langkow so he will be in the mix for one of those jobs. The other center on the roster is Rod Brind-Amour. Brind-Amour is a favorite of Clarke and that may deter Clarke from making the correct decision here. Hockey’s Future believes that Gagne and Langkow should assume the center roles since they seem to have one basic skill that Rod does not possess, they have the ability to make their wingers better by distributing the puck in a timely manner. Rod’s game has winger written all over it at this stage of his career.
If Gagne wins the second line job, he will have some very talented wingers to help make his transition to pro hockey a smooth one. The Flyers second line has been a sore spot for the team for most of the nineties and adding a natural center to that mix may end that pain. If Gagne is sent back to juniors, look for him to captain the Canadian National Junior team in the world championships and make his Flyer debut after the QMJHL season finishes up in the spring.
2. JEAN-MARC PELLETIER- Brian Boucher may win the Flyers back-up job this fall but Pelletier may be the heir apparent to John Vabiesbrouck’s number one job as the Flyers top goaltender. The club would like to see JM play a majority of the games for the AHL Phantoms to fine tune his skills and challenge for the top Flyers job next year at training camp when Vanbiesbrouck pushes the age of thirty-seven. Pelletier has good size for a goaler and also seems to have the confidence that any number one netminder must possess.
He had a strong rookie year in the AHL. Pelletier played a long stretch of consectutive games when Boucher went down with a knee injury. The constant game action may have tired the rookie a bit as Boucher took the Phantoms deep into the AHL playoffs. The talent level is just about equal between the two young goaltenders but JM is just a little younger and a little more head strong than the more reserved Boucher so he could get the nod in this hotly contested goalie race.
3. JASON BECKETT- If one was going to make a wager on which Flyers defensive prospect is going to have the longest NHL career, the smart money would be on Jason Beckett. The guy has nice size (6’2″ 212 lb.), above average feet and plays the game with an edge that makes him difficult to play against. Early last season as Jason toiled for the Seattle Thunderbirds of the WHL, the Flyers graded him ready to be at least an everyday performer at the AHL level at that point in time. That was lofty praise for an eighteen year old defenseman and Beckett’s game got better as the season wore on.
Beckett has already signed with the Flyers and should start his apprenticeship with the AHL Phantoms soon after Seattle finishes up in the spring. Beckett plays a defensive minded game and seems to possess the lateral movement that every defenseman needs to succeed in the NHL. He plays a style that the big club sorely needs so Beckett is a player that may be called up to the NHL sooner rather then later just to get him acclimated to the fast pace of the NHL.
4. MARK EATON- Local boy Mark Eaton is in a rather tough situation with the Flyers this fall. Making the jump from the minor leagues to the NHL is a tough one for any defenseman. It is that much more difficult when the blueliner plays an offensive game where he is counted on to contribute at both ends of the ice. And on top of that, Eaton is being looked at as one of the players that must fill the hole created after the tragic loss of Dmitri Tertyshny this summer. His death changed the Flyers plans for Eaton from an experiment where he would be eased into the fire, to a necessity where his game will be under the microscope night in and night out.
Eaton also came up short of the goals the team set for him as far as putting some much needed pounds of muscle on. The team wants him near 205 lb. and Mark, at last check, was still in the low 190s. His offensive skills are not a worry. The main concern surrounding Eaton are the questions over whether or not he is physically strong enough to handle man-to-man defense down low. He can expect a steady diet of Eric Lindros, John LeClair (if healthy) and Mikeal Renberg down around the crease all during fall practice.
Eaton has tons of natural ability but he may be tossed into battle early in the year. Philadelphia must give Mark the time to learn the game on the job at its highest level. There will be some growing pains but the Flyers are very sure that they have their future quarterback of their power play in the young Eaton.
