The impact of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, widely considered to be one of the best and deepest in league history, continues to be felt in a big way for the Philadelphia Flyers. Highly-regarded forwards Jeff Carter and Mike Richards graduated to the NHL level last season, but that’s just the beginning.
In fact, three of the top four players on the team’s latest Hockey’s Future Top 20 prospects listing were drafted in 2003 – defenseman Alexander Picard (1) and forwards Stefan Ruzicka (2) and Ryan Potulny (4). Two others – goaltender Rejean Beauchemin (9) and center Kevin Romy (15) – still occupy a place on the list as well.
These players lead a group that lacks the overall luster it had when Carter and Richards were in the fold, but has been nonetheless bolstered by valuable additions such as Steve Downie (3) and Claude Giroux (5), the team’s first-round selections in each of last two drafts, respectively.
Top 20 at a glance
1. Alexandre Picard, D
2. Stefan Ruzicka, RW
3. Steve Downie, C
4. Ryan Potulny, C
5. Claude Giroux, RW
6. Ben Eager, LW
7. Oskars Bartulis, D
8. Martin Houle, G
9. Rejean Beauchemin, G
10. Rob Bellamy, RW
11. Freddy Cabana, LW
12. R.J. Anderson, D
13. Andreas Nodl, RW
14. Matt Ellison, LW
15. Kevin Romy, C
16. Michael Ratchuk, D
17. Jussi Timonen, D
18. Denis Bodrov, D
19. Chris Zarb, D
20. Joonas Lehtivuori, LW
Key: Rank, (Previous Rank), Name, Position, Age, How Acquired
1. (1) Alexandre Picard, D, 21
2003 entry draft (3rd round, 85th overall)
Over the past few years, Picard has quietly emerged as an outstanding blueline hopeful for the Flyers. With the recent graduations of such high-profile talents as fellow rearguard Joni Pitkanen, along with forwards Carter, Richards and R.J. Umberger, the Montreal native now becomes the de facto top prospect in the organization.
Picard certainly is not the most talented prospect in the Flyers’ system, but he is the most polished. Smooth and steady, he does not excel in any one aspect of the game, but he does just about everything extremely well. He is also known for his smart, heady play and noted for his emerging leadership abilities.
Two seasons ago, Picard displayed remarkable poise and moxy while making his pro debut during the Calder Cup finals. He followed up that brief but impressive stint with a terrific rookie season for the Phantoms in 2005-06, teaming with veteran John Slaney to form what was essentially the team’s top defensive unit for most of the season.
Picard did not record eye-popping stats, level opposing forwards with crunching bodychecks, or do anything else that would have placed him on the highlight reels during his first AHL season. But, he was very solid in his own end, and made strides on the offensive side of things as the campaign progressed.
He finished the season ranked second among Phantoms defenders behind Slaney and seventh overall with a very respectable 33 points (7 goals, 26 assists) in 75 games.
The Flyers expect big things out of Picard in his second AHL season. He has an outside shot of making the team’s roster out of training camp, but will undoubtedly at least see a few stints as a call-up this season.
2. (2) Stefan Ruzicka, RW, 21
2003 entry draft (3rd round, 81st overall)
If there is a wildcard in the Flyers’ system, it’s Ruzicka. Undeniably talented, the Slovakian import has all of the physical tools he needs to become a successful offensive contributor at the pro level. In fact, when it comes to pure skill, he is on par with Carter and Richards, fellow members of the 2003 draft class with whom he tangled in the OHL and in WJC tournaments prior to turning pro.
What separates Ruzicka from the aforementioned players at this point is his lack of a complete, polished game. He must also continue to answer questions about his desire and willingness to improve, having earned a reputation as a perennially inconsistent performer during his junior career with the Owen Sound Attack.
Ruzicka played to mixed reviews during his rookie season with the Phantoms last year. He showed glimpses of his potential explosiveness, but also struggled to find his role with the team. To be completely fair, however, he has still been one of the better-producing forwards on a team that has struggled mightily to find the back of the net this season. With 48 points (16 goals, 32 assists) in 73 games, Ruzicka finished fourth on the Phantoms in scoring.
