The Phantoms' franchise, even before it moved to Glens Falls to become the Adirondack Phantoms, has been in a state of struggle underneath a successful NHL franchise. This comes despite a large amount of success from drafted prospects. The Phantoms have not really been successful since winning the Calder Cup during the NHL lockout year of 2004-05. Two early exits from the postseason over the course of what will be seven seasons of hockey does not suggest a steady foundation of prospects on which to build an NHL franchise.
While the Flyers may boast one of the best young cores going forward in the NHL, a lot of that was built through trades and numerous extremely talented players skipping the AHL altogether. Though the organization has had a few depth guys float between the AHL and NHL with a great deal of success, most of these players had appeared promising before fading out into obscurity. This has become an alarming trend that appears to be continuing with many of the prospects today.
This all had the potential to change with the onset of another NHL lockout. Though the Flyers had fired a coach that had appeared to be slowly turning the sinking Adirondack ship around, General Manager Paul Holmgren extended a contract in the direction of former LA Kings Head Coach, Terry Murray. Along with key new comers Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn, thanks to the NHL lockout, there was excitement surrounding the Phantoms again.
All of this excitement did not translate to success. The Phantoms began the season at 15-9-2, and after the NHL lockout ended, they have continued at a steady losing pace with a record of 8-12-3. It may take a more significant change to right the Phantoms' such as the move back to the Lehigh Valley in 2014 or a different approach regarding player development by their parent franchise.
Erik Gustafsson, D, 23
Because the Flyers were always up to speed on a healthy rotation of young forwards, Northern Michigan University product Erik Gustafsson became one of the more anticipated prospect signings by the organization in recent memory. From the time he stepped into a professional setting, the young puck-moving defenseman calmed the game down from the blue line and produced steadily. A full season with the Phantoms in 2010-11 saw him finish as the team's leading scorer and an AHL All-Star. Since that point though, he has floated back and forth between the NHL and AHL mostly due to sporadic injuries dotting the last two seasons.
He started out strong once again for the Phantoms during the lockout, but another injury kept him sidelined well after the NHL resumed play. When it became evident that the aging of Kimmo Timonen along with the losses of Chris Pronger and Matt Carle had hurt the Flyers' transition game, many were hoping Gustafsson would find a niche to play an offensive role while surrounded by a number of defensively solid partners. Inconsistency despite promising sparks forced the Flyers to return him to the AHL and opt for a few shaky veterans on the bottom pairing. Now he is back with the Phantoms and is unsure when his next NHL opportunity will come around.
Tye McGinn, LW, 22
One of the more interesting surprises of the Flyers' shortened season has been the young power forward Tye McGinn. Though expectations surrounding his development were not necessarily high, when he joined a depleted Flyers' forward lineup his energy caught the attention of anyone watching. With a number of fights, some chippy plays, and some strong work around opposing nets, he demonstrated that he has the potential of a top nine forward in the NHL.
McGinn only played 16 NHL games before a fight with now former Leaf enforcer Mike Brown sent the young forward out for two weeks. A number of returning forwards to the Flyers' lineup forced the organization to send McGinn back to the Phantoms for additional development, but the future still looks bright in terms of his progression to a consistent NHL career. Unfortunately for the Flyers, there have been many potential strong third and fourth line forwards recently who have had their development stunted due to injury and the constant movement between leagues.
Harry Zolnierczyk, LW, 25
Though he has never been significantly injured, Harry Zolnierczyk represents another Flyers' forward prospect who has been slung back and forth between the NHL and AHL. Suspensions and other players returning from injury have kept Zolnierczyk floating around the NHL lineup for the last couple of seasons. His play at the AHL level though has been steady and fruitful.
During a four game suspension for an illegal open-ice he delivered to the head of Senators' forward Mike Lundin, Zolnierczyk was once again sent back to the Phantoms where it was decided that he could play through his current NHL suspension. When he is recalled though, he will need to sit out any remaining games on his suspension.
Eric Wellwood, LW, 22
Eric Wellwood's speed game is something that fits perfectly into Coach Peter Laviolette's style of game play. Because of inconsistency and the need for more physicality though, he has become yet another of the Flyers' floating forward prospects. He played well through four games in the NHL this season after a strong 24-game stint last season, but the organization decided he was not the player the team needed to get back to winning consistently. He was shifted in and out of the lineup for players like McGinn, Zolnierczyk, and former forward prospect Tom Sestito.
Wellwood was one of the more important scoring forwards for the 2011-12 Phantoms before earning consistent time with the Flyers later that season. This year his scoring has not been as steady at the AHL level as the entire roster has struggled with scoring outside of early stints by former prospects Schenn and Couturier. Only Jason Akeson, who was promoted back to the AHL upon their departure to the NHL team after the lockout, has been steadily appearing on the scoresheet.
