Flyers training camp preview

By Al Alven

As the Philadelphia Flyers prepare to kick off their 40th season of operation with the commencement of training camp this Friday in Voorhees, NJ, the team appears to be in no worse than solid shape, from top to bottom.

Still, as with most NHL organizations, general manager Bob Clarke’s squad remains faced with a variety of intriguing uncertainties.

The forward lineup, for instance, appeared to be generally set after the re-signing of star winger Simon Gagne and the acquisitions of a handful of lower-profile free agents during the offseason. But the news of captain Keith Primeau’s decision to retire creates a number of interesting dilemmas.

The biggest question marks for the Flyers – and, thus, the area where the best opportunities for young players to break through – are on the blueline. There, at least two positions appear to be available, with no shortage of competition sure to come from those waiting in the wings.

At this point, the only area in which direct competition for a roster spot from a prospect does not figure to be an issue is in net. The team is once again planning to go with the Robert Esche/Antero Niittymaki tandem to at least start the campaign.

With all of these factors in mind, the following is a position-by-position look at the prospects who stand, at the very least, an outside shot at making the Flyers’ roster out of training camp or at some other point this season.

Forwards

Unlike last year, when heralded rookies Jeff Carter and Mike Richards arrived on the scene, there are no young players who can be considered virtual locks to make the Flyers roster out of camp this time around. However, several players do possess the ability to at least force the team to make some difficult decisions.

Heading the list in that regard is third-year pro Ben Eager. A rough and tumble forward who was a teammate of Carter and Richards on the Philadelphia Phantoms’ (AHL) Calder Cup-winning squad in 2004-05, Eager appeared in 25 games for the Flyers last season.

Had it not been for salary cap restrictions, in fact, he would likely have stuck with the team, especially after developing chemistry and performing admirably on a line with Carter and fellow rookie R.J. Umberger.

Eager is on a bit of a hot seat, as a failure to produce a strong training camp performance could have serious repercussions on his future with the organization. The Ottawa native has looked very strong in pre-camp scrimmages, however, and looks poised for a potential breakthrough season.

Also in the running for a spot is center Ryan Potulny, the University of Minnesota product who led the nation in scoring last season with 63 points (38 goals, 25 assists). Potulny turned pro after the Golden Gophers were eliminated from the NCAA tournament, inking a contract with the Flyers and appearing in two games with the team near the end of the regular season.

Though he is exceptionally-skilled, Potulny still lacks polish. The Flyers could attempt to squeeze him into a checking line-type role, but he is much more likely to benefit from a full season (or at least an extended stint) as a go-to guy in the AHL.

Should the Grand Forks, ND native be assigned to the Phantoms out of camp, he will likely be paired in some capacity with second-year right winger Stefan Ruzicka. Like Potulny, Ruzicka is a talented player who the Flyers are expecting a lot out of from the get-go.

The Slovakian import endured an up-and-down rookie season with a woefully inconsistent Phantoms team in 2005-06, and will be given every chance to showcase his potential explosiveness during the upcoming preseason schedule.

Without a doubt the most intriguing forward prospect on the Flyers’ camp roster (albeit an extreme longshot to make the team) is Steve Downie, the team’s first round pick in 2005 (29th overall) and one of the more controversial figures in hockey last season.

Downie, of course, earned headlines for his on-ice altercation with then-Windsor Spitfires teammate Akim Aliu. He was subsequently suspended and ultimately traded to the Peterborough Petes, for whom he enjoyed a breakout season, notching 50 points (16 goals, 34 assists) in 35 games.

The Flyers signed Downie to a three-year entry-level deal this summer. While he is most likely to be returned to Peterborough for at least one more season of major junior play, the fact that the Flyers were in such a hurry to sign him speaks volumes about his standing within the organization.

Defensemen

If Downie is the Flyers’ most intriguing forward prospect scheduled to take part in this year’s training camp, Lars Jonsson would have to be his equivalent on the blueline.

A first round pick of Boston in 2000 (seventh overall), the Swedish rearguard was never able to come to agreement on a pro contract with the Bruins. He has played his entire career in Sweden up to this point, suiting up most recently with HV71 Jonkoping in 2005-06.

Jonsson has emerged as a talented offensive defenseman in his homeland, drawing praise from fellow countryman Peter Forsberg (a driving force in the Flyers’ decision to sign Jonsson as a free agent this summer). He is a favorite to earn a spot in the team’s top six defensive rotation out of camp.

Should Jonsson falter, however, Alexandre Picard is the next viable option for the Flyers. Actually, there is a solid chance that both Jonsson and Picard could make the team, though one would most likely have to serve as the designated seventh defenseman. Such an arrangement is certainly not ideal for the development of young rearguards, who generally have to play more and gain experience in order to improve.

At any rate, Picard will surely provide Jonsson with some stiff competition during camp. Picard enjoyed a superb freshman season with the Phantoms in 2005-06, serving as one-half of the team’s top defensive pairing with veteran John Slaney. The Gatineau, PQ native is steadily emerging as a solid two-way threat, ironically reminding many of a young version of recently-retired Eric Desjardins.

Beyond Jonsson and Picard, the drop off in potential amongst blueline prospect camp participants is fairly substantial. One player who is something of a wildcard is Jussi Timonen, a Finnish defenseman drafted by the team way back in 2001 (146th overall) who is just now attempting to make the jump to the North American game.

The younger brother of Nashville Predators star Kimmo Timonen, Jussi is a skilled finesse player whom the Flyers envision as a potential good fit in the “new” NHL. His immediate chances for success will depend heavily upon how well he adjusts to the style of play and smaller rinks found on this side of the pond.

Goaltenders

In goal, the Flyers will have a pair of 21-year-old netminders in camp who are, primarily, vying for the Phantoms’ starting role, while looking to make a strong impressions for the future. However, both Martin Houle and Rejean Beauchemin also realize that, with the NHL team’s goaltending situation still unresolved, anything is possible.

For the second straight season, veteran Esche and fan favorite Niittymaki will battle for the Flyers’ starting job. Barring injury, it is expected that one of the two will ultimately be dealt, as the organization is weary of once again entering the postseason fray with no clear-cut No. 1.

Then again, an injury to either Esche or Niittymaki could open an immediate door for Houle or Beauchemin, depending on a variety of factors. The bottom line, of course, is that a strong training camp performance from either or both of these prospects would go a long way in determining how they factor into the Flyers’ future plans.

Preseason schedule

September 20 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (@ Moncton Coliseum)
September 21 vs. New Jersey Devils
September 23 vs. Ottawa Senators
September 24 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (@ John Labatt Centre)
September 26 vs. Washington Capitals
September 28 @ New Jersey Devils
September 29 @ Washington Capitals


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