Flyers CHL prospects season review

By Al Alven

The Flyers have enjoyed a great deal of success in drafting out of the CHL over the past few years, mining several players who are considered to be a major part of the organization’s future from the Canadian major junior ranks.

This season, nine players whose rights are owned by the Flyers participated in the CHL, including three in the OHL, four in the QMJHL and two in the WHL.

Overall, the list is comprised of six forwards, two defensemen and one goaltender.

OHL

Josh Beaulieu, LW — London Knights

Ht.: 6’0, Wt.: 180 lbs., D.O.B.: 1/10/87
Drafted: 2005 (5th round, 152nd overall)

A hard-nosed forward who plays the game with plenty of grit and energy to spare, Beaulieu once again performed admirably in a limited role for the London Knights this season. While he has unquestionably benefited from playing on one of the most talented CHL teams in recent memory, the Windsor, ON native has found himself a victim of the numbers game over his first two campaigns with the defending Memorial Cup champions.

Knights head coach and former NHL standout Dale Hunter generally tends to ride his top offensive players very hard. Thus, his top two lines get tremendous amounts of ice time, while the designated checking line units spend the majority of each game on the bench. The latter has been, essentially, the role Beaulieu has found himself in to this point in his major junior career.

Regardless, Beaulieu has done everything asked of him and has done it very well. He has provided the Knights with very responsible defensive play and an effective, physical presence on the third line. Perhaps most importantly, he has helped provide support and cushion for the Knights’ mega-talented corps of offensive stars.

Despite his role, Beaulieu still managed to finish eighth on the team with a respectable 28 points (15 goals, 13 assists) in 60 games. He also ranked second on the squad with 140 PIMs and was tied for third with a very impressive +14 rating.

Having earned increased responsibilities as his junior career has progressed, including limited duty on the power play during the final weeks of this season, it appears as Beaulieu is being groomed for bigger and better things. He will likely finally get a chance to showcase his skills next season, as he will be moved into a much more crucial role following the exodus of players like Robbie Schremp and Dylan Hunter to the professional level.

Steve Downie, C — Peterborough Petes

Ht.: 5’10, Wt.: 192 lbs., D.O.B.: 4/3/87
Drafted: 2005 (1st round, 29th overall)

Downie made major headlines earlier this season, when he was suspended for five games by the Windsor Spitfires after a pair of altercations with teammate Akim Aliu during practice. Downie essentially refused to accept the penalty and sat on the sidelines for two months before eventually being traded to the Peterborough Petes.

To say he has been a major success with his new team would be a drastic understatement, as he has helped make the Petes one of the top contenders for the Memorial Cup, tallying 50 points (16 goals, 34 assists) and 109 PIMs in 35 games with the team.

His overall performance with the Petes aside, Downie’s main coming out party this year was at the WJC tournament, where he was a force en route to helping Canada capture its second straight gold medal. The Scarborough, ON native notched six points (2 goals, 4 assists) in six games, and saw his stock continue to skyrocket as he was named to the All-Tournament team.

As strong as Downie’s accomplishments have been this season and as promising an NHL prospect as he has become, many still fear that his temperament and penchant for disciplinary trouble remain cause for concern, and stand as the biggest potential roadblocks to his ultimate success in the professional ranks.

Gino Pisellini, RW — Plymouth Whalers

Ht.: 6’1, Wt.: 205 lbs., D.O.B.: 8/5/86
Drafted: 2004 (5th round, 149th overall)

The Flyers will likely face some tough decisions this summer when it comes to whether or not to sign players whose rights they will otherwise lose. Pisellini is one such player, along with fellow 2004 draftees Ladislav Scurko, Freddy Cabana and David Laliberte. Each of these players must be signed prior to the 2006 Entry Draft in Vancouver.

Otherwise, they will no longer be Flyers property and will be free to re-enter the draft. Scurko and Cabana look to be solid bets to earn contracts, although there are no guarantees.

Laliberte’s situation is up in the air, as he has battled injuries over the past two seasons and might be considered too much of a risk. Pisellini, on the other hand, is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of player, another ‘character guy’ in the true Flyers mold.

The Itasca, IL native has enjoyed a very solid, albeit unspectacular, third season of play for the Plymouth Whalers in the OHL. A bruising forward who is relied upon more for his leadership ability, toughness and competent two-way play that he is for offense, Pisellini has recorded 31 points (15 goals, 16 assists), a +2 rating and 194 PIMs in 63 games this season.

Whether or not Pisellini possesses the skill level and ability to play at the NHL remains to be seen, but he has shown gradual signs of progression as an all-around player as a junior and has proven to be a coachable commodity. He has turned out to be a solid role player for the Whalers, precisely the function he will look to embrace while trying to latch on with a team in the pro ranks.