Brandon Manning, D, 22
Four NHL games in the latter stages of the 2012 portion of last season was enough for Flyers' fans to fall in love with the former Chilliwack Bruins captain. A two-way physical defenseman, Brandon Manning was stirring up rumors that the Flyers could piece together a solid defense out of their patch-work prospect pool. Like Gustafsson and Marc-Andre Bourdon, he was another defenseman that earned some time thanks to blue line injuries on the Flyers' playoff bound team toward the end of 2011-12.
Now in his second NHL season, Manning has not been as steady defensively. His offensive production has remained decent but largely ineffective. Though he was named alternate captain of the struggling Phantoms' team, the Flyers' affiliate organization continues to struggle both offensively and defensively while a number of talented and anticipated prospects like Manning hang in the balance.
Marc-Andre Bourdon, D, 22
Stoking the uncertainty fire surrounding the Flyers' various floating prospects is Marc-Andre Bourdon, who up until an extremely promising 45-game NHL stint last season was fading to the back-burner. Bourdon showed signs that he was developing into a similar player to Andrej Meszaros, but with a number of concussion problems since going pro, things are starting to look bad for Bourdon once again. He played 17 games in the AHL this season notching four points before more concussion symptoms surfaced.
For now the Flyers are still waiting patiently to see what will happen with Bourdon.
Ben Holmstrom, C, 25
More uncertainty, in what is becoming a depressing trend among Flyers' prospects, is all that sits in front of Phantoms' captain Ben Holmstrom. Until Sean Couturier's emergence as the fourth line center for the Flyers in 2011-12, Holmstrom was being groomed to be the physical, shutdown center for the NHL squad on the fourth line. Over the past seasons he has earned seven NHL games and looked extremely good for the Flyers' affiliate while Couturier stood steady in the fourth line role for the Flyers.
Then, with Couturier cemented to move up to the third line this season, many thought Holmstrom would secure that fourth line role. Then things went south when Holmstrom went down with a season-ending ACL injury long before the NHL decided to re-up play in mid-January. Since the start of the 2012-13 NHL season, the Flyers fourth line center position has been a revolving door of players, none of which have been Holmstrom.
Jason Akeson, RW, 22
While the team has seemingly crumbled around him, Jason Akeson has steadily produced wherever the Flyers have found a slot for him. He was the Phantoms' leading scorer in 2011-12, and despite a demotion to the ECHL to start the lockout year, he has returned to the AHL now. In fact, in 46 games, he is the only player to finally knock Schenn and Couturier out of the leading scorers column for the Phantoms.
His talent with the puck is evident and his playmaking skills are easily NHL level. Still, Akeson does not possess the ability to keep from being pushed off the puck, and he still needs a decent amount of work to be defensively passible. He is an intriguing patience project for the Flyers though, who do realize that his skill level could help them down the road.
Marcel Noebels, C/W, 20
Marcel Noebels is another player who found early success in the ECHL after being demoted thanks to the NHL lockout. Along with Akeson, Noebels has been one of the few success stories coming from the Flyers' minor league affiliates amidst a torrent of injuries and inconsistent play.
Though Noebels rookie season point totals do not immediately jump out, neither did McGinn's at the AHL level when he was just arriving on the professional scene. Noebels, at roughly the same size as McGinn, is certainly developing in a way the Flyers' organization would like to see, even if his team is not showing all that much success.
Oliver Lauridsen, D, 23
The gigantic defensive force Oliver Lauridsen was always a physical guy who could use his wingspan to position himself well in the defensive zone. There was never a question that he would excel at these finer details of the defensive game, but there were always questions concerning his footspeed. In the NHL, it is not enough to be able to stick check opponents from far away. At the highest level of hockey competition, skating needs to be added to size on the blue line in order to keep up with every type of dynamic forward opposing teams can throw on the ice. Lauridsen has still not developed up to the speed of the game, though there were signs of progression in his first full season with the Phantoms. Now in his second year, he has yet to take another leap, and though the team's struggles are certainly not falling solely upon him, he is no exception.
Though a number of defensemen in front of him on the depth chart are struggling in their own ways, Lauridsen is the only one of the more highly anticipated defensive prospect that has yet to get a shot at NHL action. He has a long road ahead of him, but he was always a long-term project. Any slight sign of progression is promising.
Cal Heeter, G, 23
With the ejection of goaltender Niko Hovinen from the Flyers' prospect pool, Cal Heeter has become the lone professional prospect goaltender under the organization's umbrella. While recent draftee Anthony Stolarz is playing very well for his new team in London, Heeter is performing moderately well despite the Phantoms' struggles. He is still trading time with veteran Scott Munroe, but neither can really be blamed for the lack of goal support from the team in front of them. Playing from behind is not the easiest way to exist as a goaltender.
Heeter may not have significant NHL upside, but for now he adds a decent depth goaltender within the prospect pool. Having lost Sergei Bobrovsky and Niko Hovinen in recent movements, any goaltender in the organization helps.
