Philadelphia Flyers North American Prospect Report (Part 1: The Pros)

By Al Alven

This is part one of a three-part report on the Philadelphia Flyers’ top 15 North American prospects. The following is a look at five professional prospects – two with the Flyers and three with the American Hockey League’s Philadelphia Phantoms. Parts two and three will focus on the team’s Canadian junior and U.S. collegiate prospects, respectively.

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS, NHL
Current Record: 33-17-11-2 (79 points, currently fourth in Eastern Conference)

Eric Chouinard (Forward)

Statistically speaking: Though he is not yet putting up big numbers, Chouinard has been a pleasant offensive surprise for the Flyers since being acquired from Montreal on January 30 for a 2003 second round draft pick. A former first round selection of the Habs (16th overall in 1998), Chouinard has tallied five points (four goals, one assist) in 13 games while playing mostly on checking lines for his new team. Prior to being traded, he had 24 points (12 goals, 12 assists) in 32 games for the AHL’s Utah Grizzlies.

• In his short time with the Flyers, Chouinard has shown a real nose for the net. He possesses a strong finishing touch when in close, and has the ability to manufacture scoring chances with his strong passing skills and creativity with the puck. Chouinard is also a strong skater who protects the puck well and, to this point, has done a good job handling his defensive responsibilities (he has had a plus or even rating in 10 of his 13 games with Philadelphia).
• Chouinard has looked uncomfortable at times while playing with new linemates and adjusting to Ken Hitchcock’s system. Overall, however, he has certainly if in. As with any young player, Hitchcock has varied his icetime to this point, depending on what line the forward is playing on and the given game situation. Thus far, Chouinard is averaging 10:40 per game. He was given his first taste of top line duty when he joined Jeremy Roenick and Sami Kapanen against the Los Angeles Kings last Thursday (Feb. 20). He was later paired on a line with Marty Murray, and responded by posting his first two-goal game in the NHL.
• Apparently, the fresh start in a new organization has done wonders for Chouinard’s game, not to mention his overall attitude. According to several observers who watched the young forward play in Montreal, Utah and Quebec (the Canadians’ former AHL affiliate), he is playing with more purpose and enthusiasm than he has at any other point in his three-year pro career.

Overall analysis: If nothing else, Chouinard seems to be a worthy gamble for a second round pick. He is still a reclamation project of sorts and a player with a long way to go in his development, but his immense talent has been evident in just his short time with the Flyers. He has the natural finishing ability to be a dangerous goal scorer in the NHL, particularly on the powerplay, but must continue to improve his work ethic habits and consistency. If he can do so, the Flyers may have acquired a solid building block to their future in the 22-year-old Atlanta native.

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Jim Vandermeer (Defenseman)

Statistically speaking: Vandermeer’s job is not to put up points, but to defend. He is cut in the mold of the classic defensive defenseman, though he does have the talent and smarts to protect the puck and make plays in the offensive end. To this point, he has two points (1 goal, 1 assist) in 21 games with the Flyers. He also had six points (3 goals, 3 assists) in 34 games with the AHL’s Phantoms earlier in the season.

• Paired primarily with Eric Desjardins since his return to the Flyers lineup, Vandermeer has looked better and more confident with virtually every game he has played. Though he has made his share of “rookie” mistakes, the former Red Deer Rebel has done everything the Flyers have asked him to do. And he’s done it well, registering a plus-six rating in 21 games, while averaging 13:44 per contest. He has posted a minus rating in only three games thus far (and has yet to have worse than a minus-1 game).
• If there is one specific area of Vandermeer’s game that needs work, it is his one-on-one coverage in the defensive end when plays break down. The young rearguard is still prone to missing assignments in front of the net during such situations, though he hasn’t been burned too often and seems to respond very well after making a mistake. In fact, he has not had consecutive bad shifts in quite some time.
• Vandermeer has received nothing but praise from the coaching staff for his steady, reliable defensive play, and is really beginning to gain the respect of his teammates for his hard-nosed, gritty play. Given his style of play, Vandermeer is sure to become a Flyers’ fan favorite before long. The fact that he fought ultra-tough Ryan VandenBussche with a big smile on his face in the waning second of Thursday’s 5-2 win over Chicago tells you all you need to know about Vandermeer’s on-ice mentality.