He also appeared in one game as an injury recall with the Flyers, failing to score, but impressing with several strong chances in the offensive end.
Ruzicka is one of the players upon which the Phantoms will be counting heavily this season. The Flyers have big expectations for the enigmatic young gun, but does he have it in him to reach that next level?
3. (4) Steve Downie, C, 19
2005 entry draft (1st round, 29th overall)
If not for Rick Tocchet’s alleged involvement in the purported gambling ring that was the center of the much-publicized “Operation: Slapshot,” Downie might well have been considered the most controversial figure in hockey last season. Ironically, it is the former Flyer great with whom Downie most often draws comparisons.
Like Tocchet, Downie is a skilled, but down-and-dirty competitor. He will do absolutely whatever it takes to help his team win, but has a tendency to allow his emotions to get the better of him.
Downie made major headlines early last 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 that he was 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, 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.
Downie signed his first pro contract with the Flyers, but, barring an overwhelming impressive training camp performance, will likely return to Peterborough for one more junior season. There, he will have to continue to work on his discipline, which stands as the biggest potential roadblock to his success in the pro ranks.
4. (3) Ryan Potulny, C, 21
2003 entry draft (3rd round, 87th overall)
Potulny broke out in a big way in 2005-06, leading the entire nation in goals (38) and finishing in a first place time for points (63) with Chris Collins of Boston College. The junior sensation was the top offensive threat on a high-powered Minnesota squad that also featured standouts such as Danny Irmen (MIN), Ryan Stoa (COL) and then-undrafted collegiate star Phil Kessel (BOS).
For his efforts, Potulny was named on of ten finalists for the prestigious Hobey Baker Award, the honor annually bestowed upon the NCAA’s most valuable performer.
Potulny’s season produced countless on-ice highlights for the Golden Gophers. But the story that drew perhaps the most publicity came after the team’s season ended, when speculation ran wild as to whether or not Potulny would leave campus and sign a pro contract with the Flyers.
After much deliberation, the Grand Forks, ND native decided to take general manager Bob Clarke’s offer, and arrived in Philadelphia in late March. Potulny got only a small taste of NHL action, appearing in two games late in the regular season. He performed admirably, however, notching an assist and drawing praise from head coach Ken Hitchcock for his work ethic and readily-apparent skill set.
It is still difficult to predict who Potulny will play for this coming season. Conventional wisdom would say that a stint in the AHL might be best, to help him better adjust to the rigors of the professional game. But, a strong training camp performance would make things interesting, especially if one of the Flyers’ recently-acquired free agent forwards happen to falter.
At any rate, Potulny is set to embark on his long-awaited pro rookie season in Philadelphia, and the question of just how well his game will translate to the next level will be answered soon.
5. (NR) Claude Giroux, RW, 18
2006 entry draft (1st round, 22nd overall)
Regardless of the way his career turns out, Giroux will likely always be remembered as the player whose name Bob Clarke momentarily forgot at the drafting podium. “That’s OK,” the young forward insisted afterward with a hearty smile, as the flustered and obviously embarrassed general manager apologized vehemently. “It’s a tough name to pronounce.”
And so, in typically unroutine Flyers fashion, began the tale of the organization’s latest top draft choice. Giroux, as assistant GM Paul Holmgren noted, would likely not have been a first round pick in years past, due mainly to his diminutive size. However, with his speed, quickness and creative playmaking flair, he is a player viewed as a perfect fit for the style of the new NHL.
“Claude was in the group of players that we had targeted that would hopefully be available when our pick came up,” said Holmgren. “He is a skilled, intelligent and competitive player, and we’re tremendously happy to have him in the organization.”
Giroux saw his stock rise dramatically during the second half of the 2005-06 season. Though he made an immediate impact upon joining the Gatineau Olympiques (QMJHL) at the start of the campaign, he seemed to get better and better as his rookie season wore on.
