Flyers AHL prospect update

By Al Alven

One of the more significant, talked-about stories in the NHL this year has been the impressive depth and resourcefulness displayed by the Philadelphia Flyers organization.

The team’s ability to not only remain competitive, but to continue to thrive in the face of a seemingly endless barrage of injuries to key performers (over 200 man games have been lost to this point) has been nothing short of astonishing.

The arrival and ongoing development of several players who were instrumental in the Philadelphia Phantoms’ Calder Cup championship last season — most notably forwards Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, defenseman Joni Pitkanen and goaltender Antero Niittymaki — has been an integral component of the Flyers’ success to this point.

But the Orange and Black have also benefited greatly from their ability to replace injured regulars with a host of AHL call-ups who, somehow, have assimilated themselves into the lineup without missing a beat.

Youngsters like forwards R.J. Umberger and Ben Eager, along with defensemen Freddy Meyer and Randy Jones, have stepped into the skates of stars like Peter Forsberg, Keith Primeau, Sami Kapanen, Eric Desjardins, Pitkanen and others, and have, for the most part, played like seasoned veterans themselves.

Of course the aforementioned players have experienced their share of ups and downs, but the potential road to disaster that was paved when Flyers regulars started dropping like flies just weeks into the season has been detoured largely due to the contributions of the team’s youngest members.

Phantoms overview

In total, 14 members of last year’s Calder Cup-winning team have appeared with the Flyers this season. Additionally, 10 players have seen time with both squads in 2005-06.

However, while the Flyers have surged to the top of the NHL (28-10-7 for 63 points) under the current circumstances, the Phantoms have not been so fortunate.

With a team that has, essentially, been stripped of its top performers and plagued by instability all season long (not to mention the injuries they have had to battle as well), the defending Calder Cup champions have fallen from the top of the mountain to the bottom of the AHL heap.

At 15-22-3, the Phantoms sit in last place of the six-team East Division. Their 33 points are the third lowest in the league, though numerous teams remain in striking distance and a good second half could still bring the team back into playoff contention.

For now, however, head coach John Stevens’ squad must figure out a way to score more goals, as their total of 85 in 40 games is second-worst in the league to the lowly San Antonio Rampage’s 70.

As a team, the Phantoms have played solid defensive hockey, allowing the seventh-lowest goals against (113) in the league thus far.

Admirable performances have also been turned in by a pair of 20-year-old rookie netminders — Rejean Beauchemin and Martin Houle — who are anchoring the team in the absence of veteran Jamie Storr (recalled to the Flyers on Dec. 22 to serve as backup to Niittymaki while Robert Esche recovers from a groin injury).

Forwards

To put the Phantoms’ offensive woes into context, consider that Umberger, having appeared in only eight early-season games before his recall to the Flyers, still ranks eighth on the team in scoring with 10 points (3 goals, 7 assists). That’s a mere 13 points behind team leader Pat Kavanagh, who has 23 (12 goals, 11 assists) in 38 games.

Umberger joined the Flyers on Oct. 30, shortly after captain Keith Primeau was removed from the lineup due to lingering concussion symptoms, and has not looked back since. The Pittsburgh native and former Ohio State star has played stellar two-way hockey since his arrival, while playing all three forward positions with numerous linemates, and averaging roughly 13 minutes of ice time per game.

To date, he has tallied 16 points (7 goals, 9 assists) and a +5 rating in 36 games. It is doubtful that Umberger will return to the Phantoms at all, even if the Flyers manage to get all of their injured veteran forwards back healthy. He has proven that he belongs and, more importantly, that he can produce.

Conversely, Ben Eager, another second-year pro who performed admirably on a line with Umberger and Carter after being recalled from the Phantoms in mid-December, was recently reassigned to the AHL team. The former Oshawa Generals (OHL) standout will be counted upon for both leadership and offense in the second half of the season.

Eager had recorded eight points (4 goals, 4 assists) and 61 PIMs in 18 AHL games prior to joining the Flyers. He stepped up his game upon his NHL arrival, impressing the Flyers’ coaching staff with his strong work ethic and tenacity. Perhaps most important was the overall level of discipline (one of his perceived weaknesses) he exhibited while maintaining his aggressive, physical edge.

For his stint with the big club, Eager recorded a very respectable eight points (3 goals, 5 assists) and only 18 PIMs in 20 games. The Phantoms are hoping that the experience Eager and other recent Flyer recalls received in the NHL not only helps them develop into better players, but has a positive impact on other members of the AHL team down the stretch.

One such player is 20-year-old rookie Stefan Ruzicka. The talented Slovakian right winger has played to mixed reviews this season. He has shown flashes of brilliance and offensive potential at times, but has been largely inconsistent, going through long stretches where he is virtually invisible on the ice.

