This is part two of a three-part report on the Philadelphia Flyers’ top 15 North American prospects. The following is a look at five junior prospects – two from the Western Hockey League and three who play in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Part one focused on the Flyers’ professional prospects, while part three will look at those currently playing in the college ranks.
WESTERN HOCKEY LEAGUE
Jeff Woywitka (Defenseman, Red Deer Rebels)
• Statistically speaking: Leads Red Deer defensemen in scoring and ranks sixth on the team with 49 points (16 goals, 33 assists) in 51 games. Also boasts a plus-20 rating and has only 59 PIMs all year, a remarkably low total for a player who is known to play a physical game. That figure, perhaps better than any other, is indicative of how sound and disciplined Woywitka’s all-around game is these days. In addition to his fine play with the Rebels this season, the young defender was also a standout for silver medal-winning Team Canada at the World Junior Championships in Halifax. He was rock-solid defensively and also managed to notch one goal (a quarterfinal game-winner that helped Canada advance to the gold medal game against Russia), one assist and a plus-2 rating in six games.
• Woywitka, now entering the waning days of his fourth and final regular season with Red Deer, has truly emerged as a terrific all-around blueliner at the major junior level. He is clearly among the WHL’s best defensemen at this point, an effective player at both ends of the rink who has added to his game by becoming a dangerous weapon on the powerplay for the Rebels. In fact, Woywitka has seven powerplay goals thus far this season (compared to four in all of 2001-02), and has managed to tally a point with the man advantage in seven of the last 13 games. Though Woywitka has never been projected to be an elite point-producing defenseman in the pro ranks, he has been a very effective and consistently-improving offensive player in the WHL over the past two seasons.
• With the WHL season rapidly nearing its conclusion, Woywitka’s Red Deer team owns the league’s best record (47-14-2-2 for 98 points), and currently stands as one of a handful of Memorial Cup favorites. The team has stepped up its game recently, winning seven of its last nine games, while outscoring its opponents 33-15 over that time. Obviously, Woywitka’s play has been a huge factor in the team’s success. For the month of February, the rugged rearguard tallied eight points in 12 games (3 goals, 5 assists), and posted a plus-5 rating.
• As an interesting aside, you have to wonder how young prospects (and particularly junior players) are affected by NHL trade rumors. Woywitka’s name came up as a part of that rumored blockbuster deal between the Flyers and Buffalo Sabres that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman supposedly shot down a few weeks back. Now, whether the report had any validity or not, it did create a minor stir in the hockey world. Obviously, Woywitka heard (and perhaps continues to hear) the rumors, which must be a nerve-racking feeling for a 19-year-old kid getting set to embark on a pro career (though it hasn’t visibly affected his play at all). Just a thought…
• Overall analysis: There isn’t much that can be said here that hasn’t already been said about Woywitka in reference to his pro potential. Four full seasons in the WHL have obviously served him well, as he is now a well-polished, all-around defender. The Vermillion, Alberta native looks about as poised to turn professional as a 19-year-old can be, but his junior career isn’t quite over yet. Obviously, hockey organizations like to develop their prospects in winning environments, and Woywitka has had just that in Red Deer. He was part of the Rebels’ Memorial Cup-winning squad in 2000-01, and will be a big part of the team’s push for junior hockey’s ultimate prize this season as well.
Nikita Korovkin (Defenseman, Kamloops Blazers)
• Statistically speaking: Though he is not thought of as a player with of great deal of long-term offensive upside, Korovkin has emerged as a strong two-way threat for the Blazers this season. He has cooled off a bit after a hot start, but the 19-year old Russian rearguard still ranks eighth on his team (and second among defensemen) with 29 Points (12 goals, 17 assists) in 63 games. He also has seven powerplay goals on the season, tying him with two other players (Paul Brown and Scottie Upshall) for fourth-most on the team.
• Korovkin has gone on to show significant improvements in nearly every facet of his game in 2002-03. He makes smart decisions with the puck in his own end, angling opposing players out of scoring chances and making quick, accurate outlet passes to get his team out of trouble (or to set up transition line rushes) with regularity. The 6-2, 195 lb. rearguard is not necessarily known for his physical play, but he knows how to use his body to ride players out of position and block off passing and shooting lanes. Korovkin will not shy away from contact, and has shown consistent improvement in his offensive game (particularly on the powerplay and when jumping into an attack zone situation as a trailer or decoy) throughout the season.