Overall analysis: Vandermeer’s game has been so steady over the past month or so that Ken Hitchcock is in no rush to get nine-year veteran Chris Therien (who is listed as having an abdominal injury, but could probably play) back into the lineup. He has been perhaps the biggest surprise for the Flyers this season, rising from the minors to become one of the big team’s top six defensemen seemingly out of nowhere. The Flyers coaching staff is obviously thrilled with Vandermeer, a player who will have a long, successful NHL career if he can continue to build upon the solid play he has exhibited so far. The next step for the 23-year-old blueliner will be to keep up his high level of play through the stretch drive and into the playoffs.

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PHILADELPHIA PHANTOMS, AHL

Current Record: 24-26-5-4 (57 points, three points out of 10th and final playoff spot in Western Conference)

Antero Niittymaki (Goaltender)

Statistically speaking: Thanks to a rough start to his first season in North America, Niittymaki’s stats took a beating. However, the 22-year-old Finnish netminder eventually settled down and, while he hasn’t been any better than solid for any extended period this season, he has posted respectable numbers across the board. Currently, Niittymaki has a 12-16-2 record with a 2.69 GAA and .902 save percentage in 31 games.

• For the most part, Phantoms head coach John Stevens has had Niittymaki split time evenly with veteran goaltender Neil Little this season. Niittymaki has appeared in 31 games, while Little has played 28 times. That trend continued recently, though Little has been given the nod seven times over the past 12 contests. Part of this is due to the fact that the Phantoms currently find themselves on the outside looking in with regards to the playoffs. Niittymaki is still an inexperienced, inconsistent netminder, while Little is a tested AHL vet who knows what it takes to win down the stretch.
• Niittymaki has been up and down in his last five starts, indicative of the season he has had. He played perhaps his best game of the season on February 8 at Hershey, making 36 saves on 38 shots (he had double-digit saves in each period) in a 2-1 loss. He followed that up by making 20 stops (many of the high-quality variety) on 22 shots in a hard fought 2-2 tie at Cleveland (Feb. 11) and then finally got some goal support from his teammates in a 5-4 win at Rochester (Feb. 14). Five days later came one of Niittymaki’s most disappointing outings of the year, as he was outclassed by former Flyers prospect Maxime Ouellet (who stopped 36 of 38 shots) in a 5-2 loss to Portland at home. The month of February was rounded out with a frustrating, 3-2 overtime loss at Hershey, during which Niittymaki was very strong.
• One of the biggest knocks on Niittymaki to this point has been his propensity to allow goals early in games. He has also been prone to letting in soft goals at crucial times, though he has managed to rectify that problem somewhat. Of the 16 goals Niittymaki has allowed over his last five starts, four have been yielded in the first period, eight have come in the second (four alone in the loss to Portland), three in the third and one in overtime.

Overall analysis: Wins, losses and other stats have to be taken with a grain of salt when dealing with first-year AHL goaltenders, particularly those playing their initial season of North American hockey. Though Niittymaki’s numbers have been somewhat disappointing this season, it is necessary to look at the strides he has made in his game to better gauge his potential and long-range developmental outlook. To that end, the Finnish netminder has had a fairly decent year, as he has at least looked more confident and comfortable as the season has progressed (not to mention the fact that the Phantoms have not been a particularly solid defensive team this year). No doubt, this is a season of adjustment for Niittymaki. The true test for him will come next year, when his workload will be increased considerably.

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Patrick Sharp (Forward)

Statistically speaking: Obviously, injury (see below) cut into Sharp’s playing time in a big way this season, but he has been fairly productive on the offensive end nonetheless. In 32 total games with the Phantoms this season, the two-way pivot has 15 points (8 goals, 7 assists). He did not register a point in two early season games with the Flyers.