The Hearst, ON native wound up leading all first-year players in the Q in scoring, finishing a very impressive 13th overall in the league with 103 points (39 goals, 64 assists) in 69 games. He was a slam-dunk selection for the circuit’s All-Rookie team, and stands as a likely addition to Team Canada’s roster at the 2006-07 WJCs.
6. (5) Ben Eager, LW, 22
Trade with Phoenix Coyotes, 2/9/04
Eager enjoyed a decent rookie campaign with the Phantoms two seasons ago. He turned up his game a few notches during the team’s Calder Cup-winning playoff run, and seemed poised to have a big sophomore season in 2005-06.
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 fellow rookies Carter and Umberger. In 25 overall regular season games with the big club, he tallied eight points (3 goals, 5 assists), an even plus/minus rating and 18 PIMs, while hitting anything that moved.
Eager is on the cusp of making the Flyers roster fulltime, but must turn in an impressive training camp performance and maintain a consistently high level of play to maintain such a position.
The Ottawa native 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.
7. (13) Oskars Bartulis, D, 19
2005 entry draft (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 continued to display consistent signs of development last 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 Moncton’s go-to defensemen last 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 this coming season, when he will become a more integral member of the Wildcats as the team is expected to move 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.
8. (7) Martin Houle, G, 21
2004 entry draft (8th round, 232nd overall)
Houle emerged as perhaps the most pleasant surprise in the Flyers organization in 2005-06. The then 20-year-old Montreal native signed his first professional contract with the team last summer, with every intention of making the roster of the AHL affiliate Philadelphia Phantoms and splitting time with veteran free agent acquisition Jamie Storr.
The only problem was, the Flyers had already penciled in another rookie netminder fresh out of juniors, Rejean Beauchemin, to back up Storr. Despite a very solid training camp, Houle was assigned to start his pro career with the Trenton Titans in the ECHL. Despite the shift in plans, he remained positive and made it his goal to prove that he could excel at the next level.
It didn’t take long, actually. Houle got off to a tremendous start with the Titans, quickly overthrowing incumbent Scott Sterling as the team’s starter. Meanwhile, Beauchemin, after a strong start with the Phantoms, began to struggle, and the organizational went ahead and had the two switch places roughly a month and a half into the season.
Houle assured that he was in the AHL to stay, maintaining a strong level of play for the remainder of the year. This was highlighted by an outstanding run, while Storr was on recall to the Flyers during the early portion of 2006. Beauchemin served as his backup during that time.
Houle ended the season with an 18-18-1 record, 2.54 GAA and .914 save percentage, earning Phantoms Rookie of the Year honors in the process. With Storr gone, he will be competing directly with Beauchemin this year for the team’s starting role.
9. (8) Rejean Beauchemin, G, 21
2003 entry draft (6th round, 191st overall)
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.
After a strong start to his rookie season with the Phantoms in 2005-06, 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.
As a result, Beauchemin was demoted to Trenton in early November, while Houle took his place on the Phantoms’ roster.
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 legitimate NHL starter one day.
10. (9) Rob Bellamy, RW, 21
2004 entry draft (3rd round, 92nd overall)
After an up-and-down freshman campaign that saw him battle injury and inconsistency, Bellamy emerged as a valuable component of the University of Maine’s hockey program as a sophomore. A relentless agitator who maintains a high tempo of play on every shift, the 6’0, 200 lb. forward put on muscle, improved his already strong skating and displayed vast improvements at both ends of the ice last season.
All that separates Bellamy from establishing himself as an integral member of the Black Bears’ roster is his ability to become a consistent, reliable point producer.
The Westfield, MA native notched a mere 15 points in 39 games in 2005-06, but remains a player with plenty of untapped offensive potential. His hustle and willingness to drive to the net have resulted in an increased number of scoring opportunities, but continues to struggle with finishing.
At this stage, Bellamy has work to do on his positioning and timing in the offensive end. While he possesses excellent vision and a strong hockey sense, he often finds himself a step or two out of place to make a play. He has also been guilty of rushing his shooting opportunities from time to time, acting impulsively in situations where patience is essential.
