Philadelphia Flyers have plenty of defensive depth at NCAA and European levels

By Chris Shafer

Shayne Gostisbehere - Philadelphia Flyers

Photo: Drafted in 2012, defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere has shown a lot of promise in his two seasons with Union College. (courtesy of J. Meric/Getty Images)

The tale of the NCAA and European bases for the Philadelphia Flyers prospect pool is a particularly one-sided one. The Flyers traditionally shy away from European development, and with Paul Holmgren's yearly blitzkrieg on college free-agents, it is fairly obvious that the scouts within the organization favor the collegiate developmental path.

Of the Flyers' current 37 prospects, 16 have spent time among the NCAA ranks. In comparison, only two of the Flyers' prospects fall into the European grouping. That makes plenty of sense since the organization has only drafted 20 European-based players since 2000, with those numbers thinning greatly closer to present day draft practices by the team.

That does not mean that they have an elite class of NCAA prospects playing college right now though. While there are a few possible reclamation project involved, the majority of their pool is either underachieving or were long-shots to begin with. Only Shayne Gostisbehere appears to have to potential to make a real impact. Meanwhile, their European side has a few projects but nothing substantial at the moment.

NCAA

Shayne Gostisbehere, D, Union College Dutchmen (ECAC)
Drafted 3rd round, 78th overall, 2012

With the Flyers in serious injury trouble to close out the 2012-13 season, young blueliner Erik Gustafsson has stepped up into a 20-minute, puck-moving defenseman. Though this seems like it was a long time coming, the former NCAA product has become a real god-send for the team in need of defensive prospect depth, and while other defensemen are making decent NHL impacts, the real weight of the blue line pool will now fall on the shoulders of Shayne Gostisbehere.

Much like Gustafsson, who was signed as a free-agent, Gostisbehere went quietly unnoticed until the Flyers made a grab at him in the 3rd round of the 2012 Draft. He had already established himself as a real potential gem by mid-season when he made USA's U20 for the World Junior Championships. A dark horse going in, the young defenseman became an important player for the gold medal team in Ufa, Russia this past winter.

Now it is expected that Gostisbehere will run one more year at Union College before making the professional jump, but with a limited group of blue line prospects with real NHL-impact potential, he will be a welcomed skater for the organization.

Mark Alt, D, Minnesota Golden Gophers (WCHA)
Trade with Carolina Hurricanes, January 13th, 2013

Right after the 2012-13 NHL Lockout broke in January, the Carolina Hurricanes practically dumped veteran goaltender Brian Boucher on Philadelphia for his fourth stint with the team that drafted him in 1995. Going back to the Hurricanes was center prospect Luke Pither, while the Flyers also received Mark Alt as what appeared to be a bizarre toss-in. Whether or not Carolina had plans for Alt's future, the Orange and Black are prepared to give the young puck-mover a real opportunity to re-establish his game.

Alt began what should have been his promising career as a raw high school defenseman and 2nd round selection from the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. From there he went to the University of Minnesota where he showed steady signs of development, but everything seemed to fall apart during his junior season with the Golden Gophers. His offense vanished, and his responsibilities were stripped.

After signing a contract, Alt journeyed to the Adirondack Phantoms on a tryout contract to close out the 2012-13 season and made a decent impact in what would only be a six-game taster of professional hockey. Just like when he arrived at Minnesota, he is still extremely raw, but he has the talent to rebound from his poor junior season. Philadelphia will give him every opportunity to show his potential.

Michael Parks, RW, North Dakota (WCHA)
Drafted 5th round, 149th overall, 2010

Much like Alt, Michael Parks' 2012-13 season did not quite go as planned. Coming into the season, the young forward was a promising sophomore looking to increase his role with the defending WCHA defending champions. While an injury and offensive struggles caused Parks' pacing to fall off significantly, the entire team struggled to repeat their success from the prior year.