To be fair, Ruzicka is the youngest, most inexperienced forward on a team that is severely lacking in offensive talent. His 20 points (8 goals, 12 assists) in 39 games is unimpressive, but it is still good for the third-highest total on the team (behind Kavanagh and veteran defenseman John Slaney).

It is clear at this point that Ruzicka, one of the top offensive stars in the OHL over the past two seasons with the Owen Sound Attack (142 points in 124 total games) has a long way to go in his development. He is far from the complete package that fellow pro rookies and former junior foes Carter and Richards are, but his raw talent is undeniable.

With an abundance of quality forward prospects in the system at this time, however, the Flyers can afford to nurture Ruzicka and bring him along slowly. Regardless, he will be a key performer for the Phantoms as the team looks to jump back into playoff contention in the coming weeks.

The same can be said of Matt Ellison, the aggressive forward acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks for disgruntled center Patrick Sharp and veteran Eric Meloche in early December. Ellison, with whom a number of current Phantoms are familiar after battling him as a member of the East Division rival Norfolk Admirals over the past two seasons, just now appears to be hitting his stride with his new team.

The Duncan, British Columbia native began the season with the Blackhawks, tallying 12 points (3 goals, 9 assists) and 17 PIMs in 26 games. He appeared in five games with the Flyers after the deal, registering one assist while seeing limited action with the injury-ravaged squad.

He was reassigned to the Phantoms on Dec. 18 and notched just an assist in his first seven games with the team before recording a hat trick in a 4-2 win over the Lowell Lock Monsters last weekend.

Ellison, who registered 86 points (28 goals, 58 assists) in 142 total games with the Admirals is a proven two-way AHL player whose performance with the Phantoms over the second half of the season will serve as something of an audition as he hopes to land an eventual full-time role with the Flyers.

Another very intriguing recent addition to the team, albeit one who has yet to make any sort of impact, is 6’6, 230 lb. center Kiel McLeod. Long coveted by the Flyers, McLeod was acquired on Dec. 28 from the Phoenix Coyotes for disappointing forward Eric Chouinard.

The former Columbus Blue Jackets draftee (53rd overall in 2001) is scoreless with 13 PIMs in eight games with the Phantoms thus far. He registered a mere assist and 33 PIMs in 28 games with the San Antonio Rampage prior to the trade.

Despite the Phantoms’ struggles, the trio of Josh Gratton, Riley Cote and rookie Triston Grant has helped the team maintain its reputation as one of the toughest in the league. They have combined for a total of 475 PIMs (led by Gratton’s 238), but only 14 points (6 goals, 8 assists) in 114 total games.

Gratton received his first taste of NHL action in early December, appearing in 3 games as yet another injury fill-in. He did not record a point, but quickly racked up 14 PIMs (including two fighting majors against Andrew Peters and Adam Mair in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Dec. 19).

Defensemen

It’s a tremendous credit to both the Phantoms’ coaching staff and to the veteran leadership of John Slaney that the team’s defensive unit has managed to maintain its reputation as one of the best in the AHL. This, despite the adversity — general roster instability, lack of offensive support, etc. — the squad has endured to this point in the season.

Slaney, who recently broke Steve Kraftcheck’s 41-year-old record for scoring by an AHL defenseman with his 454th point, once again serves as the captain of a generally inexperienced, yet highly-motivated unit.

The Phantoms’ defensive corps suffered a big, albeit-expected blow this year, losing Joni Pitkanen and Dennis Seidenberg to the Flyers. The team has also played the majority of the season without third-year standouts Freddy Meyer and Randy Jones, who both missed time with injury and are currently skating with the NHL team.

All four of the aforementioned players were major factors in the Phantoms’ Calder Cup-winning effort last season. Meyer, who suffered a broken leg during the preseason and missed the first 15 games of the campaign, recorded 6 points (3 goals, 3 assists) and 22 PIMs in 11 games AHL games before his recall to the Flyers on Dec. 21.

Though he was viewed as a temporary replacement in the absence of injured rearguards Pitkanen and Eric Desjardins, Meyer’s surprisingly strong level of play and consistency has increased his chances of sticking with the team. He has struggled a bit of late, but has been very steady overall, even contributing with a very respectable five points (2 goals, 3 assists) in 20 games.

Jones has also impressed the Flyers’ brass with his heady play since arriving with the big club during its recently-completed 8-2-1 road trip. He registered 2 assists in only 13 games with the Phantoms, missing the better part of two months after having surgery to repair a nagging abdominal injury.

Since joining the Flyers, Jones has recorded one assist in seven games. Like Meyer, however, his steady performances and penchant for making smart plays with the puck could make for some interesting decisions to be made by head coach Ken Hitchcock and his staff once the injured regulars are cleared to return to the lineup.

Either way, the Phantoms have long been preparing for life without the two defensemen who, after Slaney, have been their most steady and effective since the beginning of the 2003-04 season.

