Joni Pitkänen: Pitkänen has returned to Oulu with extra jump in his skates and a lot of confidence after his dominant performance at the World Junior Championships. Since his return from the WJC, he has arguably been Kärpät’s best all-around defenseman, although on the balance, Lasse Kukkonen has still had a better overall season than Pitkänen.
Pitkänen, who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery last summer, tweaked his knee in his last game and had to withdraw from the Sweden Hockey Games; however, the injury is not believed to be serious.
Pitkänen has always been an aggressive player at both ends of the ice but over the last several weeks, he’s taken fewer low-percentage gambles on cross-ice passes and pinching without support. Offensively, Pitkänen has settled into a nice offensive groove of late (5 points in his last 4 games). Pitkänen has been putting passes on the tape and getting his shot attempts on goal. This not only creates deflection and rebound opportunities, it has resulted in fewer counter-rushes for the opposition.
Defensively, Pitkänen has been much more sound positionally over the last month. He went to the WJC with a –5 rating on a good Kärpät club (Kukkonen, by comparison, was a +31 at the same stage and now is a +37). However, he’s turned things around defensively over the last month and is now on the positive side of the ledger (+1 through Kärpät’s last game). Pitkänen can play physically, along the same lines as Janne Niinimaa. In other words, Pitkänen is strong and can steer someone into the corners with authority but he’s not a “clear the porch” hitter or someone who throws a lot of open ice checks, unless he catches an opponent with his head down.
As with most European-trained defenseman, Pitkänen routinely slides down to the ice when he’s defending a 2-on-1. He did that a few times at the WJC and had success. Nevertheless, it’s one of my least favorite plays in hockey. When it works, it looks sensational, but I think it’s a low percentage play in an already difficult defensive situation. I know the idea behind it is to force the puck carrier to shoot and even potentially block the shot, but it’s a do-or-die timing play. If it doesn’t work, it leaves the defender out of position on any rebound-clearing opportunity and if the defender commits even a fraction too early, it still leaves a passing lane open, effectively turning a 2-on-1 into a 2-on-0. I wish Pitkänen would get away from doing it but that’s not going to happen. Even most of the young North American defensemen try that play now, too, and a lot of coaches today encourage it.
Jeff Woywitka: : Woywitka was also outstanding at the WJC. I think he should have been given more of an offensive role throughout the tournament—he’s proven he can handle powerplay duty very effectively, at least at the junior level of play— but the hallmark of his game is poise and defensive smarts. Woywitka hit a bit of a rough spell after the tournament (-7 in a 4 game stretch, although he did have 3 assists) but all players go through their ups and downs over the course of the season and Woywitka has been the victim of some breakdowns around him, as well as a few uncharacteristic turnovers. He’ll be fine. He’s having a great final season at Red Deer.
Although Pitkänen gets more hype and has the greater offensive upside, Woywitka has underrated passing and shooting skills to go along with mobility and strength. Here’s the difference: when Pitkänen plays his “A” game, he can take over and dominate a game, which is very rare for a defenseman. Woywitka doesn’t have much flash-and-dash to his game but is more consistent over the course of a given 10-12 game stretch. Woywitka won’t often bring fans out of their seats. But at the end of the night, he too played a key role in winning the game. At the end of this season, the Flyers have a lot of key personnel decisions to make about their 2003-2004 blueline. If Pitkänen signs and either Eric Desjardins or Marcus Ragnarsson are resigned (I suspect one, more likely Desjardins, will be), I suspect Woywitka will at least start next season at the AHL level. The competition should be fierce.
Nikita Korovkin : The untouted Korovkin has quietly emerged as a fine defensive prospect within a year of being drafted. He was good last year—no worse than average in every facet of the game, including physical play— and has been better and more consistent in every aspect of his game this entire season. He’s a year ahead of his projected development on draft day 2002. At Korovkin’s present rate of improvement and refinement, he projects to be worthy of challenging for an NHL job within 2 years. The key, though, is “at his present rate.” Korovkin is a definite NHL prospect if he’s improved as much from now to the end of the 2003-2004 season as he has from the start of 2001-2002 until this point. As a 2002 draftee, the Flyers don’t have to make a decision about signing Korovkin this offseason, but if they did, they probably would. At his present level, he’s already a pro prospect, worthy of being given opportunity to develop in the minor leagues over a couple of seasons.