Cullen Eddy, D, 24
After a solid first season with the Adirondack Phantoms on an AHL contract, Cullen Eddy earned an ELC with the Flyers' organization. The 2011-12 season was a strong progressive season for the Mercyhurst University product, even though he once again spent time down in the ECHL with the Greenville Road Warriors. This season though has been backwards for Eddy, as it has been for a large chunk of the Flyers' prospect pool. Though he remains with the Phantoms, his five points through 57 games is a very clear indicator that the team's offense is struggling. Also struggling is their defense, and Eddy is a part of that.
Mitch Wahl, D, 23
Mitch Wahl represents one of the newest members of the Flyers' organization, and since joining the Phantoms' he has had immediate success on the offensively stagnant roster. With three points in just seven games, he has added a strong puck-moving element despite playing in the ECHL for most of the past two seasons.
The expectations for Wahl to develop into the puck-mover the Flyers' team desperately needs are limited, but any help is welcome, particularly in Glens Falls. Before playing at over point-per-game pace as a defenseman in the AHL he played 273 games in the WHL notching 284 points in four seasons with the Spokane Chiefs.
Tyler Brown, C, 23
A couple of years ago, there were a few people that thought Tyler Brown's abilities could translate to NHL success. That success would be limited for someone without a significant offensive skillset, but Brown is a tough player who can make things happen. Once on the Phantoms, it became clear though that guys like Zolnierczyk and Wellwood could bring some unique things to the lineup that Brown could not.
Right now Brown is buried underneath a lot of prospects moving up and down in a sea of struggling players at the AHL level. It has been made fairly clear that he is going to have to climb a mountain to get a shot at the NHL.
Matt Mangene, RW, 24
When the Flyers signed the now 24-year-old University of Maine product, they envisioned him as a winger despite the fact that he played both as a defenseman and as a forward in college. They liked the fact that he could play anywhere in the lineup, but they felt his skillset was better utilized on the outside.
Though Mangene has spent time in both the ECHL and AHL, he has had most of his success with the Phantoms despite not getting his first professional goal until February 14th of this year.
Matt Konan, D, 20
Matt Konan was signed at the same time as Mangene and came out of the Medicine Hat Tigers of the WHL. He was signed after having a breakout season with 54 points in 72 games despite only notching 53 points in 229 games through the course of his four prior seasons with the Tigers. As a professional, he has logged time with both the Phantoms and the Titans of ECHL, as the minor league rosters continue to shift around. Konan, much like Mangene, has not done very much to steal attention from the many other struggling prospects in the system.
Andrew Johnston, LW, 21
While many tried to remain realistic about their expectations for Andrew Johnston, it was hard not to get swallowed by curiosity when many teams starting inquiring about the SJHL product about his services. It is fairly obvious that the SJHL is hardly a CHL league, but his play during the RBC Cup turned quite a few heads. Seeing as how he also played for the Flin Flon Bombers during his SJHL career, the same team as the legendary Bobby Clarke, it made for even more of a story when he signed with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Intrigue does not always make a great prospect though, and Andrew Johnston is struggling to immediately adapt to professional play. He was given a 29-game stint with the Adirondack Phantoms to get his feet wet, but when his offensive upside never surfaced, he was loaned down to the Trenton Titans where he has almost the same production through 16 games.
Shane Harper, RW, 24
Since his signing, Shane Harper has failed to produce. He was a successful overager with the Everett Silvertips, but like Luke Pither, who was signed at the same time, he has yet to catch an offensive break. His most successful professional session so far was a 48 game stint in the ECHL back in 2010-11 where he put together 45 points in 48 games. He put up 27 points in the AHL the next year, but so far this season, he has been floating between the Phantoms and the ECHL Titans. With contract slots on the Flyers' reserve list at a premium, it is not likely that the organization retains Harper for another season.
Blake Kessel, D, 23
When the Flyers stole the younger brother of Phil Kessel from the New York Islanders thanks to a CBA loophole, they were hoping to get another Erik Gustafsson. Blake Kessel though, a product of the University of New Hampshire, has struggled to adapt to professional play. He was not able to dominate in the AHL the same way that Gustafsson did as a rookie.
While Kessel was given all of last season to get things together with the Phantoms, he has primarily played for the Trenton Titans of the ECHL this season where his offensive game has started to return. The Flyers though are in need of NHL quality puck-movers now, and with Gustafsson already demoted to the AHL for inconsistent play, it is hard to imagine Kessel being able to help the organization out any time soon.
Tyler Hostetter, D, 22
While Tyler Hostetter was a dynamic puck-mover in a long career for the Erie Otters, much like Kessel, he has struggled to recapture that part of his game at the professional level. He has been in the ECHL since joining the Flyers' organization with only a brief seven-game stint at the AHL level.