Flyers AHL prospects season review

By Al Alven

Just about everything that could go right did go right for the Philadelphia Phantoms during the spring of 2005.

The Flyers’ same-city AHL affiliate marched through the Calder Cup playoffs, drawing scores of fans to the Wachovia Center during the NHL Lockout en route to capturing the team’s second league championship.

They did so with a roster made up of top prospects, including heralded centers Jeff Carter and Mike Richards (both of whom were added for the postseason run), two way forwards R.J. Umberger and Patrick Sharp, talented defensemen Joni Pitkanen and Dennis Seidenberg, and postseason MVP goaltender Antero Niittymaki.

Thus, with the eventual promotion of each of these players to the Flyers in 2005-06, it was rightfully assumed by just about everyone that a Calder Cup repeat would be very difficult to pull off.

As it turned out, the Phantoms, lacking in overall talent from the get-go and forced to feed the injury-riddled Flyers with many of the warm bodies they had left, endured a very trying, frustrating campaign. In the end, they would miss the postseason, along with the opportunity to defend their title.

Still, in terms of overall player development, the season was far from a disappointment.

A handful of returning youngsters continued to make progress under the tutelage of head coach John Stevens, most notably second-year forwards Ben Eager and Tony Voce.

Additionally, several players representative of the “next wave” of Flyers prospects at the professional level joined the Phantoms full time, including right winger Stefan Ruzicka, defenseman Alexandre Picard and goaltender Martin Houle.

The following is a position-by-position look at these and the other prospects who suited up for the Phantoms this season.

Forwards

The Phantoms began defense of their Calder Cup title with the understanding that offense was going to be much more difficult to come by than it was the previous spring. After all, Carter, Richards, Sharp and point-producing rearguards Pitkanen and Seidenberg, all key contributors to the championship effort, had been promoted to the Flyers out of training camp.

Second-year pro Umberger had been penciled in as the Phantoms’ top line center, and was expected to contribute a great deal in all game situations for the team. However, the former Ohio State standout was recalled to the Flyers to replace concussed captain Keith Primeau in late October. So solid was his play that Umberger would remain, and soon become a permanent fixture, with the big club.

Umberger was the Phantoms’ leading scorer at the time he was summoned to the NHL, having recorded 10 points in 8 games played. His absence would create a huge hole that the team was never able to adequately fill.

What it did do, however, was create an opportunity for several young players to step to the forefront and show the organization what they had to offer. Several forwards took advantage of this chance, most notably Voce, Ruzicka and Matt Ellison.

Voce, a former Boston College standout and the first Philadelphia native to ever suit up for the Phantoms, actually wound up as the team’s leading scorer in his second professional season. He emerged as a reliable point producer and power-play threat, finishing the campaign with 55 points (28 goals, 27 assists) and 87 PIMs in 67 games.

Despite his emerging offensive prowess at the AHL level, Voce remains an NHL long shot due to his diminutive size (5’8, 185 lbs.) and lack of a sufficient two-way game. He has, however, shown improvements in just about every area over the past two seasons, and will be given every opportunity to continue to showcase his skills for the organization in 2006-07.

Ruzicka, on the other hand, is a player who seems to have all the tools necessary to one day become an offensive weapon in the NHL. Many question marks remain, however, about his level of commitment, consistency and willingness to play defense. He came to the Phantoms after recording 142 points in as many games over two seasons with the Owen Sound Attack in the OHL.

There were times during his rookie season where Ruzicka clearly looked like the most talented player on the ice. But there were also far too many stretches where he was practically invisible and was simply a non-factor. In his defense, the Slovakian import did not have the luxury of playing with gifted offensive players, and was seemingly hampered by a variety of nagging injuries throughout the year.

He did manage to finish third on the team, with a mere 48 points (16 goals, 32 assists) in 73 games. While he will have an outside shot at making the Flyers’ roster out of training camp, Ruzicka is expected to emerge as a much more valuable contributor with the Phantoms next season.

The same can be said for Ellison, who was acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for Patrick Sharp in early December. Ellison appeared in five games for the injury-weary and depleted Flyers after the trade, but was then sent to the Phantoms, mainly due to salary cap-related reasons.

The former Red Deer Rebel (WHL) standout did not light the world on fire for the Phantoms, but he did settle into a very solid two-way role rather quickly. He proved to be a fairly steady, if unspectacular, point-producer and a strong defensive presence in his own end. He also became a fixture manning the point on the power play.

Ellison finished the season ranked ninth on the Phantoms in scoring with 25 points (12 goals, 13 assists), though he appeared in only 48 games with the team.

One player who endured a rather perplexing season was second-year forward Ben Eager.

Eager split time with the Flyers and Phantoms this season, oddly playing much more effective and noteworthy hockey during his time with the big club. Like Ellison, in fact, Eager likely would have stuck with the Flyers after a solid first stint with the team in December if it weren’t for salary cap restraints.

As it was, he tallied a measly 18 points (6 goals, 12 assists) in 49 games with the Phantoms. Conversely, he recorded a respectable 8 points (3 goals, 5 assists) in 25 games with the Flyers.