5. RYAN BAST- The forgotten man. The parent Flyers are in dire need of a young blueliner or two to step up and make a difference this upcoming season and nobody seems to be talking about Ryan Bast this summer. Bast’s plus/minus rating did take a huge tumble last season after Ryan was among the league leaders in the AHL in that stat during the 1997-98 season while playing for the Saint John Flames and their defense first head coach Bill Stewart. But nobody is going to confuse the team defense played by the Philadelphia Phantoms with that of the New Jersey Devils of the mid-nineties. Head coach Bill Barber’s Phantoms are known for their offense as much as their ability to draw fans to the First Union Spectrum.
Bast is high on the Top 10 list but he has both adequate size and skating ability when you compare him to the players that made up the Flyers ’98-’99 defensive corps. He is comfortable playing either side and plays with a snarl not seen on the Flyers blueline for most of the decade of the nineties. And it is because of his willingness to sacrifice himself for his teammates that leads me to believe that it will be the name (his) that nobody in the organization is talking about that could very well make the biggest splash later this week when the Flyers set up camp in Peterborough. A week of simple defense garnished with some physical play could vault Bast from forgotten man to a spot on the Flyers top seven on the blueline. Somebody has to step up and Bast seems to be the most unflappable of the young Phantoms.
6. BRIAN BOUCHER- The front runner to the backup goalie position on the Flyers ranked all the way down at number six on the prospect depth charts? Yes and for several reasons. It has become rather apparent that the Flyers have misplaced their “How To” book that covers developing young netminders. The selection of Maxime Ouellet with their first choice this past June was the third top pick that the Flyers used on a goaltender in the last five years. Needless to say, that this is the first time a club has done that in the history of the NHL Amateur and Entry Draft.
Maybe GM Bobby Clarke has some inside information that the league’s governing body plans on some sort of drastic rule change that will allow teams to play two goalies simultaneously. If not, the Flyers may be retarding the growth of their potential future number one goaltender by stabling so many young goalies so close together as the century comes to a close. There is a reason that teams usually draft one goaler relatively high in the draft about once every six or so years. High pedigreed goaltenders need two things as the work their way up a teams depth charts, tons of playing time and the peace of mind that they are thought of as the future “man” in the nets by his employers. Nothing kills a young goaltender quicker than a lack of confidence and no matter what the spin doctors in the Flyers organization say, having three future number one goaltenders coming to camp just adds unneeded pressure to the situation.
Boucher is a talent but there already have been signs that the youngster may be a little lacking in the confidence department. Reports are that during his rookie season in the AHL, Brian made it clear that he preferred not to play in front of the tough home fans at the First Union Spectrum after he had a few bad outings. If a NHL team drafts a goalie with their top pick, that goalie better be looked at as a guy a team can count on as being its answer in the nets for many years to come. The Flyers now have three answers to a question that requires only one. No wonder the Flyers have such a poor draft record.
The backup job is Brian’s to lose but it seems that the team is hedging its bets by promising not only Pelletier and career minor leaguer Neil Little a shot at the number two job behind Vanbiesbrouck, but rumors persit that the team has made inquiries about the services of a few veteran free agent goaltenders.
Where in the world did they put the “How To” book?
7. MIKHAIL CHERNOV- At the end of the last season, Chernov was looked at a potential legitimate candidate to push for a job at the NHL level. But after a horrible boating accident claimed the life of his best friend when Dmitri Terthshny died in his arms, it may be a good idea to give this young man some time and space to cope with the tragedy. Chernov has skill and is still is considered a future Flyer but expecting him to help the Flyers win a Stanley Cup this year may be too much to ask of the kid.
When Mikhail does push for a job with the Flyers, Philadelphia fans are going to love his game. He is one of those rare Russian born players that play with an edge. He has a little Darius Kasparitis in him and that is the type of player any NHL team would love to have on its squad. Solid on his blueline, Chernov threw many thunderous bodychecks at his opponents last year in the AHL.
The man has game. Now all he needs is the time to mature as a player and the time to adjust to life without his best friend.
