The strength of the Flyers farm system unquestionably lies in its goaltending prospects. The Flyers currently boast four fine young goaltending prospects: Brian Boucher, Jean-Marc Pelletier, Maxime Ouellet, and Antero Niittymäki. With the goalies in the Flyers system currently staggered between the NHL (Boucher), the AHL (Pelletier), the QMJHL (Ouellet), and the Finnish Elites (Niittymäki), the organization can afford to evaluate each player’s progress separately and, due to their staggered draft years, also have different time-tables for each player. But in the near future, perhaps as soon as the end of this season, the team may have to make a firm decision on whom among Boucher, Pelletier, Ouellet, and Niittymäki will ultimately be the team’s long-term starter of the future and which one(s) will be trade bait to fill in some of the other areas where the team needs both short-term and long-term help. In addition to the aforementioned goaltenders, the Flyers also have minor league veteran Neil Little, ECHL goalie Bujar Amidovsky, Färjestad BK (Swedish Elites) backup goaltender Per-Ragnar Bergqvist, and Medicine Hat Tigers goaltender Cam Ondrik in the system. None of the latter goalies is a serious NHL prospect, however (although Little still has a core of supporters in Philadelphia who believe that he deserves a shot as an NHL backup).
A quick review follows to update the recent happenings with each of the four top candidates:
Brian Boucher (Flyers)
With the release of veteran Ron Hextall at the end of the 1998-99 season, Boucher was handed the backup job to John Vanbiesbrouck. Taking nothing for granted, Boucher went out and was the best goaltender at the Flyers training camp in Peterborough, Ontario. He then had a very solid preseason, apart from one poor start against Washington. Boucher appears to be fully recovered from a pair of knee injuries suffered last season. As the oldest of the Flyers main goaltending prospects (born 1977, drafted in the first round of the 1995 draft), Boucher will get the first shot at staking the team’s goalie-of-the-future mantle for himself at the world’s highest level of hockey. He should get his first NHL start toward the latter part of October.
Jean-Marc Pelletier (Philadelphia Phantoms, AHL)
Pelletier was terrific for the first three-quarters of his rookie AHL season. With Boucher injured, Pelletier accumulated lots of minutes. As a result, he seemed fatigued late in the season and struggled down the stretch. Boucher ended up winning his starting job back for the playoffs. Pelletier had one NHL start last year for the Flyers, but was clearly in over his head against the Ottawa Senators. Pelletier had a so-so camp in Peterborough this year and had some trouble against NHL shooters in two preseason appearances (one played for the Flyers against Detroit, the other against the Flyers in a benefit game for the family of the late Dmitri Tertyshny). His potential remains high, however. Pelletier’s second AHL regular season campaign has gotten off to a fine start. He recorded a 19-save shutout against the Scranton/Wilkes Barre Penguins on opening night.
Maxime Ouellet (Québec Remparts, QMJHL)
Ouellet’s name has come up in some preseason trade rumors, as the Flyers first round pick in the 1999 draft is reportedly coveted by several NHL teams, most notably the Edmonton Oilers. Although Ouellet was outplayed by Antero Niittymäki at the Flyers summer rookie camp, there are many who feel that he will prove to be the best goaltender in the Flyers system and has the best chance of developing into a franchise goalie in the NHL. I would be disappointed if the Flyers did not wait at least one more full year with Ouellet in the QMJHL.
Antero Niittymäki (TPS Turku, SM-Liiga)
Niittymäki’s stock continues to rise. After two outstanding junior seasons for TPS, he has graduated to their senior club this season. Expected to serve as a backup to Kimmo Lecklin, Niittymäki may have already taken over as the team’s number one goalie. Through 7 rounds of league play, TPS is undefeated (5 wins, 2 ties) and Niittymäki is the #1 rated goalie in Finland. After watching Lecklin for the first couple of games, Niittymäki finally made his SM-Liiga debut on September 26. He could hardly have hoped for a better start. Peppered with 40 shots, including a pair of breakaways and a 2-on-1, Niittymäki turned back 38 of them to steal a win for TPS against Ässät. He has gotten the starting nod in the last several games and has also made a solid relief appearance for Lecklin in an EHL game against the powerhouse MoDo club of the Swedish Elites.
TPS goaltending stats to date:
GP Min GA Sh Sv SO W L T GAA SV%
Antero Niittymäki 4 240.00 5 145 140 0 4 0 0 1.25 96.55
Kimmo Lecklin 3 190.00 12 96 84 0 1 0 2 3.74 87.50
GP Min GA Sh Sv SO W L T GAA SV%
Antero Niittymäki 1 36:16 1 13 12 0 0 0 0 1.65 92.31
Kimmo Lecklin 1 23:44 3 12 9 0 0 1 0 7.58 75.00