QMJHL

Oskars Bartulis, D — Moncton Wildcats

Ht.: 6’1, Wt.: 185 lbs., D.O.B.: 1/21/87
Drafted: 2005 (3rd round, 91st overall)

The first Latvian-born player ever drafted by the Flyers, Bartulis has made very promising strides over his first two seasons in North America with the Moncton Wildcats (QMJHL).

Originally a forward in Russia, the talented 19-year-old made a near-seamless transition to his new position on the blue line in 2004-05. He has continued to display promising signs of development this season, emerging as a solid contributor at both ends of the rink and in special teams situations for the Wildcats.

Bartulis was originally expected to be counted upon as one of the team’s go-to defensemen this season, but his load was considerably lightened by the acquisitions of top QMJHL rearguards Luc Bourdon (VAN) and Keith Yandle (PHX). Such moves took a good deal of pressure off of Bartulis, but also arguably curtailed his development a bit.

Either way, he will undoubtedly have every chance to showcase his skills next season, when he will become a more integral member of the Wildcats as the team is expected to regress back into more of a rebuilding mode.

Bartulis still finished the season ranked fourth among Moncton defensemen and 12th overall in scoring on a team loaded with talent, having recorded 31 points (6 goals, 25 assists) a +16 rating and 84 PIMs in 54 games.

The only tangible damper on Bartulis’ season to this point came during his participation with Team Latvia at the World Junior Championships in January. There he suffered a broken finger in the third game of tournament, and was forced to pull out. He wound up missing five weeks of action for the Wildcats.

Freddy Cabana, LW — Halifax Mooseheads

Ht.: 6’0, Wt.: 182 lbs., D.O.B.: 5/16/86
Drafted: 2004 (6th round, 171st overall)

One of the most improved players in the Flyers organization, Cabana has essentially gone from being a speedy little guy on the Halifax Mooseheads’ third line to a two-way force and prime agitator on one of the top two lines over the past year.

While not the top junior scorer that some predicted he would be at this stage of his CHL career, Cabana has developed into a solid two-way performer and an outstanding penalty killer for the Halifax Mooseheads. He finished second on the team in shorthanded goals (4) and fifth in scoring overall, with 41 points (17 goals, 24 assists), 85 PIMs and a -9 rating in 68 games.

Cabana has matured into a smart player, one who picks his spots well and is very adept at getting under the skin of the opposition while managing to stay out of the penalty box. He is also an outstanding skater, a relentless forechecker who uses his speed and tenacity to win puck battles in all zones.

While Cabana would appear to have a ceiling as a checking line/energy-type player should he make it to the NHL, his emerging leadership skills and reputation as yet another “character guy” speak well for his chances in the Flyers organization.

Expect to see him signed to a contract this offseason, and given an opportunity to make the Philadelphia Phantoms’ (AHL) roster next fall.

Jeremy Duchesne, G — Halifax Mooseheads

Ht.: 6’0, Wt.: 205 lbs., D.O.B.: 10/17/86
Drafted: 2005 (4th round, 119th overall)

The Flyers’ only amateur goaltending prospect in North America, Duchesne has endured an up-and-down second season in the QMJHL for the Halifax Mooseheads.

Last season, Duchesne was one of the top surprises in the ‘Q,’ running off a 12-0-2 regular season record after arriving in a trade with the Victoriaville Tigers. He went on to lead the Mooseheads all the way to the league finals, where they ultimately fell to Sidney Crosby and the Rimouski Oceanic in four straight games.

This year, Duchesne has struggled some while leading a much more inexperienced Halifax team. He enjoyed a strong first half of the season, going 17-14 with a 3.10 GAA and .900 save percentage. He went just 8-15 with a 4.03 GAA and .892 save percentage over the second half, however, his numbers suffering as the team’s overall level of play dropped.

Halifax finished the regular season with a record of 35-33-1-1, good for fifth place in the QMJHL’s East Division. The result was decent, considering that he Mooseheads lost a number of quality defensemen to the pro ranks (including Flyers prospect Alexander Picard) to the pro ranks. Still, there is a sentiment in Halifax that a stronger, more consistent overall performance by Duchesne should have helped produce a better end result.

The Flyers showed their confidence in Duchesne’s ability to develop into a solid prospect at last year’s entry draft, selecting the Silver Springs, MD native while declining to sign (and consequently losing the rights to) fellow QMJHL standout David Tremblay and collegiate netminders Bernd Bruckler and Dov Grumet-Morris.