8. BRIAN WESENBERG- An obvious favorite of the management staff, Wesenberg only has to continue to show marked improvement in his skating to push for a job as a grinder at the NHL level. Camp this fall is very important for Wesenberg. His skating was still a half step slow at this point in time last year but he did earn a late season call up by the Flyers. Unfortunately, he was knocked for a loop in a fight with Trevor Halverson of the Capitals and he was sent back down soon after his NHL debut.
There is a lot to like about Wesenberg’s game. He plays hard and is probably the best in the Flyers organization at drawing penalties. Even though he was KO’ed by Halverson, Brian is good with his fists and has always been quick to stand up for a teammate. The big question is his skating. He needs to step it up a little more to not be a liability on the defensive transition. With nagging injuries sidelining some of the established Flyers veterans, Wesenberg will get ample opportunity to show his stuff in Peterborough. <
9. Jeff Feniak- Who?
Jeff Feniak, that’s who.
Feniak was the Flyers second pick overall in last year’s draft (4th round) and his skating at the Flyers prospect camp has many wondering how a kid with his great size (6’4″ 200 lb.) slipped through to the middle rounds of the draft. The club has amassed a nice collection of stay at home defensive prospects and Feniak just adds to that list. He is more mobile than Ian Forbes (2nd rd, ’97) at this point and time but Forbes (who already signed w/ the Flyers) is another player to watch over the next few seasons. Both men are big and do have some filling out to do (especially Forbes who was blessed with a 6’6″ frame) but as any coach would tell you, “You can’t teach size.”
Feniak plays for the powerful Calgary Hitmen of the WHL and most likely has two more years of major junior hockey in front of him. Feniak, because of his good feet, projects as a defenseman that will be able to handle the speed rush from wingers attacking from the flank. As far as the rough stuff goes, Jeff admitted that he is not quite a future heavyweight contender as far as fisticuffs go in the NHL but he is more than willing to go with any opponent if the situation calls for it.
It is way to early to call Feniak a steal as a fourth round pick but he seems to have the physical skills to warrant Flyers fans to keep an eye on him.
10. MAXIME OUELLET- If the list of the Flyers prospects was in order of natural talent, the three goaltenders on this list could very well have been slotted in spots two through four right after Simon Gagne. But since the Flyers are collecting goaltending prospects at a dizzying rate when most teams are happy with just nurturing one “goalie of the future” at a time, the team is possibly running the risk of having too much of a good thing. Young goalies need space from other young goalies. If a goaltending prospect has a choice to be in a situation where he was the only top recruit or just one of three (as in the case w/ the Flyers), any truthful player will opt for the former every single time. There must be a reason why teams have never used their top pick three out of five times on their future number one goaltender until the Flyers tempted fate this summer. If Boucher, Pelletier and ’99 top pick Maxime Ouellet were drafted by three different clubs, there is a better chance that all three would eventually make it to the NHL as a number one goalie than there is with all three suiting up for the same organization. Simple mathematics and NHL history proves that to be fact.
Ouellet is a big goaltender who is in the running to take the nets for the Canadian Junior National Team this winter. He reminds me a bit of JM Pelletier in both style and that confident way that he has about him. At the draft after the shock of being selected by the Flyers wore off, (both Maxime and his family were convinced that they would go to Chicago with the 23rd pick overall), Ouellet seemed to be unfazed by the laundry list of top goaltending prospects to which his name was about to be added.
Boucher and Pelletier should wrestle each other over the next two and a half seasons for the right to lay claim to the top job in the Flyers nets. If Ouellet progresses like a normal top goaltending draftee, he should engage the winner of that duel soon after Pelletier/Boucher battle concludes and the fight starts all over again.
When a club uses a top pick on this position, it usually does so to grab their goalie for the next decade. The Flyers may very well find the goalie to lead them into the next millennium but it is going to be at the cost of three top draft picks since only one of these prospects can wind up being the number one guy in orange and black. Ouellet has an advantage over either Boucher or Pelletier because he has to only battle one of them where his competition would have had to successfully beaten the other man out prior to Maxime’s arrival on to the NHL scene.