Overall, Bellamy is a fearless competitor who plays the game with a unique combination of abandon and smarts. He is still a bit raw, but has a lot of talent, and continues to show signs of improvement in virtually all aspects of his game.
11. (10) Freddy Cabana, LW, 20
2004 entry draft (6th round, 171st overall)
Cabana will be one of the new faces in town for the Phantoms this season, having been signed by the Flyers shortly after his QMJHL career ended this past spring.
One of the most improved players in the Flyers organization, Cabana essentially went 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 course of the previous season.
While he never emerged as the top point-producer he was originally projected as in juniors, Cabana did develop into a solid two-way performer and an outstanding penalty killer for the Mooseheads. He finished second on the team in shorthanded goals (4) and fifth in scoring overall in 2005-06, 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.
12. (11) R.J. Anderson, D, 20
2004 entry draft (4th round, 101st overall)
A highly-regarded recruit out of Centennial High School in Circle Pines, MN, Anderson was expected to be used in a limited role as a freshman last season for the University of Minnesota. Injuries, however, essentially forced head coach Don Lucia to accelerate the 6’0, 182 lb. rearguard’s on-ice learning curve.
Anderson appeared in 37 of the team’s 41 games, registering four assists and 32 PIMs in a high-pressure environment. While the Gophers expect him to eventually develop into an offensive force (he recorded 58 goals and 117 assists for 175 points over three seasons for Centennial), Lucia and his staff were unconcerned with Anderson’s statistics as a freshman.
The focus for the young rearguard last season was on defense, an effort that was aided significantly by his pairing with sophomore Alex Goligoski (PIT), the team’s leading scorer on the blue line (39 points in 41 games). Anderson played tentatively at times, but appeared to be getting more comfortable as the season progressed.
He used his size effectively, particularly over the past month or so of the season, protecting the puck and battling opposing forwards with success along the boards and behind the net. His decision-making with the puck was questioned at times, but this is to be expected of a player with his level of experience.
Anderson was not only the sole freshman member of the Gophers’ defensive unit, but also the only player on the team to jump to the NCAA ranks directly from high school. Each of the other five first-year players performed at an intermediary level prior to last season — two in the USHL and three for the U.S. National Development Team.
13. (NR) Andreas Nodl, RW, 19
2006 entry draft (2nd round, 39th overall)
A very intriguing blend of size, speed and raw ability, Nodl rebounded from a disastrous debut season in North America by emerging as an impact player for the Sioux Falls Stampede of the USHL in 2005-06. His performance not only put him on the map as a legitimate NHL prospect, but also helped him earn a ticket to play at St. Cloud State next season.
Nodl endured a confidence-shattering rookie season with the Stampede two seasons ago. Hampered by a variety of injuries, personal issues and difficulties in learning the English language, he notched a disappointing 16 points (7 goals, 9 assists) in just 44 games.
But, with a new season came another opportunity, and Nodl managed to turn things around in his sophomore try with the Stampede. He would go on to lead the team in scoring with 59 points (29 goals, 30 assists) in 58 games, establishing himself as a force in the USHL and drawing the attention of a number of NHL scouts.
Overall, Nodl’s all-around game showed tremendous signs of improvement during his two-year stint in the USHL. However, there were times when he didn’t appear to be giving his maximum effort, as if he isn’t entirely aware of how good he really is. These issues may be some residual from the loss of confidence he suffered in 2004-05.
Nodl has a powerful stride, evidence by his winning the Fastest Skater award at this year’s USHL Skills Competition. He also possesses the offensive awareness to slow the game down and make plays. A good playmaker, Nodl is an even better shooter. The release and power of his wrist and snap shots are pro-caliber already, and his slapshot is heavy and very accurate as well.
14. (8) Matt Ellison, LW, 22
Trade with Chicago Blackhawks, 12/5/05
Perhaps no other player in the Flyers organization flew under the radar as stealthily as Ellison last season. After appearing in five games for the injury-weary and depleted Flyers following his acquisition from the Chicago Blackhawks in early December, the Duncan, BC native finished the rest of the season with the Phantoms in the AHL.
