One would have to go way back to the early days of the Philadelphia Flyers’ existence to find a season in which rookies played a more vital role, and had an overall impact on the team’s roster, than that of the upstarts of 2005-06.
Of course, those pre-Broad Street Bullies teams of the late 1960s were young by design, the organization’s original architects opting to build the newly-christened NHL franchise into a Stanley Cup contender via the draft.
Despite the notable additions of highly-regarded rookie centers Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, this year’s Flyers team had centered its championship hopes around a veteran-laden nucleus. This point was emphasized by the offseason acquisitions of well-seasoned warriors such as Peter Forsberg, Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje.
However, a tremendous rash of injuries decimated the club just weeks into the campaign, forcing general manager Bob Clarke to summon and rely upon more than a dozen players from the team’s AHL affiliate, the Philadelphia Phantoms.
In all, 13 rookies wound up seeing action with the Flyers this season, with all but four of them making their league debut with the Orange and Black.
The Big Three
Much of the hype surrounding the Flyers prior to this season was centered upon the long-awaited debuts of Carter and Richards, the team’s top forward prospects since a guy named Eric Lindros arrived on the scene in 1992.
Meanwhile, second-year forward R.J. Umberger, a teammate of Carter and Richards on the Phantoms’ 2005 Calder Cup championship squad, was penciled in as the AHL team’s first line center. It was unknown at that time how much impact this trio would end up having on the team this season.
Long-term injuries to several of the team’s veteran performers would ultimately result in more ice time and increased responsibilities for Flyers rookies at all positions.
Carter’s entrance into the NHL ranks was complicated by the debilitating effects of a bout with mononucleosis that kept the young pivot off of his skates for the majority of last summer. When the Flyers gathered for training camp, the former Sault Ste. Marie (OHL) star was just getting himself back into practice form.
As such, Carter struggled mightily over the first few weeks of the season. As he regained his strength and got his conditioning back to the appropriate level, however, his level of confidence noticeably increased. By the New Year, he had settled into a steady role playing with Umberger, and began to hit his stride.
Carter proved to be a very effective player for the Flyers over the second half of the season. He continued to endure his share of rookie ups and downs, but also showed flashes of brilliance with the puck, particularly in exhibiting his world-class wrist shot.
He finished the campaign ranked first on the team among rookies and sixth overall with 42 points (23 goals, 19 assists) a +10 rating and 40 PIMs in 81 games.
Unlike Carter, Richards’ transition to the ‘big time’ was practically seamless. The former Kitchener Rangers (OHL) star, often praised for his maturity and capacity for leadership even at a young age, quickly embraced a two-way role with the team. He was also one of the team’s key penalty-killers throughout the campaign.
Richards was a steady point-producer early in the season, but tailed off over the second half. At least part of this was due to his role as more of a defensive forward. He was often paired with low-scoring forwards like Donald Brashear and Brian Savage, while Carter and Umberger were thrust into more of an offensive role.
He ranked third among rookies and ninth overall on the team with 34 points (11 goals, 23 assists), a +6 rating and 65 PIMs in 79 games. His three shorthanded goals also were second-best to veteran Sami Kapanen’s four.
Umberger was recalled by the Flyers after team captain Keith Primeau went down with what turned out to be a season-ending (and potentially career-threatening) concussion on Oct. 25 in Montreal. The former Ohio State standout was initially thought to be a temporary replacement, but quickly established himself as a very capable two-way player at the NHL level.
Also working in Umberger’s favor was the terrific chemistry he developed with Carter. The two wound up being paired together through the majority of the season, teaming up trade deadline acquisition Niko Dimitrakos for several important goals for the Flyers down the stretch.
Umberger finished the season ranked second among rookies to Carter and seventh on the team overall with 38 points (20 goals, 18 assists) a +9 rating and 18 PIMs in 73 games.
After cementing himself as a potential future NHL starter during the 2004-05 season with a stellar, Calder Cup-winning run with the Phantoms, Antero Niittymaki was promoted to a full-time role with the Flyers this year.
The original plan was to have the Finnish netminder serve as backup to incumbent Robert Esche, seeing action in roughly 30-35 games. Clarke and head coach Ken Hitchcock were open and honest with their assessment of the position form the start, however, noting that Niittymaki could earn additional games depending on his play (and Esche’s overall performance).
In the end, Esche would emerge as the team’s unquestioned starter heading into the postseason. However, it was Niittymaki who actually appeared in the majority of the games.
Niittymaki struggled a bit early in the campaign, but soon picked up his game. He was essentially handed the reins of the team when Esche left the lineup with a groin injury in mid-December, appearing in 17 straight games. Included in this was a phenomenal 8-2-1 record during an 11-game road trip that might just have saved the Flyers’ season.
The grind of that stretch, however, coupled with a long and brilliant Olympic run, seemed to take its toll on Niittymaki. He was phenomenal in Torino for Team Finland, taking home tournament MVP honors en route to guiding Team Finland to a silver medal. But, he was not nearly as effective for the Flyers upon his return.