Korovkin has cooled off offensively after a hot start (10 goals, 20 points in his first 37 games; but no goals and 3 assists in the subsequent 12 games). However, the points are a bonus with him, anyway. Few suspected he’d ever be a key powerplay defenseman but he was terrific on the powerplay early this season. Once opposing teams finally caught on that they had to apply pressure on Korovkin at the point or he’d burn them, he’s been contained. Besides having an accurate point shot, he showed an aptitude for jumping in on the back door play when the penalty killing box over-rotated to the opposite side.
Korovkin is mobile, makes a good first pass out of the zone, is not afraid to take a hit and has played a very sound two-way positional game ever since coming to the WHL. Game after game, Korovkin is steady for his Kamloops Blazers club. His +18 rating on the year is not a fluke or an aberration. He’s earned it steadily by virtue of steady play over the course of the entire season, even when he hasn’t been producing points.
Jussi Timonen : This hasn’t been a banner year for the young defenseman but you have to take a big picture approach— 1) he played in the World Junior Championships, 2) he’s a regular starter in the SM-Liiga less than a season after making the jump from Division One hockey. Timonen has struggled defensively and did not provide the hoped-for offensive spark at the World Junior Championships. He’s been inconsistent for TPS Turku, making a nice play one shift and then a careless giveaway the next. This is characteristic of a young defenseman playing against a high grade of competition, so Timonen shouldn’t be judged too harshly. He’s had his moments where he’s shined and even on an average night, he belongs in SM-Liiga. Consistency will have to come with time. For now, he’s right about where the Flyers projected he’d be at this phase of development.
Rosario Ruggeri : Paul Holmgren’s comment on Ruggeri after he was drafted last summer was that the player reminded him of Bruno St. Jacques at the same age—lots of heart, good athleticism but unrefined hockey skills that would hopefully catch up over a few years. I think Ruggeri’s all-around skills, especially his passing game, has come along a little faster than the Flyers suspected. He hasn’t come as far as Korovkin (even though he’s outpointed the Russian on the season), but he’s also shaping up as a pleasant surprise. He’s become a good defenseman for that level of play— physical without being undisciplined and does not often get beaten 1-on-1 (the Q is still the CHL league with the most 1-on-1 play). The Flyers drafted a similar prospect a few years back, J-P Morin, who stagnated the year after being drafted and then went backwards in his “decision” year. Ruggeri, conversely has progressed.
Joey Mormina : I recently moved Mormina into the Flyers top 20 list. The Colgate sophomore doesn’t have much of an offensive game at the NCAA level but he’s got plus-mobility to go along with his imposing size. There’s not a single defenseman the Flyers drafted in 2002 who has not made at least some progress this season, which has to be gratifying to the organization. Like Ruggeri, Mormina’s improved at a steady clip, particularly in the physical department.
Ian Forbes : Forbes recently scored a game winning goal for the struggling Phantoms but the defensive defenseman is still a borderline ECHL/AHL defenseman in his third pro season.
Alexander Drozdetsky : Drozdetsky is either scoring in bunches or he’s ice cold. Goals in seven of his first nine games, followed by 26 games without a goal, followed by goals in three of the last four CSKA games. Now that the mini-streak was snapped, hopefully, he can close the season out without disappearing offensively again.
Patrick Sharp : This has turned into a lost rookie season for Sharp, who has been out for almost three months with a broken ankle. He finally returned to action this week after a 26 game absence. A strong finish for the rookie would be a very welcome sign but he’ll need a few more games to get his timing and legs.
Guillaume Lefebvre : Lefebvre has been a total non-factor in his callups to the Flyers and his offensive output for the Phantoms has been highly disappointing. He’s been struggling lately. Nevertheless, his future always has been as a checking line player and for most of this season, he’s been a double digit plus-rated player on a team that gives up more goals than they score. However, the fact that the Flyers made an injury call up to Mike Siklenka of all players seems to indicate they’re a little bit down on Lefebvre right now. He did score tonight against Hamilton.
Milan Kopecky : Kopecky is turning into a pleasant surprise as the season rolls along. He is not only dressing for Slavia in the Czech Extraliga, he’s earning increased ice time and has responded. Although his stats (4 goals, 8 points in 25 games) may not look like much for an offensive forward, all the reports on his play are positive, considering that this is his first full season in the Extraliga. He’s moving up the depth charts on his club. I compare his situation at the start of this season to David Nyström’s two years ago. Nyström was a good young Division One player but had not taken his game to the next level. Two years, later, he’s still a good Division One player but has never progressed beyond that. Kopecky had to start making his move this year to show he belongs in a top European hockey league and he has just that. He’s now on the prospect radar screen, at least.