• For the month of February, Korovkin registered six points (two goals, four powerplay assists) and a plus-seven rating. He is currently ranked third on the Blazers and is tied for 17th in the WHL with a plus-25 rating (he finished third in the league last season at plus-33). The Russian defender has become a true workhorse for Kamloops, ranking among the team’s icetime leaders and playing in all game situations for head coach Troy Mick.
• With a record of 34-25-5-1 (74 points), the Kamloops Blazers are currently tied for second place in the WHL’s British Columbia Division with the Kootenay Ice. Neither team has a chance of catching the division-leading Kelowna Rockets (98 points), and the fourth place Vancouver Giants (59 points) are not a threat to move up in the standings. Thus, it is a two-team race for second place, with the Blazers holding one game in hand on the Ice. Naturally, Korovkin will be relied upon to provide Kamloops with his usual smart, steady defensive play down the stretch. What he will not be relied upon to do is score, particularly with the likes of Erik Christensen (98 points in 60 games) and Scottie Upshall (42 points in just 35 games) in the lineup.
• Overall analysis: To this point, Korovkin has developed beyond the Flyers’ expectations. When he was selected by the team in the sixth round (192nd overall) of last year’s entry draft, the native of Zlatoust, Russia was viewed as a potential diamond in the rough. After all, his stock fell after he missed the 2001-02 WHL playoffs with an unspecified injury, and he remained undrafted through five rounds as a result. The Flyers – a team always known to scout Western Canada extensively – were more than happy to see him fall into their laps, and have certainly not second-guessed the pick since. After a breakout-type season with Kamloops last year, Korovkin has cemented himself as one of the organization’s top defensive prospects with a terrific 2002-03 campaign. As long as he continues to progress as he has thus far, Korovkin is likely to move up to the AHL level after next season.
QUEBEC MAJOR JUNIOR HOCKEY LEAGUE
Mathieu Brunelle (Forward, Hull Olympiques)
• Statistically speaking: The diminutive Brunelle (5-11, 180 lb.) is in the midst of another strong offensive season in the QMJHL. He is currently ranked 20th in the league in scoring with 76 points (33 goals, 43 assists) in 61 games, and also boasts a plus-19 rating for the season. Brunelle has tallied 26 points (12 goals, 14 assists) in 22 games since being acquired from the Victoriaville Tigers as part of a multi-player trade in early January.
• Because of his lack of size, Brunelle tends to get overlooked as a legitimate pro prospect more often than not. However, there is no disputing the fact that he has blossomed into one of the “Q’s” most effective offensive talents over the past two seasons. Other players may get the majority of the press clippings, but Brunelle just keeps chugging along. He’s one of those players who is not overwhelmingly skilled in any particular area, but one who does just about everything at an “above average” level. While he does not possess superior skating skills, his hockey sense makes up for it. Brunelle simply knows how to get himself into position to either create or finish off a prime scoring opportunity. He has good hands around the net, and is one of the better passers in his league.
• Brunelle has had some ups and downs this season (including a mini-scoring slump earlier this season while still with Victoriaville), but, overall, he’s been a consistent producer at both ends of the ice. There is no doubt that Brunelle has gotten his game into top form as he prepares for the playoffs. The Warwick, Quebec native has points in nine of his last eleven games, and registered 16 total points (6 goals, 10 assists) in 13 games during the month of February. Last night, he tallied four assists (one on the powerplay) in a 13-1 demolition of Sherbrooke at home.
• Brunelle’s Hull Olympiques are currently in second place in the QMJHL’s Division Ouest (West) with a record of 33-24-4-2 (72 points). They stand eight points behind division-leading Val’d Or (80) points, with three games in hand and just under three weeks remaining in the regular season.
• Overall analysis: Brunelle is really something of a wildcard prospect at this point. The constant knocks on him will always be his lack of size and superior skating, but there have obviously been plenty of similarly-skilled players who have made it to the NHL in some capacity. Given that Brunelle has been a consistent point producer and steady all-around player at the junior level over the past two seasons, you would have to think that he will at least get a shot to eventually prove himself in the AHL.
Rosario Ruggeri (Defenseman, Chicoutimi Sagueneens)
• Statistically speaking: With 44 points (9 goals, 35 assists) in 59 games thus far this season, Ruggeri has already blown away his numbers from 2001-02. Last year, the rugged blueliner had only 17 points (2 goals, 15 assists) in 60 games. Obviously, he has benefitted quite a bit from increased icetime this season, but he has justified getting the extra minutes with heady play at both ends of the rink all season long. Ruggeri, like Korovkin, is not projected to be an offensive defenseman beyond his junior career, but he is already a capable point-producer at the junior level (something that was not necessarily expected of him coming into this season).
