Malek Opening Eyes in Philly

By Bill Meltzer

The Flyers “goaltender of the future” sweepstakes has been a revolving door of “hot prospects” for the last seven years. Johan Hedberg, Brian Boucher, Jean-Marc Pelletier, and Maxime Ouellet have all come and gone without any of them ever laying claim to the starters job with the big club.

Boucher, of course, came the closest and seemed poised to become the starter for a long time after unseating John Vanbiesbrouck and carrying the Flyers to the Eastern Conference Finals as a rookie in 1999-2000. But he lost his job the next season to Roman Cechmanek and despite putting up a challenge to Cechmanek early last year, never got the job back. Pelletier and Ouellet only got to start a single game apiece in their brief NHL stays with the Flyers. And Hedberg was never signed at all, after his agent severely overestimated the Flyers level of interest in his client.

The latest candidate to be the Flyers goalie of the future is Philadelphia Phantoms rookie Antero Niittymäki. Despite getting off to a tough start at the beginning of the season, the organization remains high on the Finnish keeper. In fact, it was the rapid progress of Niittymäki in Finland that led the organization to conclude they could withstanding trading Ouellet in the ill-fated Adam Oates deal last spring.

One name that rarely seems to come into play is Roman Malek. For the last few years, he has been one of the better goalies in the Czech Extraliga. Last season, he was set back by a broken jaw that occured when his mask popped off and he got hit with a shot. However, he returned to play well, if not spectacularly.

This season, however, Malek has been nothing short of sensational. Far and away he has been the best goalie in the Czech Republic and a convincing argument could be made that he’s been the best goalie in Europe this year.

With yet another sensational outing in his last game, Malek’s already sparkling season totals got even better. He’s been nearly flawless, with a microscopic 1.23 goals against average and a save percentage of .962.

The Flyers have taken notice. On Friday, Flyers assistant GM Paul Holmgren commented, “Malek has been outstanding for his team (Slavia Prague) this year. He’s playing with a lot of confidence and maturity and he’s getting results.”

Malek is in the second year of a 3-year contract he signed with Slavia last season. However, he has the option of leaving after this season if an NHL opportunity presents itself. Is he a candidate for the Flyers in 2003-2004? Although Holmgren said that those decisions are still a long way off– the 2002-2003 season has barely begun after all and the organization has been very happy with the play of Robert Esche and remains confident in Niitymäki’s development– he conceded that if Malek keeps playing the way he has, it’s something the organization will have to consider.

“We liked him ever since we drafted him. It’s not like he’s a kid that come out of nowhere. But yeah, I think it’s fair to say he’s taken the next step to where he could push the guys we have here.”

Malek, who is smaller but more naturally athletic than the unorthodox-but-effective Cechmanek. As he has matured, he has also become much more consistent.

“Malek gets in the shooters heads. He is a good skater and he moves laterally very fast and recovers very quickly when he does leave out a rebound,” says Czech league observer Radek Nosek.

Qualities that could yet land Malek between the pipes in Philadelphia.