Eager has a very good shot at making the Flyers out of training camp, but there are several areas of his game that still need a lot of work. First and foremost is his discipline level, as his short temper and ultra-aggressiveness often gets him in trouble in inopportune times. His 256 PIMs ranked him second on the Phantoms this season.

Rounding out the Phantoms contingent of forward prospects was the tough guy trio of Josh Gratton, Riley Cote and Triston Grant.

Gratton led the team with 265 PIMs this season, despite being dealt to the Phoenix Coyotes at the trade deadline for defenseman Denis Gauthier. He recorded 19 points (9 goals, 10 assists) in 53 games with the Phantoms in total.

Cote finished second on the Phantoms with 259 PIMs. He provided the team with plenty of muscle and decent two-way play, but was a total non-factor in the offensive end. He ended up with an extremely paltry four points (3 goals, 1 assist) in 70 games.

Grant, meanwhile, was not much more effective than Cote in his rookie pro season, tallying five points (2 goals, 3 assists) in 64 games.

Defensemen

Although the Phantoms lost two invaluable performers in Joni Pitkanen and Dennis Seidenberg prior to the season, the team’s blue line corps took nowhere near the hit that the forward contingent did. At least not right away.

This was due to the Phantoms’ tremendous depth on the blue line, a unit led by veteran and team captain John Slaney and, heading into this season, anchored by third-year pros Freddy Meyer and Randy Jones.

Meyer and 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 10th on the Flyers in scoring with 27 points (6 goals, 21 assists), a +10 rating and 33 PIMs in only 57 games. He recorded six points (3 goals, 3 assists) in 11 games with the Phantoms.

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.

All told, Jones recorded with eight assists, a -6 rating and 16 PIMs in 28 total games for the Flyers. He finished with five points (2 goals, 3 assists) in 21 games with the Phantoms.

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.

One player who will get a look at camp but will likely be returned to the Phantoms for at least one more season is Alexandre Picard. The former QMJHL standout enjoyed an outstanding rookie season in the AHL, proving very quickly to be one of the team’s best all-around and most savvy rearguards.

Picard logged tons of ice time and appeared regularly in all game situations for the Phantoms, while being teamed on what was, essentially, the team’s top defensive unit with Slaney for the majority of the campaign.

Though he is not expected to develop into a major point-producer at the pro level, Picard boasts excellent offensive instincts, and a booming, accurate shot from the blue line. Impressively, he finished second among defensemen to Slaney and sixth on the Phantoms overall this season with 33 points (7 goals, 26 assists) in 75 games.

Also making a strong impression, albeit not to same degree as Picard, was fellow first-year rearguard Charlie Cook. A product of Cornell University, Cook endured plenty of ups and downs this season, but also showed glimpses of potential as a solid two-way rearguard, at least at the AHL level.

He finished the season ranked fourth among Phantoms defensemen with 15 points (2 goals, 13 assists) and 48 PIMs in 66 games.

Goaltenders

Even before 20-year-old goaltending prospects Rejean Beauchemin and Martin Houle inked their first professional contracts with the Flyers last offseason, the assumption was that Beauchemin would join the Phantoms and play a significant role with the team throughout the campaign.

After all, Beauchemin had raised eyebrows within the organization and around the hockey scene with a strong major junior stint at Prince Albert (WHL), in which he had almost single-handedly carried the Raiders back to respectability after several years served as one of the league’s doormats.

Houle, meanwhile, appeared to be something of an afterthought, even after completing two very successful seasons with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles (QMJHL), during which he established himself as one of the top young netminders in the CHL, stat-wise, a very impressive feat for a goaltender from the high-scoring Q.

Beauchemin indeed began the season with the Phantoms, serving as backup to veteran free agent signee Jamie Storr. And Houle, who later admitted coming to training camp fully expecting to land an immediate spot on the AHL team, was initially assigned to play for the Trenton Titans in the ECHL.

This arrangement essentially lasted all of a month and a half into the season.

After an initial strong start, Beauchemin struggled mightily behind a team deep in the throws of a major scoring slump. At the same time, Houle quickly found his groove with the Titans, wasting no time in establishing himself as a capable commodity at the pro level.

When the decision was made to have the two netminders switch places in November, most assumed that the arrangement would be a temporary one. However, Houle continued his strong play upon his arrival in Philadelphia, and Beauchemin’s struggles persisted in Trenton.

Though Beauchemin would be recalled to the Phantoms on a few extended occasions throughout the remainder of the season (most notably when Storr was summoned to the Flyers to back up Niittymaki while Robert Esche was on the sidelines), Houle was in Philadelphia to stay.

Beauchemin appeared in 15 total games for the Phantoms this year, boasting decent numbers despite a 3-8-1 record. His 2.61 GAA and .909 save percentage were both respectable, and are somewhat indicative of the poor play of the team in front of him during his starts, overall.

Much improvement will be expected of the Winnipeg native during his second year with the Phantoms, as the Flyers’ brass continues to hold him in high regard and believes he can develop into a legit NHL starter one day.

Houle, obviously, will also get the chance to prove that his 2005-06 performance, for which he earned Phantoms rookie of the year honors, was not a fluke. The Montreal native kept the team afloat this season while Storr was with the Flyers, and ended the season with a 18-18-1 record, 2.54 GAA and .914 save percentage to boast of.



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