David Laliberte, RW — PEI Rocket

Ht.: 6’1, Wt.: 200 lbs., D.O.B.: 3/17/86
Drafted: 2004 (4th round, 124th overall)

A great deal of uncertainty surrounded Laliberte as he prepared to return to the PEI Rocket’s lineup in late December. After all, having spent nearly a full calendar year on the shelf with a chronic back ailment, no one — not the coaching staff nor Laliberte himself — could say for certain exactly how effective he could be.

At the time, PEI was languishing in the standings, ranked below the QMJHL’s two expansion franchises in the playoff hunt. Laliberte was named team captain upon his return to the lineup, more so as a show of respect and as a motivational tool meant to get the team going. Regardless of the reasoning, it all worked out pretty well.

Laliberte did not light the Q on fire or instantly emerge as the dominant player many felt he would normally have become by this point in his major junior career. He did have a major impact, however, serving as the catalyst for turning the Rocket’s season around with stellar two-way play and some timely scoring.

He would finish the season with 23 points (12 goals, 11 assists), 41 PIMs and a -15 rating in 34 games, numbers that may not seem impressive on the surface, but were very strong considering Laliberte’s condition. Most importantly, his play served to reestablish himself as a legitimate NHL prospect, albeit one whose ultimate potential and immediate future remains shrouded in question marks.

For this season, at least, Laliberte’s leadership and effective play helped PEI inch into the playoffs, a major accomplishment considering that the team seemed directionless and destined to miss the postseason prior to is return to the lineup.

WHL

John Flatters, D — Vancouver Giants

Ht.: 6’1, Wt.: 205 lbs., D.O.B.: 6/17/87
Drafted: 2005 (6th round, 174th overall)

Flatters began the season, his second in the WHL, with the Red Deer Rebels, a perennial league powerhouse about to enter into the unfamiliar realm of rebuilding. While the Flyers have long been a staunch supporter of the Rebels’ program and, more specifically, the mentoring abilities of head coach Brent Sutter, the NHL team was pleased when Flatters was traded to the Vancouver Giants just a few weeks into the season.

In Vancouver, Flatters would find himself under the tutelage of another well-regarded junior coach, Don Hay. He was also joining a team with a great deal of offensive depth on the blue line, which would serve as a strong compliment to his stay-at-home, physical style of play. Flatters, in turn, added the toughness the Giants were looking for on the blue line, helping them emerge as one of the top teams in the circuit.

Flatters would go on to enjoy a solid, albeit unspectacular season. He was, for the most part, a steady performer in his own end, and proved to be a player unafraid to stick his nose in and stand up for his teammates. The Calgary, AB native did not contribute much offensively, as expected. He recorded a mere seven points (3 goals, 4 assists), to go along with 140 PIMs and a +1 rating in 64 games.

Like many young rearguards of his ilk, Flatters needs to work on his positioning and stands to improve his foot speed. A more explosive first step to by time against the forecheck is a must, and a little work in the offensive end will only help him develop into a more complete, all-around player.

The Giants were very deep defensively this season, so Flatters didn’t see a whole lot of special teams time. This will likely change next season, as his role and level of responsibility will increase in accordance with the level of experience he will have accumulated by then.

Ladislav Scurko, C — Seattle Thunderbirds

Ht.: 6’0, Wt.: 198 lbs., D.O.B.: 4/4/86
Drafted: 2004 (6th round, 170th overall)

Scurko developed into perhaps the best all-around player on the Seattle Thunderbirds roster in his second season in North America, centering a pair of Phoenix Coyotes prospects — Aaron Gagnon and Roman Tomanek — on the team’s top line and becoming a featured player in all game situations.

While the talented Slovakian import made noticeable improvements in nearly every facet of his game this season, particularly his skating, he did not take the next step offensively that the Thunderbirds (and Flyers) were hoping for. Still, he finished the regular season a very respectable third on the team in scoring, with 43 points (17 goals, 26 assists) in 64 games.

Scurko was most effective in special teams situations, notching a team-leading nine power-play goals and serving as a cornerstone of the Thunderbirds’ top penalty-killing unit.

On a down note, Scurko turned in an underwhelming performance at the 2006 WJC tournament in Vancouver, notching a mere two goals, 16 PIMs and a -1 rating in six games for disappointing Slovakia, which finished eighth out of 10 teams.

Regardless, Scurko remains a well-regarded forward prospect, a player many observers feel can eventually evolve into a competent checking line center in the NHL. He appears to have the inside track at earning a contract with the Flyers this summer, but exactly where he will play next season is not certain at this point.

Jeff Dahlia, Glen Erickson, Kevin Forbes, Phil Laugher, Jason Menard and Leslie Treff contributed to this report. Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.