With an incredible amount of young talent on the NHL roster, an intriguing group of prospects on the verge of becoming NHL regulars, and championship aspirations, there is a delicate balancing act going on within the Philadelphia Flyers' front office. There is also a vital need to keep the defense from falling into disrepair with Chris Pronger's injury problems and Kimmo Timonen's inevitable fall from the upper echelon of NHL defensemen.
While defensive stories like those of Brandon Manning or Shayne Gostisbehere highlight the Philadelphia prospect pool, there are plenty of other interesting things to look for this year both at forward and between the pipes.
Top Pro Prospect
Erik Gustafsson, D, Philadelphia Flyers (NHL)
The now 23-year-old Erik Gustafsson is overdue. Some forget that three years ago he stepped into a defensive role fresh out of Northern Michigan University and stole the show through the last five games of the Phantoms' season. Still, up until the 2011-12 season, when injuries forced their hand, Flyers' management and coaching staff has been reluctant to throw their defensive prospects into the fire.
Now Gustafsson has experienced that fire. Concerns that he would get pushed off the puck too easily were met with an inspired post-season performance. Gustafsson, at times, more than handled his own against top-end offensive talents. Everyone already knows that he can handle the speed of the game and the finer offensive touches, but the defensive side will be a maturation process. With Chris Pronger out indefinitely, Andrej Meszaros out for much of the season, Kimmo Timonen aging rapidly, and Matt Carle off to Tampa Bay, Gustafsson will get his shot at bringing a little offensive ability to the blue line.
Eric Wellwood, LW, Philadelphia Flyers (NHL)
It is hard to declare that Eric Wellwood is due for an offensive breakout without putting things into perspective. He is not the type of forward who will be getting tons of powerplay time, nor will he get thrown out on the ice with the top line. That all being said, he is due for his first full season of NHL action, and there is one slot open in the top nine. Wellwood is also the type of player who can open up tons of space for other players on his line by using his speed and energy, and he can play a more than solid two-way game. He has proven throughout his career to be strong enough defensively to compete with just about anyone.
Brandon Manning, D, Adirondack Phantoms (AHL)
Brandon Manning may be rawer than Erik Gustafsson and Marc-Andre Bourdon, but his balanced game is invaluable to the Flyers organization. His character and compete-level are to the point where most would be comfortable with him in any position in any situation. There is never anything flashy about his game, but he does not need to be flashy. He also has the situational awareness to make up for any skill level he may be lacking in terms of his competition.
So while Manning may be stuck behind Bourdon and Gustafsson for the time being, he will get his shot at being an NHL regular eventually, most likely through injury call-up. When he does there is very little doubt he will succeed. He will not blow anyone away offensively nor will he be the best defender on the team, but he will get things done on the ice.
There is no question as to who possesses the most potential among the Flyers' current prospect lineup. Scott Laughton also benefits from the notion that he now comes from a long line of successful Flyers' first-round draft choices. Though nothing is written in stone as far as Laughton's future, the Flyers do not hide the fact that they try to pick the kinds of players that they believe are going to succeed. General Manager Paul Holmgren rarely takes high risk prospects, and keeping in that tradition, Laughton fits perfectly.
In many ways Laughton is similar to Brandon Manning in that he is a young, unproven player with a track record of doing everything a team needs to win. He competes in the offensive zone, the defensive zone, and everywhere in between. He does not shy away from contact and is not afraid to initiate. He will drop the gloves when necessary, but he is also a very smart player. While he does not possess the skill to tear up the score sheet at the professional level, he does not need that to be successful.
The Flyers can afford to be extremely patient with Laughton, and in the long run, he is only going to be a better player for it.
Luck can play a vital role in whether or not a player gets the kind of offensive opportunities and production he can use to establish himself. While the NHL lockout is occurring in a league from which Taylor Leier is very far away, its effects can be felt all the way down the chain. Originally expected to take a firm grip on the top offensive minutes for the Winterhawks, Leier will have to share some of the time with players remaining in Portland due to the lockout.
That is not necessarily bad news for Leier though. With the departure of guys like Sven Baertschi (CAL), Brad Ross (TOR), and fellow Flyers' prospect Marcel Noebels, now Leier will get his opportunity to play with some of the better players who are staying including Ty Rattie (STL) and defenseman Derrick Pouliot (PIT).
