Training camp heats up as Flyers trim roster

By Al Alven

The Philadelphia Flyers yesterday made their first significant roster cuts of the new season, assigning 20 players to their AHL affiliate, the Philadelphia Phantoms, returning one player to his junior team and releasing another.

The team’s training camp roster now stands at 30 players (17 forwards, 10 defensemen and three goaltenders). Head coach Ken Hitchcock has stated that the Flyers’ next round of cuts will occur after the team’s sixth exhibition game, versus the Carolina Hurricanes this Friday in Raleigh, NC.

Shipped to the Phantoms yesterday were forwards Jack Baker, Landon Bathe, Eric Betournay, Craig Brunel, Kirby Law, Mike Lephart, Ian MacNeil, Mike Siklenka, Jeff Smith, Ben Stafford, Pete Vandermeer and Matt Zultek, defensemen Ian Forbes, David Harlock, Dan Peters, Wade Skolney, Brad Tiley and Jim Vandermeer, and goaltenders Antero Niittymaki and Dave Stathos.

Defenseman Thierry Douville, a seventh round draft pick (208th overall) in 2001, was returned to the Baie-Comeau Drakkar of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Martin St. Pierre, a center attending camp on a try-out basis, was released.

Remaining with the big club are forwards Donald Brashear, Pavel Brendl, Todd Fedoruk, Simon Gagne, Mark Greig, Michal Handzus, John LeClair, Guillaume Lefebvre, Marty Murray, Keith Primeau, Paul Ranheim, Mark Recchi, Jeremy Roenick, Andre Savage, Patrick Sharp, Radovan Somik and Justin Williams, defensemen Eric Desjardins, Kim Johnsson, Chris McAllister, Dan McGillis, Dennis Seidenberg, John Slaney, Bruno St. Jacques, Chris Therien, Eric Weinrich and Jeff Woywitka, and goaltenders Roman Cechmanek, Robert Esche and Neil Little.

With most of the Flyers’ roster spots solidified, few intriguing battles remain. The team is loaded with veteran players at every position, virtually assuring that the majority of the “on the bubble” players still with the team will be assigned elsewhere within a week or two. The exceptions to that rule are Brendl and Lefebvre.

Brendl, the much-maligned, yet ultra-talented forward who came over from the New York Rangers in last summer’s Eric Lindros trade, is being given every opportunity to make the team. In fact, Hitchcock has stated on numerous occasions that the job is Brendl’s to lose. He arrived in camp in excellent shape (something he didn’t do last year) and has been an offensive force in the team’s first few preseason games. One would have to think that, for better or worse, Brendl’s name will be penciled into the Flyers lineup come October 10th.

Lefebvre is a player that Hitchcock clearly loves, and it’s not too difficult to figure out why. No, he won’t put up big numbers or do anything that’ll get him on the nightly highlight reel, but Lefebvre is about as solid a fundamental forward talent as the Flyers have in their system. He simply did it all as a rookie with the Phantoms last season, playing (and excelling) in all game situations. The Flyers will try to find a spot for Lefebvre, probably on the third or fourth line to start.

At this point, Phantoms captain Greig, Savage, Sharp, Somik, Slaney and Little are all likely to be shipped to the AHL shortly. Woywitka, one of the top two defensive prospects in the organization (Joni Pitkanen being the other), is a virtual lock to be returned to the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League for a fourth junior season.

Greig and Savage are AHL veterans who are more than capable of filling in at the NHL level. Both have a good chance to see some time with the big club this season. Ditto for defenseman Slaney, last year’s winner of the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s top blueliner. Sharp is a, well, sharp looking rookie center straight from the University of Vermont who probably needs time to develop in the minors. Somik is a late-blooming, 25-year-old left wing who played the past two seasons with Zlin in the Czech Extraleague. He seems to be adjusting well to the North American game, and still has a good shot at challenging for a spot on the big club.

With Roman Cechmanek and Robert Esche penciled in as the Flyers’ netminders, Little will undoubtedly be returned to the AHL for a sixth season with the Phantoms. Once again, he will serve as a mentor for the next player to be dubbed the organization’s “goaltender of the future” (in this case, Finnish rookie Antero Niittymaki). In the past, Little has assisted such talents as Brian Boucher, Jean-Marc Pelletier and Maxime Ouellet in their development, while at the same time providing veteran leadership and steady play for Phantoms.

Woywitka has looked strong in his first extended audition with the Flyers. It is clear that he is not yet ready for regular duty in the NHL (he still needs to shake some bad habits and grow into his body a bit), but his game is certainly progressing. Some felt that Woywitka could earn a roster spot this year with a great camp, but the Flyers do not want to rush him. Thus, it’ll be one more year at Red Deer for the 19-year old Vermilion, Alberta native, before he begins his pro career. Whether he starts next season with the Flyers or Phantoms, however, is a mystery at this point.

Speaking of defensive prospects, one of the more interesting stories in camp has been the competition between Bruno St. Jacques and Dennis Seidenberg. The two are battling for the spot on the Flyers’ blueline left vacant when Luke Richardson bolted for the Columbus Blue Jackets this summer. St. Jacques, who has progressed well in two seasons with the Phantoms, has been considered Richardson’s heir apparent for months now.

However, Seidenberg has opened a lot of eyes with a very strong camp. His steady, consistent play (combined with an offensive dimension that St. Jacques simply does not possess) may ultimately move the 21-year-old German ahead in this race. The best bet, however, is that Hitchcock will opt to go with St. Jacques to start the season. Though he is far from a “sure thing,” St. Jacques is a familiar figure within the organization. He is not flashy by any means, but the 22-year-old Montreal native is fundamentally sound. He plays a mature game, keeping mistakes to a minimum and not trying to do more than he is capable of.

Seidenberg is a rookie to the North American game, and would probably do better in the long run to spend at least some time developing his skills in the AHL. If nothing else, his impressing training camp performance has elevated his status on the organizational depth chart. If he doesn’t make the team right out of camp, expect to see him make at least a cameo appearance in the NHL this season (as St. Jacques did last year).

With all of the above said, it is important to point out that there is still plenty of training camp remaining. The Flyers have six exhibition games (beginning with tonight’s showdown against the NY Islanders at the First Union Center) and 16 days to go before the puck drops to start the team’s 36th season. That’s more than enough time for some sort of change to occur, be it an injury to a key player or a prospect like, say, a Patrick Sharp impressing the organization unexpectedly.

Evaluation and analysis, after all, is one of the key elements to training camp (especially with Ken Hitchcock now at the helm). The coaching staff will use the next few preseason games to carefully evaluate prospects like Brendl, Lefebvre, Sharp, Somik, St. Jacques, Seidenberg, and even Woywitka. Thus, only time will tell what the Flyers’ finalized opening night roster will look like on October 10th in Edmonton.

One thing is certain, however: The next few preseason games will play a major role in deciding where and what roles the aforementioned prospects will play this season.