After a season of big expectations and massive disappointment—both at the NHL and AHL levels— the Philadelphia Flyers organization entered the 2002 entry draft looking to replenish a farm system that is now largely depleted at every position. Over the last year, the organization’s depth chart took a beating, as players thought to be close to being NHL-ready fell by the wayside. The Flyers top prospect, goaltender Maxime Ouellet, suffered the usual rookie growing pains and was dealt away before the end of the season. Marginal NHL prospect defensemen Joe DiPenta, Francis Lessard, and Jason Beckett were also traded. Meanwhile, Tomas Divisek missed the mark in a make-or-break season. After a red hot beginning of the campaign, Vaclav Pletka (who almost went home last summer) had a falling out with the organization and was sent home before the end of the season. Petr Hubacek flopped for a second straight year and was traded. Jim Vandermeer had an up-and-down rookie season on the blueline.
Meanwhile, the organization’s second best prospect, winger Pavel Brendl, was as inconsistent in his pro debut season as his critics predicted he would be. Just about the only bright spots among the prospect age players on the Phantoms were defensemen Bruno St. Jacques and forward Guillaume Lefebvre—and St. Jacques continued to show a trend toward being injury prone. St. Jacques did not look out of place in the limited NHL action he saw in the first half of the season. All three players are being penciled in to open the 2002-03 season with the Flyers. The outlook for the Phantoms next season is iffy at best.
The news from Europe, junior hockey, and college was somewhat better. Goaltender Antero Niittymäki recovered nicely from a poor second season to turn in a strong campaign for TPS Turku. Vermont center Patrick Sharp was the lone bright spot on a horrible team. Both Niittymäki and Sharp have been signed to play for the Phantoms in 2002-2003. Meanwhile, 2001 first rounder Jeff Woywitka did not disappoint and is still on target to be a top 4 defenseman at the NHL level as he continues to mature.
German defenseman Dennis Seidenberg continued his steady progress and played well for his national team at both the Olympics and the World Championships. Czech center Pavel Kasparik started to emerge in the Extraleague. Meanwhile, after being forced to miss a year due to an NCAA rule violation, Colin Shields emerged as one of the better snipers in college hockey. Slower but steady improvement also came from forward Alexander Drozdetsky and defenseman Jussi Timonen. After suffering an early season setback with a broken jaw, Czech goalie Roman Malek returned to play well and remains a potential NHL backup goalie candidate in the near future.
All in all, however, the prospect picture is not pretty in the organization. The Flyers managed to acquire the 4th overall pick of the draft, using it to select highly regarded Kärpät Oulu defenseman Joni Pitkänen. Defense is now arguably the strongest point of the Flyers system—with St. Jacques being counted upon to be an NHL starter next season, Pitkänen and Woywitka being expected to join the NHL roster within the next two seasons, Seidenberg looking like a potential NHLer, and Timonen and Vandermeer entering seasons that could strengthen them from dark horses to stronger prospects. However, there is not a projectable #1 defenseman in the bunch, although Pitkänen could certainly develop into that type of player.
Up front, the organization is virtually barren. Brendl remains a big question mark and it is a stretch to try to make impact-level NHL projections for Drozdetsky or Kasparik. Shields is a dark horse. Patrick Sharp still looks to project to an ordinary 3rd or 4th line NHL player. Guillaume Lefebvre could be a nice NHL role player. Radovan Somik is a minor leaguer at best who has just about hit his development ceiling.
In goal, Niittymäki looks promising as a player who could be groomed to be an NHL starter. Could he be a Cup-caliber goalie? That’s a reach at this point. Malek could probably step into an NHL backup role right now but with the presence of Robert Esche to backup Roman Cechmanek, it looks like Malek will stay in the Czech league. My personal feeling is that Malek could do at least as good of a job right now as Esche. A Czech goalie tandem might have been a good fit, even if they are isolated from the rest of the locker room. Unlike Brian Boucher, Esche won’t bellyache about playing a backup role. However, Malek is the more naturally talented netminder and, to me, should have been the guy the organization tabbed as the backup if they were going to deal Boucher and keep Cechmanek. Meanwhile, Bernd Bruckler is a talented goalie in a good college program but needs to get more playing time as a sophomore.
The Flyers selected Harvard keeper Dov Grumet-Morris in the 2002 draft. Interestingly, it’s the third time in the last decade the Flyers have chosen a Harvard goalie—Grumet-Morris was preceded by Aaron Israel and Tripp Tracy, neither of whom made it past the minor leagues.
As with Grumet-Morris, all the Flyers picks in the 2002 draft (other than Pitkänen) are not far enough along in their development to project as pro prospects. Their potential cannot be assessed with any degree of reliability for at least another full season and probably two more.