Erik Gustafsson leads Philadelphia Flyers HF prospect awards

By Chris Shafer

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Photo: Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Oliver Lauridsen had a solid showing in his 15-game call-up to the NHL this season. (courtesy of Jerome Davis/Icon SMI)

The prospect pool for the Philadelphia Flyers is consistently one of the more diminished gatherings of young talent every year, but they rarely miss on top-end talent when given the opportunity to acquire it. Because of their lack of picks and their aggressive style of team-building, it is far more important for the organization to consistently hit on their high draft picks as well as attract some of the better free agent prospects on the market every year.

Though the Flyers prospect awards have names like Scott Laughton and Erik Gustafsson this season, do not expect the same names a year from now.

Prospect of the Year: Scott Laughton, C, Oshawa Generals (OHL)

When veteran Ian Laperriere, now the Flyers' Director of Player Development, traveled north to watch Scott Laughton play in the 2012-13 OHL post-season, he found only praise for the team's young center. Laperriere was told my numerous scouts from other organizations that Scott Laughton was the best player in the OHL. Though many young OHL prospects over the past couple of years have already made the jump to pro hockey, it still puts Laughton on a short list above a number of players taken ahead of him in 2012 including Slater Koekkoek (TB), Cody Ceci (OTT), and Tom Wilson (WAS). On top of that, there were many that thought that Laughton was a snub for Team Canada's World Junior Championship team that finished fourth in Ufa, Russia this year. While there is no way to tell whether or not he could have helped his country medal, there is still a lot to say about his play this season.

Mid-way through his OHL season, Laughton even earned the opportunity to play a five-game stint with the Philadelphia Flyers in which he did not look out of place. Once labeled as a reach at the 20th spot in his draft year, he has certainly gotten a lot of attention in the NHL world right out of the gate. It does not hurt matters that the Flyers' organization has him basically penciled in for NHL duty starting next season, and he will make the full time jump before many others that were placed above him on rankings over the past couple of years. It has been an incredible season for Laughton, and he is only getting better.

Most Improved: Nick Cousins, C, Sault Ste. Mary Greyhounds (OHL)

Nick Cousins had already cemented himself as one of the Flyers' top prospects after a breakout 2011-12 season in which he broke past the point-per-game mark he had hit the year before, but the former third round pick did not get much attention outside of Philadelphia until this past season where he spent much of the year leading the OHL in points. Though he finished third, possibly due to a late season suspension that threw him off track, there is a lot to look forward to in Cousins. Despite his stature he plays a menacing and edgy game suited for the fourth line of almost any NHL team, but he has the skill to play that game from within a team's top six forwards.

This year, where Cousins most notably improved was his ability to overcome his size. He was never the smallest, but he was definitely nowhere close to the biggest amongst his peers. This hurt his draft stock in 2011 a bit, but if he can figure out a way to continue to add muscle through his pro career, he can be an interesting NHL player down the road. Though he does not have the well-rounded game that Laughton has, the young center has a unique skill set that can potentially make other teams miserable when they play the Flyers. The only question that remains is whether he will continue on as a center within the organization. His play-style and abilities make him a prime candidate to move to the outside, and since the organization already has a backlog down the middle, Cousins' will likely have to show off some versatility to make the NHL jump.

Best Defensive Prospect: Erik Gustafsson, D, Philadelphia Flyers (NHL)

It was a long time coming for Erik Gustafsson, but after three years in the professional game, the stars are finally aligning to allow the young blueliner to become a consistent NHL player. There have been attempts in the past two seasons to get him involved on the Flyers' roster, but things never seemed to work out. This year in particular, he found himself hurt just as the lockout cleared, and when he did finally return, he struggled with consistency against NHL competition. When things finally started to settle down for him by the end of a disappointing campaign for the Orange and Black, Gustafsson emerged as a 24-minute-per-night, puck-moving defenseman.

Going forward, Gustafsson is exactly the type of player the Flyers need. He may not be a replacement down the road for veteran Kimmo Timonen, but at least for next year, he can help alleviate some of the strain put on the back-end with the departure of Matt Carle. He also puts less stress on the organization to trade for a puck-moving defenseman using one of their young centers, or to select one in the upcoming draft with their 11th overall pick.

Fastest Skater: Eric Wellwood, LW, Adirondack Phantoms (AHL)

For the second year in a row, Eric Wellwood wins the fastest skater competition by a wide margin. Though his season did not go as well as it did the previous year, he is still one of the fastest things on skates with NHL experience. That was not enough to help him this year though. He was sent back down to Glens Falls after a four-game tryout as the fourth line center, a position that really did not suit him. The jury is out whether or not he would have been able to hold out against guys like Laughton, Cousins, Jason Akeson, or Kyle Flanagan for a forward position on the Flyers next season. There are a lot of talented players within the organizational pool that could potentially bring more to the table, and it certainly does not help matters that Wellwood's offensive game has never really materialized.

Things worsened significantly for Wellwood on April 7th this year though as the Phantoms were entering the final stretch for the 2012-13 season. In bizarre accident, the young speedster tripped and caught a skate in the lower leg that severed a tendon and caused vascular damage. Though he went immediately into surgery, the rehab process will likely be long, and many are left wondering if this will be an end to his blazing speed.

