The Flyers drafting emphasis on athletic, mobile players, rather than drafting by size and frame as was the emphasis in the mid 1990s, has begun to pay dividends beyond the first round (where the club has done well in producing pros).
In place of the Shane Kennys, Chester Gallants, and Kris Mallettes who passed through the organization without a sniff of a pro career and players such as Ian Forbes who have had a hard time becoming regulars on the Phantoms, the organization now has a crop of more upwardly mobile prospects. They won’t necessarily be stars but they have room to blossom into players who can do more than simply skate north-south.
This is especially true on defense. A quick glance at the Flyers top prospects on the blueline who are not yet playing North American pro hockey– first rounders Joni Pitkänen in the SM-Liiga and Jeff Woywitka in the Western Hockey League and lower rounders Nikita Korovkin and Rosario Ruggeri in major junior hockey– shows that all of these players have some similar characteristics. They can all skate. They can all make a quick outlet pass. They all have at least some ability to play in all manpower situations. Even college defenseman Joey Mormina, who is very big and not offensive-oriented, has above-average athleticism.
Jeff Woywitka is, of course, the best known of the team’s major junior players. He is virtually a shoo-in to represent Canada at the World Junior Championships. If the rules allowed it, Woywitka would be playing for the Phantoms right now. However, there is absolutely nothing wrong with an extra year of junior hockey to further refine a player’s skills and boost his confidence. Woywitka has been excellent once again for the Red Deer Rebels, especially in recent games. Most of the talk around him focuses on his athleticism, clean physicality and defensive maturity, but he’s also a good two-way defenseman who can contribute on the powerplay. To date this season, he has 20 points (5 goals, 3 on the powerplay) in 16 games to go along with his stellar +12 rating. Woywitka will likely not be a huge point-getter as a pro but don’t underestimate his ability to contribute to the offense as well as the D.
Nikita Korovkin has been perhaps the organization’s most pleasant surprise in the early going. The 19 year old Russian defenseman went through a mini-slump but for the most part has been consistently good for the Kamloops Blazers all season. Coming off a great night last night, with his 4th powerplay goal of the season and several good defensive plays that created transition chances for the Blazers, Korovkin now stands at 11 points (6 goals) in 20 games but even more importantly, has been surprisingly physical and has a +11 rating on the season (+4 last night).
Rosario Ruggeri is not getting a lot of attention because of the play of Woywitka and Korovkin, but he too has been justifying the Flyers selection of him in the draft. The Chicoutimi defenseman has shown that he can handle many the better forwards in the Q defensively and he has an adept passing touch as well. For the season, he has 16 points (4 goals) and a +5 rating in 16 games.
Conversely, Thierry Douville is a throwback player– a huge enforcer-type of defenseman. Sometimes compared to Francois LeRoux, Douville has not shown himself to be more than an average junior defenseman and his best bet to ever have a career as a pro enforcer would be by learning to play the wing so his coach will have some versatility in the lineup. For the season, Douville, as expected, has once again compiled meaningful stats only in the PIM category. In 16 games, he has 116 PIMs. As far as the other areas of his game, he’s a -1 and has a single assist.
Forward Mathieu Brunelle is just about the polar opposite of Douville. He’s a small offensive specialist. He currently projects as more of a minor league player than an NHL but he’s more accomplished than the most similar recent vintage Flyers draftee of the same style– Garrett Prosofsky, who was not signed to a pro contract. For the season, Brunelle has 10 goals and 24 points in 20 games for Victoriaville. Nice totals but hardly overwhelming in the high-scoring Quebec League.