Ellison’s “demotion,” however, was really anything but. As with the Ben Eager situation, the Flyers’ hand was basically forced into reassigning the former Red Deer Rebels (WHL) standout, due to salary cap-related reasons.
Ellison 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.
Interestingly, Ellison finished the season ranked ninth on the Phantoms in scoring with 25 points (12 goals, 13 assists), despite appearing in only 48 games with the team.
He signed a one-year extension with the Flyers during the offseason, and this time will be counted upon as a prime Phantoms contributor (and NHL call-up candidate) from the start of the season.
15. (12) Kevin Romy, C, 21
2003 entry draft (4th round, 108th overall)
Every year, it seems, Romy is mentioned as a dark horse candidate within the Flyers system. The truth is, no one is quite sure how the Switzerland native’s game would translate should he ever decide to cross the pond.
Romy, who has long been regarded as one of the top young players in his homeland, was the beneficiary of a trade from and also-ran Geneva-Servette team to perennial Nationaliga A powerhouse HC Lugano last season.
After a brief period of adjustment, he settled into a steady, two-way role with the eventual league champions, finally gaining the valuable big game experience he had been lacking. Romy was also named to Switzerland’s entry at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Torino, Italy, but was forced to withdraw from the competition due to a broken leg.
The Flyers expressed some interest in signing Romy during the offseason. Another solid, and hopefully injury-free, season with Lugano could land him a job with the Phantoms next year.
16. (NR) Michael Ratchuk, D, 18
2006 entry draft (2nd round, 42nd overall)
Just three selections after acquiring Nodl at this year’s entry draft, the Flyers nabbed another college-bound prospect in Ratchuk. A product of the United States National Team Developmental Program, the Buffalo native has committed to play at Michigan State next season.
Ratchuk worked his way up the USNTDP ladder, attending USA Hockey Selects 14, 15 and 16 camps, before ultimately going on to play for the U-17 and U-18 national squads. He is regarded as an offensive defenseman, with great skating ability, tremendous top-end speed and a good head for the game.
The brother of former Colorado Avalanche draftee Peter Ratchuk (26th overall, 1996), Michael is best known for his ability to handle the puck while starting or leading a rush. He is very proficient at moving the play out of his own end quickly, and loves to stickhandle up through the neutral zones and into the opposing zone.
Ratchuk finished with an impressive 26 points (11 goals, 15 assists) and 50 PIMs in 47 games with the U-18 team this past season.
Though not known as a physical rearguard, per se, Ratchuk will engage contact and does not shy away when he is challenged. He plays a high-tempo game, with a lot of energy, emotion and constant movement.
Ratchuk, like so many defensemen drafted this year, is on the diminutive side, and will need to work on increasing his strength and stamina as he aims for an eventual pro career. These will be issues that will be addressed during his time at Michigan State.
17. (17) Jussi Timonen, D, 23
2001 entry draft (5th round, 146th overall)
If not for a very strong showing at a prospect mini-camp held in Philadelphia two summers ago, Timonen might not be where he is now. In fact, he may have never made the move to North America, a move that many experts viewed as a sure thing when the talented Finnish rearguard was drafted five years ago.
The fact of the matter is, Timonen’s career in his native Finland seemed stalled at the time he arrived to compete in the camp. He had just come off of a disappointing season that saw him demoted from TPS Turku in SM-liiga to Jukurit Mikkeli of the Mestis (the country’s equivalent of the minor leagues).
Timonen regained some of his form and confidence with Jukurit, and went on to produce a strong showing for the Flyers at camp that summer. He returned to Finland and signed with SaiPa Lappeenranta, for whom he would turn in two decent, yet unspectacular seasons.
But, the seeds had been planted, and the Flyers, impressed with Timonen’s performance at the camp, started to believe that Timonen could be a good fit in the North American game. The organization signed the now 23-year-old rearguard to a two-year deal early this offseason.
While he is expected to suit up and play for the Phantoms, the Flyers expect him to compete hard for a potential role with the big club.