• After missing 26 games and roughly three months of his first professional season with a
broken ankle, Sharp made a remarkable return to the Phantoms lineup. Though he
certainly isn’t lighting the AHL on fire (he is, after all, not projected to be a big point
producer in the pro ranks), the University of Vermont product managed to find his legs
quickly and has been one of the team’s most effective forwards in recent games.
• A reliable player at both ends of the ice, Sharp has not missed a beat defensively. His
minus-4 rating for the season (minus-1 since his return) is more indicative of the
Phantoms’ defensive woes than of his individual play. Offensively, he has not registered
a point in any of the last three games, but he does have 7 points (4 goals, 3 assists)
since coming back and even managed a three-game goal streak in mid-February.
• Given that Sharp is a heady player with a terrific grasp of the game’s fundamentals, he likely would have seen more time with the Flyers this season had he not been hurt (especially considering the number of players the team had to either recall from the Phantoms or trade for because of injury problems). Should the Phantoms wind up missing the playoffs this season (which looks likely), Sharp is a good bet to be recalled to the Flyers’ roster for the postseason.

Overall analysis: Considering that his season was being thought of as a lost cause just a few weeks ago, Sharp’s return has been impressive and encouraging. Though he missed a good deal of developmental time on the ice, the 21-year-old forward is an smart, observant individual who likely soaked up a good deal of knowledge while watching the team from the press box. That he jumped right back into the lineup without too much difficulty speaks wonders for his determination and overall conditioning. In the short-term, Sharp will be looked upon to help the Phantoms in their playoff push this spring. In the long-term, the Flyers have hopes that he will develop into a solid, checking line forward-type. He is held in high regard throughout the organization (remember, he did make the Flyers out of training camp as an extra forward) and, as long as he can avoid further injury, he should develop into a fine professional player.

Guillaume Lefebvre (Forward)

Statistically speaking: Overall, this has been a very disappointing season statistically for Lefebvre. Last year, his first full campaign as a professional, he tallied 34 points (19 goals, 15 assists) in 78 games for the Phantoms while providing top-notch two-way play. This season, he is nowhere near those numbers, with just 12 points (6 goals, 6 assists) in 46 contests. Additionally, he has failed to find the scoresheet in 11 rather undistinguished games with the Flyers. He was recalled as an injury fill-in for Todd Fedoruk (thumb) for last night’s game against Chicago, but did not make an impact one way or the other in 7:10 of icetime.

• Though Lefebvre (like Sharp) is not projected to be a big scorer, he was expected to produce more than he has. The big drop-off in his numbers is something to be concerned with, though if he can recover from this, it could eventually be chalked up to a “sophomore slump” of sorts. To Lefebvre’s credit, he does currently lead the Phantoms in plus/minus with a +8. That is actually an impressive number on a team that has allowed 18 more goals than it has scored this season and is an indication of the the former QMJHLer’s strong defensive game.
• In recent play with the Phantoms, Lefebvre has shown no signs of breaking out of his season-long scoring slump. He has just four points (1 goal, 3 assists) in his last 11 AHL games, and is a minus-1 over that time. Lefebvre just hasn’t been unable to get his game on track all season long. He has played an adequate two-way game of late, but the poise and maturity that he displayed last season (not to mention his level of aggression) are conspicuously absent from his game.
• Before this season began, Lefebvre was considered to be a strong candidate to make
the Flyers roster out of training camp. It’s difficult to imagine that notion now, with the
21-year-old left winger suffering through such a disappointing season. Last
year, Lefebvre was phenomenal for the Phantoms, emerging as perhaps the team’s best
defensive forward and chipping in offensively on a regular basis. He easily took home the AHL team’s rookie of the year honor and was looked upon as a player who could fit right into a checking line role in the NHL, or at least help out in a pinch.

Overall analysis: So, has Lefebvre slid down a notch on the Flyers’ organizational depth chart? Well, probably not, especially when you consider that the team is severely lacking in quality young forwards who are projectable NHL contributors. Besides, despite Lefebvre’s lackluster outings with the Flyers this season, he hasn’t done anything to hurt the team in any of the games. That alone makes him a desirable call-up candidate under just about any condition. The fact is, Lefebvre is simply not a player who is going to develop into an offensive force in the pro ranks. Yes, he is still young and adequately skilled, but if there is an NHL future for him, it is as a checking-line forward. Nothing more, nothing less.