There is still plenty of time for Parks to rebound though. He has consistently showed what kind of player he could be both with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders of the USHL and in the NCAA. The question facing him now is whether or not he can recapture his pacing. The game speed, even at the college level, is a tedious thing to contend with when returning from injury, and if Parks wants to play for the organization, he will need to use this offseason to get himself back to where he needs to be. The Flyers will always have room for defensively responsible wingers.

Nicholas Luukko, D, Vermont Catamounts (Hockey East)
Drafted 6th round, 179th overall, 2010

With his father as the president and C.O.O. of Comcast-Spectacor, Nicholas Luukko grew up in the far-reaching shadow of the Flyers' organization. Since the 1993-94 season, Peter Luukko has been an integral part of the behind-the-scenes crew that made the Philadelphia Flyers what they are, and his son, born in late 1991, has seen all of this. The young Luukko was influenced by big names of Flyers and NHL lore including Eric Desjardins, Paul Coffee, Chris Therien, Derian Hatcher, Kimmo Timonen, and Chris Pronger. He had plenty of role models to pick from as a young defenseman in Philadelphia.

The question for Luukko now is whether he can take the next step like so many defensemen he has seen come through Philadelphia. A healthy season at the University of Vermont is certainly a great start. He was also the top scoring defenseman on the roster as a sophomore coming off injury. As of now, the young, two-way blueliner has some hurdles to overcome, but things are definitely starting to look up for him as well as his future as a player for the organization he grew up admiring. He has the work ethic to make a real push even if he does not possess the elite skill set.

Reece Willcox, D, Cornell Big Red (ECAC)
Drafted 5th round, 141st overall, 2012

A team can never have too many shut-down defensemen floating around the prospect pool. Both Reece Willcox and Swedish junior player Fredrik Larsson represent their game-style for the 2012 Philadelphia draft class. Before them is a long list including Colin Suellentrop, Ricard Blidstrand, Simon Bertilsson, Oliver Lauridsen, and Kevin Marshall dotting through recent drafts. None have really panned out so far.

While Lauridsen represents the closest the Flyers have come to date in developing a physical shut-down for the back-end, Willcox will hopefully be throwing his name in the hat over the next couple of years. He has not had immediate success, but it is hard to jump in as an 18-year-old freshman in the NCAA game. Young players have a harder time making an impact immediately at the college level, so there is certainly a level of patience going on when discussing Willcox's future with the Flyers' organization.

Petr Placek, RW, Harvard Crimson (ECAC)
Drafted 6th round, 176th overall, 2011

Petr Placek, at the time of his draft, was an extremely raw large body with legitimate puck control skills. Unfortunately the offensive part of his game has struggled to develop at Harvard University through two seasons of play. That does not mean that time is up for Placek, but he is becoming another story of unrealized potential.

Placek has time on his side at the moment, but without significant progress in the near future, it is hard to believe that an NHL career is a reality for him. He played in the Czech U18 league before transferring to high school play stateside, but so far, his career at Harvard has not been as exciting as his play growing up.

Europe

Valeri Vasiliev, D, Spartak Moscow (KHL)
Drafted 7th round, 201st overall, 2012

Valeri Vasiliev has returned from the injury that hurt his draft stock in 2012, and now he is steadily developing into the consistent KHL blueliner the Flyers hoped they were getting. It remains to be seen if he will have any lasting problems, but as a new prospect within the organization, things are looking up. That does not mean there is not a long way to go still. The Flyers do not have the best track record of convincing young Russian players to venture overseas and spend time in the AHL when they already have a contract to play in the highest level of Russian hockey.

Fredrik Larsson, D, Brynas (SuperElit)
Drafted 4th round, 111th overall, 2012

Another of the Flyers' new stable of hard-hitting blueliners, Fredric Larsson spent a full year with Brynas' SuperElit team and was an important player for them as an 18-year-old. Much like Vasiliev and Willcox, the long-term developmental pattern for Larsson is a little bit of a mystery. The Flyers have taken a number of stay-at-home defensemen in the latter stages of recent drafts with very few successful results. Still, Larsson's mean streak makes him appealing to an organization that wants to start flowing blueliners through the pipeline in the same amounts of success that they have had with developing forwards.