With the World Junior Championships about to commence and the calendar turning to 2003, it is a good time to look at the progress of prospects in the system through the first half of the season. In part one of a two-part review, we will look at Philadelphia Flyers prospects in the Canadian major junior leagues, U.S. college hockey and European pro leagues. Part two will cover the rookies on the Flyers NHL roster, the AHL, and the ECHL.
The news on the goaltenders in the Flyers system is mixed. While Phantoms rookie Antero Niittymäki has been a mild disappointment, Czech leaguer Roman Malek has been stellar in goal to work his way past Niittymäki in the organization’s overall goaltending picture. College goalies Bernd Bruckler and Dov Grumet-Morris have both played well for their clubs.
Roman Malek has emerged as arguably the top goaltender in Europe; a mature, confident netminder who gives shooters problems because he is very agile side-to-side and hard to beat over the glove. There is no question that Malek could compete for at least an NHL backup job– if not in Philly, then elsewhere– next season. Depending upon the availability of NHL netminders, Malek could start for the Czechs at the next World Championships. In league play, he has a good team in front of him but he’s the backbone of the Slavia club. Malek already has 7 shutouts this season in 30 starts and unbelievably gaudy all-around stats with a 1.47 goals against average and .955 save percentage.
Wisconsin Badgers sophomore Bernd Bruckler is splitting time evenly with senior Scott Kabatoff. The two have performed about equally, as the Badgers have had difficulty protecting the net and scoring goals. All things considered, Bruckler has played well although he only has 3 wins in 9 starts. Goaltending isn’t Wisconsin’s problem, although it’s not the team’s salvation, either. Bruckler’s 2.74 GAA and .908 save percentage are solid, especially after a rough start.
Harvard goalie Dov Grumet-Morris is a workhorse. He has started 13 of the Crimson’s 14 games and compiled a very strong record (2.38 GAA, .926 save percentage). There is a tendency among some fans to dismiss the accomplishments of Ivy League players. True, the players’ stats don’t translate very well to the pro ranks and their teams often struggle out of conference but there have been many players from the “academic” schools who subsequently carve out good pro careers. Moreover, this is a good Harvard team, with thirteen NHL draftees (including Grumet-Morris) on the roster. Cynics have pointed out that the other two Harvard goalies the Flyers drafted in the last decade– Tripp Tracy and Aaron Israel– did not exactly set the world on fire in their pro careers. Tracy never got out of the minors before switching to the broadcast booth and Israel barely had a minor league cup of coffee. What does that mean in assessing Grumet-Morris’ chances? Absolutely nothing. He’s emerging as a decent pro prospect; no more, no less.
Defense has become the pride of the Flyers system. As expected, both Joni Pitkänen and Jeff Woywithka will play important roles on their national junior teams at the WJC. But there is a lot more to the system than just those two first round picks. Several lower round picks have come on strong over the first half of the season.
Joni Pitkänen has had a so-so season for Kärpät Oulu but remains one of the best prospects in hockey. It would be hard to argue objectively that he is a markedly better player right now than he was a year ago at this time. He still makes a lot of defensive mistakes and while his offensive upside is strong, he hasn’t really taken off in that aspect of his game, either. That’s the bad news. The good news is that his mistakes are usually errors of over-aggressiveness, rather than indecision. Pitkänen has a full complement of skills and is not at all out of place in a top Euro league, which provides a much higher level of competition than for a player in major junior hockey over here. The Flyers scouts don’t seem bothered a bit that Pitkänen is the #3 defenseman on his Kärpät club, although the backbone of the team’s D, Lasse Kaukkanen (who leads the entire SM-Liiga in +/- with a superb +35) is all of 21 years old himself. Pitkänen’s -5 rating (to go along with respectable offensive output (4 goals, 15 points in 31 games) isn’t cause for panic but it may be a sign that he could benefit from another year of seasoning in Finland’s top league before he’s ready for the NHL. Recently, Flyers GM Bob Clarke indicated that the team is going to wait until the spring to make a decision about whether to pursue signing Pitkänen for 2003-2004. For now, playing against other teenagers in the WJC, big things are expected of Pitkänen in the tournament.
Jeff Woywitka is a great case in point why it can never hurt for a player– even a top prospect– to gain additional experience. I don’t think Woywitka could have continued to refine his two-way skills to the same extent he has for Red Deer this season if the rules allowed him to play for the Phantoms this season (although I think he could have stepped into the AHL and done well as a rookie). I don’t the Flyers should be adverse to giving Woywitka at least a half year in the AHL next year, either, although I suspect he’ll go right to the big team. As for his play in the WHL this season, Woywitka has been outstanding at both ends of the ice, as his 10 goals, 29 points, and +16 rating in 27 games attest. Woywitka was a shoo-in for the Canadian WJC roster and he is one of the keys to success for Canada’s blueline corps. It’s easy to forget that Woywitka was one of the youngest members of his 2001 NHL draft class.
Nikita Korovkin has been the organization’s most pleasant surprise over the first half of the season, playing very well at both ends of the ice for Kamploops and seeing ice time in all manpower situations. He has emerged as a threat on the powerplay, already bagging 7 powerplay tallies, and has also taken care of business in his own end of the ice, with a strong +14 rating. Overall, the Russian back has 10 goals, 20 points, and 32 PIMs in 37 games.
Rosario Ruggeri has been another pleasant surprise for the organization, making strides in every area of his game over the first half of the 2002-2003 season. His stats are good– 6 goals, 28 points, +6, 26 PIM in 34 games– but more importantly, reports from watchers of the QMJHL point to his mobility and quick decision-making; positive indicators of a player with upward mobility to potentially play pro a couple years down the line.
