Flyers Prospects Season-in-Review: Goaltenders

By Al Alven

Bernd Bruckler

Birthdate: September 26, 1981
Hometown: Graz, Austria
Height: 6-1
Weight: 180 lbs
Acquired: 2001 Entry Draft (5th round, #150 overall)
2002-03 team: University of Wisconsin Badgers (WCHA)

2002-03 statistics (overall):
Wisconsin (WCHA)
GP: 24 (1358 minutes), Record: 9-11-3 (0 Shutouts), GAA: 2.83, Save percentage: .905

As Bruckler has discovered, lofty and often unreasonable expectations came with his job description. Such is the case for the starting netminder at the University of Wisconsin, a hockey institution that has produced NHL standouts like Mike Richter, Curtis Joseph and Jim Carey. Given this, it is not surprising that the critics have been rather hard on Bruckler during his two seasons with the Badgers. To be fair, however, it is essential to point out that the sophomore goaltender was one of the few bright spots for Wisconsin in an otherwise dismal 2002-03 season.

The Austria native was handcuffed on two fronts this year, playing behind a defensive unit that was shaky-at-best and one of the
weaker offensive teams in the WCHA. Still, he managed to keep the Badgers in most games, and provided a steady, calming influence between the pipes for a team seemingly in a perpetual state of chaos (the Badgers had their share of off-ice issues as well this season). Bruckler’s 9-11-3 record not only looks pretty good when held up against Wisconsin’s 13-23-4 overall mark, it is indicative of his value to the team and positive effect on the rest of the lineup.

The Badgers were clearly a much better, more comfortable team with Bruckler in net, as compared to senior Scott Kabotoff (4-12-1, 3.63 GAA, .883 SP). Obviously, this bodes well for Wisconsin next season, as Bruckler will return for his junior year as the squad’s undisputed no. 1 netminder. He will see a ton of action in 2003-04, possibly upwards of 30 games.
Bruckler is a workhorse, so there’s no concern that he won’t be able to handle the minutes. What remains to be seen,
however, is whether he can top his performance from this season and continue to take gradual steps toward a potential
pro career.

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Dov Grumet-Morris

Birthdate: February 28, 1982
Hometown: Evanston, Illinois
Height: 6-2
Weight: 195 lbs
Acquired: 2002 Entry Draft
2002-03 team: Harvard University Crimson (ECAC)

2002-03 statistics (overall):
Harvard (ECAC)
GP: 29 (1741 minutes), Record: 18-9-2 (1 Shutout), GAA: 2.38, Save percentage: .925

Most observers agree that Grumet-Morris fully established himself as one of the top goaltenders in the ECAC this season. Like Bruckler, the Evanston, Illinois native followed up a very strong freshman year with an even better sophomore campaign. He guided the Crimson to appearances in a conference championship game and the NCAA Tournament, and remained notably consistent throughout the season. A technically sound goaltender who is also a self-admitted perfectionist, Grumet-Morris continued to improve on the finer aspects of his game in 2002-03.

That said, he is still considered an NHL longshot at this point. For starters, Grumet-Morris has yet to exhibit many of
the traits that are essential to success in the professional ranks. Though he is no less than average across the board,
the 21-year-old netminder’s overall game does not stand out in any remarkable way. With a strong defense in front of him, Grumet-Morris does have the skill and talent to be a very good goaltender in the collegiate game in general. Beyond that level of play, however, there are questions as to just how effective he can be.

Many Flyer fans will remember and point to former Philadelphia draftees Aaron Israel and Tripp Tracy in comparison. Both were Harvard products who followed up solid collegiate careers by going nowhere in the pro ranks. The notion that an Ivy League goaltender has very little chance of making it to the NHL is a stigma that Grumet-Morris must overcome. This isn’t to say that he cannot succeed as a professional, as he does indeed have talent, a strong competitive drive and a willingness to learn and improve. However, there is no question that he is facing an uphill battle.