With Niittymaki’s play noticeably tailing off over the second half of the season, Esche ultimately recaptured the starters role that was originally, seemingly, his to lose. Niittymaki finished his first season in the NHL with a very respectable 23-15-6 record, 2.97 GAA and .895 save percentage.
Freddy Meyer and Randy Jones, undrafted free agents signed out of the collegiate ranks two offseasons ago, were major contributors to the Phantoms’ AHL championship run last season. Both were given a chance to showcase their skills with the Flyers this season, thanks to the plethora of injuries suffered by the team’s veteran rearguards.
Meyer actually missed the first 15 games of the regular season for the Phantoms after suffering what many felt would be a catastrophic leg injury during the preseason. He recovered quickly, once again establishing himself as a pivotal two-way rearguard for the AHL team up to the time of his recall to the Flyers in late December.
Upon joining the big team, Meyer exhibited the skill and smart, heady play he had become known for during his time with the Phantoms. He proved that he could battle larger forwards effectively despite his diminutive 5’10, 188 lb. frame, and also showcased an offensive dimension to his game.
Meyer wound up finishing second among defensemen and a very impressive tenth on the team in scoring with 27 points (6 goals, 21 assists), a +10 rating and 33 PIMs in only 57 games.
Jones, on the other hand, endured a very trying, frustrating campaign. Despite appearing in over one-third of the Flyers’ games, the third-year pro’s season was defined by the multiple, nagging injuries that limited his effectiveness and played a role in the general inconsistency of his overall game.
He missed substantial time with the Phantoms early in the season after undergoing surgery for an abdominal injury. Still, he managed to return to the ice, and was recalled to the Flyers in December. He initially played well with the big club, but was ultimately returned to the Phantoms when his play tailed off.
Jones finished with eight assists, a -6 rating and 16 PIMs in 28 total games for the Flyers.
Both Meyer and Jones were rewarded for their performances with two-year contract extensions during the season. Meyer is all but a lock to return to the Flyers next year, while Jones will be in the running for a roster spot in training camp.
Although only appeared in six games with the big club, Alexandre Picard also showed a great deal of promise. In the midst of a very solid freshman season with the Phantoms, the former QMJHL standout did not look at all out of place, albeit in limited duty, with the Flyers.
He will get a long, hard look from the team in training camp this September.
Eager to Impress
Ben Eager enjoyed a decent rookie season with the Phantoms in 2004-05. He turned up his game a few notches during the team’s playoff run, and seemed poised to have a big second season this year.
Oddly enough, the former Oshawa General (OHL) did not have nearly as much success with the Phantoms this year as he did during call-up stints to the Flyers, to whom he was summoned as an injury replacement on several occasions.
If not for salary cap restrictions, Eager likely would have stuck with the Flyers after a solid run in December, during which he played alongside Carter and Umberger. In 25 overall regular season games with the big club, the Ottawa native tallied eight points (3 goals, 5 assists), and even plus/minus rating and 18 PIMs, while hitting anything that moved.
Eager still has to work on his discipline level and learn to stay out of the penalty box during crucial times. He has grown into a more reliable player in his own end, and does appear to have at least a modicum of offensive upside. Look for him to make a strong run at a roster spot next season.
The same can be said for forward Matt Ellison, a player who flew under the radar somewhat after being acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for disgruntled center Patrick Sharp in early December.
Ellison appeared in five games for the Flyers immediately after the trade, recording a single assist in limited duty. He had notched a very respectable 12 points (3 goals, 9 assists) in 26 games with Chicago before the deal was made.
Like Eager, Ellison was a victim of the salary cap. He was assigned to the Phantoms on Dec. 18 and would play out the remainder of the season in the AHL.
A brief cameo
After much speculation as to whether or not he would chose to return to the University of Minnesota for his senior season, heralded NCAA prospect Ryan Potulny signed with the Flyers on March 29.
The Grand Forks, ND native led the country in scoring this season and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, the honor annual bestowed upon the top collegiate player in the nation.
He appeared in two games for the Flyers late in the season, registering one assist.
The revolving door that was the Flyers’ roster this season saw a seemingly never-ending parade of characters pass through. Some, as covered, stuck around longer than initially anticipated, while others enjoyed brief inaugural stints with the big team.
Three rookies, in fact — forward Stefan Ruzicka and defensemen David Printz and Wade Skolney — appeared in one game for the Orange and Black this year.
Ruzicka played well in his only appearance, showing a presence in the offensive zone and actually seeing time on the power play. He endured an up-and-down first season with the Phantoms this year, and will look to impress the organization at training camp this fall.
Printz and Skolney are, essentially, stay-at-home rearguards who were rewarded for their consummate professionalism and veteran leadership over the past few years with the Phantoms.
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