The organization believes that Timonen has progressed nicely after overcoming some early obstacles in his career, and envisions him as a potentially effective fit in the more wide open style of the new NHL.
18. (NR) Denis Bodrov, D, 19
2006 entry draft (2nd round, 55th overall)
Bodrov made the most of every opportunity he was presented with last season, turning in a solid rookie stint in the Russian Super League with Lada Togliatti, and showcasing his skills to the world as a member of Team Russia at the WJC.
The RSL, perhaps the most defensive-oriented major pro circuit in the world, is not an easy league to break into, particularly for young rearguards. But, Bodrov proved to be up to the task, making the transition relatively easily, in fact, from Samara of the Higher League.
The 19-year-old had his fair share of struggles, but generally played with a great deal of poise and composure, keeping his game simple and effective. In 37 games with Lada, he tallied four points (2 goals, 2 assists) and 42 PIMs. His -11 rating is a bit misleading, as it was more a byproduct of the team’s defensive struggles in general this year.
Bodrov’s stock appeared to be on the rise before the New Year, but it rose considerably as a result of his steady, two-way performance at the WJC in Vancouver. There, he displayed his emerging puck-moving ability and effectiveness in all game situations.
With a solid outing on the biggest stage of junior hockey competition under his belt, the next logical step is for Bodrov to work toward establishing himself as an RSL regular with Lada. He’s well on his way after his encouraging rookie season last year, but will now have to prove that he can handle an increased workload and more responsibilities than before.
19. (20) Chris Zarb, D, 21
2004 entry draft (5th round, 144th overall)
Zarb arrived at Ferris State University last season after establishing himself as perhaps the best all-around defenseman in the USHL over the previous two campaigns with the Tri-City Storm. He made an immediate impact on the Bulldogs roster, stepping right in as one of the team’s top rearguards and logging loads of ice time.
The San Diego native’s transition to the collegiate game has been aided by his outstanding puck skills and strong sense for the game. Zarb did not manage to score a goal as a freshman, finishing with 10 assists in 29 games. But, his coaches believe the offense will come with time.
For last season, at least, the focus was more on his play in his own end, though he did see extensive time on the Bulldogs’ special teams units, quarterbacking the power play and killing penalties regularly.
Zarb is a tall, lanky rearguard who possesses a good frame (6’4, 197 lbs.), but has a lot of filling out to do. He will only benefit from adding muscle as his NCAA career advances, but he is already very strong on the puck and plays a very poised game in all areas of the ice. He skates remarkably well for a player his size. He possesses a good, heavy shot, makes crisp, accurate passes, and keenly uses his long reach to break up plays.
Look for Zarb to continue his development, and take on more responsibilities and a leadership role, in his sophomore season with the Bulldogs.
20. (NR) Joonas Lehtivuori, D, 18
2006 entry draft (4th round, 101st overall)
One of only two Finnish defensemen drafted this year, Lehtivuori is a strong-skating puck-carrier who has been reared in his hometown Tampere system since the tender age of five.
Lehtivuori was there to win both Jr. C gold in 2004 and Jr. B gold in 2006. His stock has risen more recently, with very strong national team performances in 2005-06, from junior Euro Hockey Tour to the Viking Cup and the U18 WC, from which he returned with a silver medal.
Lehtivuori’s greatest strength is how he moves the puck. However, unlike a typical power play quarterback, he isn’t that often involved in scoring, which sometimes shows in his point totals. When facing strong opposition, he is mainly supporting the offense and carrying the puck in all zones, and he is very valuable as such.
Although one would think that the new NHL is a blessing for a defenseman as small as Lehtivuori, that isn’t quite the case as he may struggle to stop a forward without resorting to obstruction. His impressive hockey sense still keeps him in the play when on the defensive.
Finland hasn’t sent a true finesse defenseman to the NHL since Lehtivuori’s idol Kimmo Timonen, so Lehtivuori’s career path is difficult to picture in a world where the expiration of draft rights draws players to North America at an early age.
Lehtivuori’s development is hard to predict, but the potential to become a second-pairing NHL defenseman is there.
Pekka Lampinen contributed to this article. Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.