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Roman Malek

Birthdate: September 25, 1977
Hometown: Czech Republic
Height: 5-11
Weight: 161 lbs
Acquired: 2001 Entry Draft (5th round, #158 overall)
2002-03 teams: Slavia Prague (Czech Extraliga)

2002-03 statistics:

Regular season
Slavia Praha (CZE)
GP: 50 (2844 minutes), Record: 32-12-6 (11 Shutouts), GAA: 1.62, Save percentage: .948

Playoffs
Slavia Praha (CZE)
GP: 17 (1064 minutes), Record: 12-5 (5 Shutouts), GAA: 1.58, Save percentage: .954

World Championships
Czech Republic (Group D)
GP: 3 (150 minutes), Record: 2-1-0 (1 Shutout), GAA: 2.79, Save Percentage: .877

Honors: Czech Extraliga MVP (regular season and playoffs), Best Goaltender

After an eye-popping season that saw Malek smash many existing Czech Extraliga records en route to guiding Slavia Praha to the league championship, the 25-year-old netminder may be on his way to North America. Few goaltenders (on any level) have ever dominated one circuit during one season of play as thoroughly as Malek did this year in his homeland. There is now little left for him to prove on the European hockey scene. The only real blemish on his season was one poor performance against Canada (in relief of Tomas Vokoun) at the World Championships on May 9th (he allowed 5 goals on 16 shots, but got little help from his defense).

Regardless, Malek is presently considered to be one of the best goaltenders outside of the NHL. The question now is, can the Flyers and Malek (represented by Petr Svoboda) agree on a contract and, where exactly he will be playing next season. The trade of Roman Cechmanek has left a job vacancy on the Flyers, but it remains unlikely that the team would pair a rookie European goalie with Robert Esche. Rather, the acquisition of a veteran remains the most plausible option on that front. This, of course, would ticket Malek for the Phantoms, a situation that would cause even more complications since Neil Little and Finnish prospect Antero Niittymaki are already with the AHL team.

It is possible that Malek would refuse to play in the minors, citing what he has already accomplished in an arguably superior league. Technically, Malek is still under contract to Slavia Praha. Because of complex IIHF rules, he can opt out of that contract to jump to North America. However, if he does not sign a contract with the Flyers (and/or if his rights are traded), he can simply return to the Czech Republic to play next season. Certainly, this will be an interesting situation to watch develop this summer.

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Antero Niittymaki

Birthdate: April 18, 1980
Hometown: Turku, Finland
Height: 6-1
Weight: 175 lbs
Acquired: 1998 Entry Draft (6th round, #168 overall)
2002-03 team: Philadelphia Phantoms (AHL)

2002-03 statistics:

Regular season
Philadelphia (AHL)
GP: 40 (2283 minutes), Record: 14-21-2 (0 Shutouts), GAA: 2.58, Save percentage: .903

Calder Cup Playoffs: Phantoms did not qualify

Midway through the 2002-03 season, Niittymaki was already being branded a “disappointment” by many fans and observers. Often, when he allowed a goal at the First Union Spectrum (even one he had no chance of stopping), boos and other unpleasantries would rain down from the stands. Now, part of this was simply due to the fickle nature of the Philadelphia sporting crowd. The other part, however, had to do with Niittymaki’s own struggles during his first season of professional hockey in North America. The trick now is for the 22-year-old goalie to put his rookie year in perspective and use it as a learning experience, rather than dwell on the negatives.

Though Niittymaki’s numbers and overall performance for the season were below the level the Flyers had expected, he did show steady signs of improvement throughout the year. At the outset of the campaign, he was very shaky, particularly at home and during the first period of a number of games. This can be attributed mainly to jitters and is acceptable for a young netminder adjusting to a new style of play on a continent thousands of miles from his homeland. Also, one has to consider that the Phantoms were a particularly weak defensive team overall this season, a factor that surely hampered Niittymaki.

With the Phantoms battling for a playoff spot late in the regular season, head coach John Stevens played Neil Little almost exclusively. Despite Niittymaki’s obvious improvements, Stevens did not seem to have much faith in the young netminder in clutch situations. In fact, his decision to play Little so much seemed to contribute to the team’s failure to qualify for the postseason as the veteran eventually burned out. Regardless, Niittymaki figures to see a dramatic increase in playing time next season. What he does with it will go a long way in determining his future status with the organization.