Joey Mormina is more of a stay-at-home defenseman than any of the aforementioned players, but he is an intriguing package of size and athleticism. He is tough to beat one-on-one because he can skate with most of his checks or utilize his long reach to break up plays. Moreover, as a college player, the Flyers have the luxury of letting him play four years before having to sign him. Mormina adds some further depth to the system.
Jussi Timonen is in his rookie SM-Liiga season. Perennial powerhouse TPS is in a transitionary season and has uncharacteristically struggled this season. Timonen got little playing time at the start of the season and has hardly set the league on fire as his ice time has grown. But that’s fine. Most rookies, especially young defensemen, struggle to adjust to a higher level of competition. What’s more important is that Timonen has improved– slowly but steadily– regardless of what his stats say. Throw out his -5 rating and single point (a goal) in 21 games because stats are not yet a measuring stick for him. Why do stats matter for Pitkänen and not for Timonen? Because there are hopes that Pitkänen could be ready to come over in the short term, whereas there is no projectable timetable yet for Timonen. Timonen earned a spot on the Finnish WJC roster and his play in the tournament will be a good test of where he stands against other prospects his age.
Marko Kauppinen could probably play in the AHL without embarassing himself but he is unlikely at this point to ever develop to the point where he could become an NHL caliber defenseman. This assessment is based upon trending his year-to-year development over a window of several seasons. He’s basically an average SM-Liiga defenseman; a bit above average offensively, strictly ordinary defensively. Kauppinen got off to a quick start offensively this year but has tailed off. Overall, he has 10 points (3 goals), 46 PIMs, and -5 rating in 29 games for TPS Turku.
David Printz is a longshot project. A flop for AIK in his native Sweden last year, the huge defenseman finished last season in Finland without distinction. This year, he transfered to another club (HPK) and looked for a fresh start. He is basically a marginal elite leaguer at this point– a spare defenseman– but he has not played badly in relatively limited ice time; a goal, 10 PIMS and a -1 rating in the 17 games he has suited up for this season.
Thierry Douville is basically a spare part for Baie-Comeau’s blueline and there is little reason to suspect that he’ll have a pro career, although he’s got size and toughness to spare. Douville has a hard time keeping up with junior level forwards and has no discernable puck skills. Unless he changes position and sticks as a 4th line forward/ enforcer, it’s hard to see him having a pro future. Douville has dressed for 24 games this season and has 155 PIMs to go along with his -1 rating and 3 points (all assists). As always, Douville’s size and his willingness to scrap with anyone– home or road– are his main attributes.
Alexander Drozdetsky got off to a red hot start at the beginning of the season, with 7 goals in the first 9 games. Unfortunately, the CSKA winger has not scored again since then– his goal drought has now reached 21 games. He has picked up 8 assists in the interim but even in the low-scoring Russian League, steadier offensive production is needed from Drozdetsky, who is now in his third full season as a regular in the league. Drozdetsky has added some much needed muscle (but could still use more) and his two-way game is better, but he needs to start scoring again.
Colin Shields remains a top college sniper and potential minor league signee. He has 13 goals (7 PPG) and 5 assists for a Maine team that is one again a Frozen Four threat. The jury is still out on Shields’ pro potential, but the overall impression is that he could be a good AHL offensive player but likely something less than an NHL talent.
Mathieu Brunelle is in a similar boat to Shields, except that Brunelle is doing his damage in the high-scoring QMJHL. Brunelle has 45 points (19 goals, 7 on the powerplay) and a +15 rating in 34 games. Brunelle deserves a minor league shot in the near future but, like Shields, he’s still facing an uphill battle to prove that his upward mobility is of an NHL-caliber scoring line player. Both Brunelle and Shields have shown an appropriate level of offensive dominance to get a shot at a higher level of competition.
Andrei Razin is too old be considered a prospect and he doesn’t seem to be in the Flyers plans– although another NHL team could be interested in taking a look at the veteran center next season. But just as an indicator of how defensive oriented the Russian Super League truly is, take note of the fact that Razin leads the league in scoring despite averaging just under a point-per-game (27 points (6 goals) in 29 games).
Konstantin Rudenko seems to be fully recovered from the shoulder injury that ruined his 2001-2202 season. He has re-taken a regular spot in the Yaroslavl lineup. Overall he has 3 goals and 6 points in 19 games.
Konstantin Baronov has benefitted from a trade to Salavat Ufa. In the 11 games since he joined Salavat, he has gotten much more ice time and has contributed 2 goals and 4 points (2 goals and 5 points in 17 games overall).
Pavel Kasparik struggled mightily and got buried on the 4th line of Sparta Prague in the Czech Extraleague (4 points, all assists in 21 games), so a change of scenery was very much necessary. Since being transferred to HC Liberac, he has gotten more ice time and has started to show some signs of life, with 3 goals in 10 games to date. He’ll have to rally and have a big second half to get back on the track the Flyers projected for him after having a seeming “breakthrough” campaign a year ago.
Milan Kopecky has finally stuck in the Czech Extraleague, skating on the 4th line for Slavia Prague. He has a goal and an assist in 12 games.
David Nyström has nothing left to gain by playing in the lower levels of Swedish hockey and is basically a non-prospect now because he’s still a good, but not dominant Allsvenskan player without an Elitserien track record. He has 12 goals (5 PPG), 21 points, -4, 18 PIM in 25 games this season.