Konstantin Baranov : Baranov has bounced around the RSL in a short period of time but he’s played well ever since being dealt to CSKA. Like his teammate Drozdetsky, Baranov has put on a mini-goalscoring spurt, with goals in three of his last four games. He was buried on the Avangard 4th line at the start of this season but has, by RSL standards, been fairly productive offensively with both Salavat and CSKA this year.
Mathieu Brunelle : Brunelle still doesn’t get much respect in “prospect” circles but he’s at least proven he’s a very good junior level player and deserves a shot at the minor leagues. From there, you never know. Despite once again leading Victoriaville in scoring, he was the subject of trade rumors for several months, especially when he slumped early in the season. Eventually, he got himself back on track and got hot for the Tigers. Neverthless, he still ended up being traded; Brunelle was the key Victoriaville component in a multi-player trade with Hull.
Since the deal, he’s gone out and kept right on scoring and adding to his strong plus-minus rating. Nevertheless, all you hear about Brunelle is what he is not—which is big or naturally fast. Is he a junior level superstar? No, but he’s been very productive at both ends of the ice. Does he fit the general description of the type of player who are big stat guys in junior hockey but can’t translate it to pro hockey? Yes. Are offensive stats in the Q inflated? Absolutely. This is a league where Denis Hamel was once a 50 goal scorer, despite spending half his time in the box. Does that mean Brunelle should already be written off? Certainly not.
Colin Shields : Shields has come back slowly since returning to the Maine lineup. He’s fallen into a bit of scoring slump of late but there’s no doubt he’s a fine college-level goal scorer, especially on the powerplay.
Antero Niittymäki : The trick with Niittymäki seems to be nursing him through the first period; especially the first ten minutes of the game. He’s still prone to giving up a stoppable goal early in games and then settling down as the game goes along. I don’t know what his per-period stats are, but I’d be willing to bet that if they were broken down on that basis, his first period GAA and save percentage would be abysmal and the stats for the rest of the game would be very good. Niittymäki still has work to do cutting down on rebounds and not committing too early but, again, he tends to get stronger and stronger as the game moves along. When he’s confident, he’s more likely to challenge and less likely to hide back in his net. I thought he played quite well recently against Utah, which is the last game I saw him start.
Right now, the Phantoms have a dull sub-.500 team with few legitimate NHL prospects worth watching. They have assembled a mediocre group of non-prospect forwards. With Bruno St. Jacques being traded and Jim Vandermeeer in the NHL, there’s little in the way of blueline prospects for the remainder of 2002-2003. So, unless you happen to be a big fan of Andre Savage, Jamie Wright or one of the older AHL vets (Peter White, Mark Greig, or Neil Little) the progress of Niittymäki in goal, along with the return of Sharp, is one of the few Phantoms storylines worth following. Niittymäki is currently splitting playing time roughly in half with Little, although Little started his second straight game tonight, against league-leading Hamilton.
Even if the Phantoms manage to squeak out the last playoff spot (they are currently 4 points out), they are unlikely to get through the first round. I think another stretch of consecutive starts for Niittymäki is in order to judge his true level of progress over his rookie season. A start against Hamilton would have been a good test for Niittymäki, regardless of the outcome with Little in goal tonight.
Roman Malek : Malek continues his domination of the Czech league and is also currently the top ranked goalie in the Sweden Hockey Games tournament. His agent, Petr Svoboda, recently said that he would advise his client to make the jump to the NHL if the Flyers are interested this off-season. Previously, Paul Holmgren indicated that although the club thinks Malek can be an NHL goalie in short order, they are happy with their present NHL arrangement. That being said, I wonder if Robert Esche is leaving the door open for a challenge to his job. On the whole, Esche has been very good this season, but he’s been average for the last month. Since the New Year, his GAA is the 2.85 range and his save percentage is under 88%. The numbers are a bit deceptive—while, he hasn’t been great, Esche hasn’t been awful in one particular recent game, either and he did one very strong outing against the Bruins in a 1-0 OT loss.
Even so, if Esche plays over the remainder of the season more like he did in January than he did from October to December, there’s no reason why Malek should not be given a fair chance to win a job with the Flyers. I like Esche as a goaltender and I love his competitiveness, but Malek may have the higher upside and the idea of a potential Cechmanek-Malek tandem is intriguing. There have been some comparisons made between Esche and Marty Turco; but they have about as much as the Radovan Somik-Jere Lehtinen comparisions you sometimes hear. Nothing in the young Flyers players’ track record suggests they will reach anything near the level of their Dallas Stars counterparts.