Hardest Shot: Oliver Lauridsen, D, Adirondack Phantoms (AHL)

While Marc-Andre Bourdon has been off the ice for a bit dealing with post-concussion issues, Oliver Lauridsen has usurped him as the hardest shot winner within the Flyers' prospect pool. Nicknamed "The Great Dane," the 6'6 massive defenseman uses every bit of his wingspan to get great velocity on the puck during a slapshot. His hard and accurate shot is something the Flyers have really missed with injuries to both Bourdon and veteran Andrej Meszaros.

Overachiever: Oliver Lauridsen, D, Adirondack Phantoms (AHL)

While certainly making strides developmentally, no one could have predicted that Lauridsen would get the opportunity to play with the Flyers this quickly. The second-year pro was very raw with footspeed problems after signing with the organization out of St. Cloud State, but he showed that he could compete at the NHL level this season during emergency call-ups. While the blue line was plagued with injuries, Lauridsen got his chance to shine and performed well through 13 games. Though he did not have the same kind of impact as the emerging Gustafsson, he was vital in helping the Flyers finish with a record above the .500 mark.

While what Lauridsen has accomplished is impressive, he is still needs work to be an NHL regular. He has problems handling the puck, and though he projects as a potential steady fifth or sixth defenseman, the Flyers have plenty of defensively sound players both on the roster and in the pool. What the Flyers need right now are guys like Gustafsson who can move the puck while veterans like Braydon Coburn and Nicklas Grossmann steady the back-end.

Underachiever: Brandon Manning, D, Adirondack Phantoms (AHL)

One of the players that Lauridsen jumped on the Flyers' defensive call-up list was two-way defenseman Brandon Manning, who had shown he could hang with the guys on a four-game call-up in the 2011-12 season. This year, with Bourdon and Gustafsson both dealing with injury at the time, it was Lauridsen who got the call instead of Manning, displaying just how poor of a season the former Chilliwack Bruins captain was having in Glens Falls. Though he was given the "A"-patch for the year, he struggled with defensive consistency, and he did not progress well offensively.

Once more injuries piled up though, Manning was again called up for a four-game stint to close out the 2012-13 season, and though he went slightly unnoticed compared to the play of Lauridsen, he certainly performed well enough to get a long look in camp in the upcoming offseason. Manning possesses the IQ, skating ability, physicality, defensive aptitude, and offensive potential that could really help the Flyers down the road. If he rebounds from his poor season, there could very well be a future for him in the NHL.

Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Anthony Stolarz, G, London Knights (OHL)

After starting the season as a back-up on the University of Nebraska-Omaha squad in the NCAA, Anthony Stolarz decided it was in his best interest to journey to the OHL where he became the starting goaltender for the London Knights. Though he was extremely raw at the time, he became an out-of-the-gate success for the Knights as they dominated the close of the 2012-13 OHL season through to the playoffs. Once in the postseason, their young netminder performed extremely well and helped the Knights win their second straight OHL championship.

The elephant in the room with Stolarz is whether or not he is just a product of the extremely talented London Knights team. Other Flyers goaltending prospects have been in this position before, and with his numbers off the charts, it will be hard for the young goalie to repeat the kind of success he has had over the last couple of months. The real question will be answered in the upcoming years. The Flyers are looking for long-term consistency, and there is always caution when goaltending is discussed in Philadelphia.

Hardest Worker: Jason Akeson, RW, Adirondack Phantoms (AHL)

Because of the NHL lockout, Jason Akeson began the season with a temporary demotion to the Trenton Titans of the ECHL. Though this was really no fault of his own, the young center was forced to spend 14 games in a lower league before getting the call-up to once again rejoin the Phantoms in his second pro season. He handled his demotion well and ended up finishing as the lead scorer for the Phantoms once again.

Akeson has all the shifty tools of any NHL passer and a good offensive skill-set. The question with his game was always about size and defensive responsibility. Though he has worked extremely hard to correct these mistakes, he will never be an all-world, two-way player in the NHL. That does not mean that he cannot help an NHL team like the Flyers.

As a good friend of Claude Giroux, Akeson has spent time in the off-seasons training with his teammate, who is from the same area of Ontario. Giroux also happens to be an NHL star and could only help the younger, shifty forward develop the kind of game that Giroux himself plays. Akeson was rewarded for his hard work and commitment to playing despite his demotion with an NHL game on Giroux's wing. In that game, Akeson netted a slick top shelf snipe against Ottawa Senator goaltender Craig Anderson to open scoring with the assist coming from Giroux.

Whether or not Akeson can make the NHL squad next season remains to be seen, but he will certainly get a long look at offseason camps. He has all the skill to add depth on the wing to the Flyers' roster which could always use additional scoring.

Breakout Player for the 2012-13 Season: Erik Gustafsson, D, Adirondack Phantoms (AHL)

It is hard to imagine a Flyers' defense next season that does not include Gustafsson. He is exactly the guy they need right now. In his first real consistent opportunity, he has shown that he can not only handle strong minutes from the blue line, but also remain a calm force moving the puck through the neutral zone. With Timonen being the only defenseman on the Flyers to perform well on the scorecard this season, the Flyers need someone who can help navigate the ice to produce some even strength offense. Whether or not they add more depth during the offseason in that regard, Gustafsson can be that guy.

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