Alexandre Picard is at the very center of this transition. The youngest member of the Phantoms’ defensive unit (and one of four 20-year-olds on the roster), Picard has exhibited a great deal of poise, maturity and confidence over the first three months of his rookie campaign.

These are, essentially, the same characteristics that helped him establish himself as one of the top all-around rearguards in the QMJHL over a four-year junior career with the Halifax Mooseheads and Cape Breton Screaming Eagles.

Picard’s effectiveness has not translated in the form of offensive production quite yet, but the young rearguard has contributed to the team in all game situations and already does most of the little things very well. It hasn’t hurt that he has been paired with Slaney, a proven mentor to a number of young AHL rearguards in recent years.

One of only two players to appear in all 41 of the Phantoms games thus far (David Printz being the other), Picard has tallied nine points (3 goals, 6 assists) and 33 PIMs so far. It is worth noting that he earned a reputation as a strong finisher during his time with Cape Breton and Halifax in the Q.

Another rookie who has made an impressive contribution to the team is 23-year-old Cornell product Charlie Cook. A defenseman who plays a finesse-oriented game similar to that of Jones (though he is two inches shorter and 10 lbs. lighter than his defensive counterpart), Cook has provided the Phantoms with a rather surprising blend of steady defense and offensive production from the blue line.

He currently ranks second among Phantoms defensemen and seventh overall in team scoring with 11 points (2 goals, 9 assists) and a team-leading +5 rating in 31 games. Whether or not he can remain healthy and avoid hitting the wall as so many first year pros accustomed to the shorter NCAA schedule do, will be a big factor for the Phantoms in the second half.

Cook has been paired often with 6’5, 220 lb. David Printz this season. The 25-year-old former veteran of various pro leagues in Sweden and Finland has evolved into a reliable, albeit unspectacular, defenseman in his second season with the Phantoms. He current has 10 points (3 goals, 7 assists) and 86 PIMs in 41 games.

Rounding out the unit is the stay-at-home duo of Wade Skolney and Joey Hope, players now in their fourth and third years with the Phantoms, respectively. Skolney, who appeared in his first NHL game with the Flyers on Oct. 11 in a 4-2 win over Toronto, continues to be the Phantoms’ most physical player on the blue line. He is second on the team with 159 PIMs in 37 games (to go along with 2 assists).

Hope, who has quietly evolved into a versatile player for the team, has seen some time as a left wing this season as well. The Anchorage, Alaska native has three points (1 goal, 2 assists) and 28 PIMs in 35 games thus far.

Goaltending

The Phantoms entered this season with a retooled goaltending tandem, after losing the popular, Calder Cup-winning duo of Niittymaki and Neil Little. Niittymaki, of course, was promoted to the Flyers, for whom he has carried the load since incumbent starter Robert Esche was lost to a groin injury. Little opted to continue his career in Finland, signing with the Espoo Blues of SM-liiga during the summer.

These moves opened the door for the Flyers to sign a pair of 20-year-old netminders coming off of stellar major junior careers – Beauchemin (Prince Albert Raiders, WHL) and Houle (Cape Breton, QMJHL). Beauchemin was tabbed to start the year with the Phantoms as backup to veteran free agent signee Jamie Storr. Houle was assigned to the Trenton Titans of the ECHL, where he was slated to split time with Scott Sterling.

The first modification to the organization’s original plan occurred on Nov. 17, when Beauchemin, struggling behind a Phantoms team that was deep in the throws of a scoring slump, was sent to Trenton and Houle was recalled in his place. The move had more to do with shaking up the team than it did with Beauchemin’s actual play, according to the coach Stevens.

Nonetheless, the move allowed Beauchemin a change of scenery and Houle a reward for his strong early play for the Titans and an opportunity to play at the next level. The new arrangement did not last very long, however, as Esche’s injury soon necessitated Storr’s recall to the Flyers to serve as Niittymaki’s backup, and Beauchemin found himself back on the Phantoms’ roster.

The Flyers never planned to have a pair of 20-year-olds splitting time between the pipes with the Phantoms, but all circumstances of the arrangement considered, the duo has performed quite admirably. Houle has received the majority of the starts since his recall, compiling a 6-10-1 record, 2.24 goals against average and .918 save percentage in the process.

Beauchemin, who appeared to be shell-shocked earlier in the season but has shown steady signs of a rebuilt confidence level, has gone 3-6-1, with a very respectable 2.55 GAA and identical .918 save percentage in 12 appearances.

With Esche scheduled to return to the Flyers in the coming weeks, Storr’s eventual reassignment will most likely mean that one of these two goaltenders will be sent back to Trenton. Houle is the best bet to stay with the Phantoms based on his strong play of late, but the Flyers remain very high on Beauchemin as well.

How the situation will pan out is one of the more intriguing questions surrounding the team as the Phantoms enter the second half of the 2005-06 season.

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.