Leier possess the skill to be a dynamic offensive forward, and now he will get the opportunity to prove it.
Unsigned for 2012-13
Colin Suellentrop, D, Oshawa Generals (OHL)
It is an extremely important season for Colin Suellentrop. He was drafted just last year as a shutdown defenseman in the fourth round, but he has not taken any steps to stand out from other defensive prospects in the pool. He has limited offensive potential, and he has not made a significant improvement defensively up to this point.
It is also extremely telling that the organization went out of their way to draft four defensemen this past year. One of those defensemen, Shayne Gostisbehere, has been nothing short of incredible all summer long, and the others are all possibly as strong if not stronger than Suellentrop in terms of potential. Meanwhile the upper end of the older Flyers' defensive prospects including Erik Gustafsson, Marc-Andre Bourdon, Brandon Manning, and Oliver Lauridsen are all progressing well at various paces. The 2012-13 season could very easily be a career defining year for Suellentrop.
Top Amateur Prospect
Shayne Gostisbehere, D, Union College Dutchmen (ECAC)
He has not even been with the organization for six months and already people are excited about this 19-year-old third round selection out of Union College. Shayne Gostisbehere's resume does not necessarily standout but his play on the ice tells a different story. It also does not hurt to become one of the lead defensemen on the 2012 ECAC Championship team as a rookie or to get penciled in as a defenseman for team USA after an incredible summer of camps.
Gostisbehere moves the puck well and has a strong all-around game that caught the Flyers' attention. He also has the distinct honor of playing with Greg Coburn, the brother of Flyers' defenseman Braydon Coburn, at Union College. The Flyers have long a history of scouting other players on teams where they already have an interest.
Michael Parks, RW, University of North Dakota Sioux (WCHA)
Michael Parks quietly had a strong freshman year at the University of North Dakota. His defensive game was strong, and he managed to finish sixth in scoring on the roster. Another year to grow will only benefit Parks' two-way game, and with many of the Sioux players returning for another year, it will only help him continue to develop. The only main roster forward that the team looks to lose is Brock Nelson (NYI), which will open up minutes for some other players including Parks.
Freshman to Watch
Anthony Stolarz, G, University of Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks (WCHA)
Though Anthony Stolarz had a strong summer of camps for Team USA, he was not able to take a hold of a goaltending position. It is still early however, and Stolarz possesses enough potential to take the job down the road. For the time being though, he has a lot of things to work on.
Stolarz has figured out how to use his size to his advantage, which was likely a reason that the Flyers found a specific interest in him. Their track record in recent years is to err on the side of size, and he certainly has that. What he does not have is the reflexes and positioning to perfect the art-form. It will take time as he comes off as more raw than most prospects, but that is not necessarily a bad thing for his development. He certainly shows flashes of being a dominant goaltender, and he will be put in a position to compete for a job out of the gate with the Mavericks at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
Top European Prospect
Fredrik Larsson, D, Brynas J20 (SuperElit)
Fredrik Larsson is one mean defenseman. This seemed to be reason enough for the Flyers to make him their first drafted European player since Ricard Blidstrand in 2010. Larsson more closely resembles Simon Bertilsson though, a defenseman taken in 2009. Those defensemen make up three of just fifteen European players that the Flyers have invested in over the last decade, including a defenseman taken ninety picks after Larsson.
The lack of European influence in the prospect pool is not surprising though given the Flyers' history of success with North American developed players. Larsson himself represents yet another long shot, mid-round selection out of Europe that the Flyers hope will turn out better than they expect. For now, he will continue his development in the Brynas system in Sweden.
Valeri Vasiliev, D, MHC Spartak (MHL)
Going into the 2012 draft, Valeri Vasiliev was ranked as the 16th overall European skater but fell dramatically to 201st overall. A lot of that fall was thanks to a shoulder injury that disrupted his 2011-12 season in the MHL.
Much like Larsson, the only other current prospect playing outside of North America, Vasiliev has earned his reputation as someone who can throw around his body, and with his high ranking, it is not hard to imagine him having a bounceback season. While he may not be a high-end prospect, there is plenty of time to return from a shoulder injury.