• While he isn’t a player blessed with world class skill, Ruggeri possess many of the intangible elements that scouts love to see in a player’s development. For instance, Ruggeri plays with a noticeably high level of confidence in every game. Things may not go his way on every shift, but he never seems to get down on himself and rarely makes the same mistake twice in a game. He also plays with an often-nasty physical edge, yet remains disciplined in his game for the most part. Ruggeri’s overall game is still a little “rough around the edges,” so to speak, but he has shown signs of improvement in all areas of his game this season.
• Obviously, Ruggeri has also developed into a consistently effective offensive player for the Sagueneens as well. He recorded points in five of his team’s 11 games in February, tallying seven points total (two goals, five assists). Most recently, Ruggeri notched a powerplay goal in a 4-2 loss to Moncton on Wednesday (Feb. 26).
• Though he plays for one of the weaker teams in the QMJHL, Ruggeri will get to play in the postseason. Chicoutimi has already clinched a playoff spot, despite owning just a 27-33-1-3 record (58 points) to this point in the season. Seven of the eight teams in the each of the league’s two conferences qualify for the postseason (the Sagueneens are ranked sixth), and the 10-51-3-0 Rimouski Oceanic (23 points) have essentially been eliminated from the opening weeks of the season.
• Overall analysis: Ruggeri, like most of the defensive prospects in the Flyers’ system, has made undeniable progress in his overall game this season. He is a remarkably more disciplined, better all-around player than he was this time last season, which is a true testament to his persistence and will to improve (not to mention a credit to his coaches at Chicoutimi). For Ruggeri, the trick now is to keep improving and avoid going backward in his development. Literally hundreds of junior prospects have gotten to the point where Ruggeri is now, only to regress in the season before they turn pro. If he can maintain his current pace of steady development through this year’s playoffs and into next season, Ruggeri may very well punch his own ticket to the pro ranks. At this point, however, it is too early to tell for sure.
Thierry Douville (Defenseman, Baie-Comeau Drakkar)
• Statistically speaking: When you’re talking about Douville and the statistics he puts up, you’re talking about one thing and one thing only: PENALTY MINUTES. Over the course of the past two seasons (132 games), the Laval, Quebec native has registered 788 PIMs. This season, despite appearing in just 46 of Baie-Comeau’s 63 games, Douville has racked up 268 minutes in the sin bin. Oh yeah, he also has 9 points (1 goal, 8 assists) on the year as well.
• Douville has been a little-used player for one of the top teams in the QMJHL this season. The 19-year-old blueliner’s game is simply not refined enough to merit anything more than spot duty as a seventh defenseman. He is not particularly mobile or disciplined, and generally has problems containing and keeping up with even marginally skilled forwards. Don’t let his seemingly strong plus-17 rating fool you. It is more the product of the rough and tumble defenseman playing on one of the strongest defensive teams in the QMJHL than of his own play.
• Observers have noted only very minor improvements in Douville’s overall game over the course of the past three seasons. He can best be described as a “what you see is what you get”-type player, an enforcer/seventh defenseman who is, in the grand scheme, a non-factor on most nights. If nothing else, Douville remains one of the more intimidating players in the “Q.” However, he is no longer even the Drakkar’s top enforcer. No, that title now belongs to 19-year-old Marc-Andre Roy, who has thus far accumulated a ridiculous 584 PIMs in 60 games this season.
• Baie-Comeau has been the top team in the QMJHL this season, currently holding the league’s best record (44-14-6-2 for 96 points). However, the Halifax Mooseheads (92 points) are right behind the Drakkar in the Frank Dilio Conference standings, and will give Douville’s team a run for its money over the final few weeks of the regular season (just don’t expect the rearguard to see much action during the stretch run or the playoffs) .
• Overall analysis: If there is a future for Douville in the professional ranks, it will probably be in the minors. He has yet to show that he is anything more than a slightly below-average junior defenseman in the QMJHL, a player capable of doing little more than running up his PIM totals to astronomical extremes. Douville is certainly a game competitor, but he is simply too undisciplined a defender to predict long-term success for. As several reports have already indicated, a job as a seventh defenseman/fourth line spare part (enforcer) in the NHL is the absolute best case scenario for Douville’s future. However, even that projection seems to be an extreme longshot at this point.