A seemingly-endless parade of injuries to key members of the parent Philadelphia Flyers created a revolving-door effect for the Phantoms last season. Just when one veteran would return to the lineup, it seemed, two more were lost to the disabled list, and someone new from the AHL was recalled to fill the gap.
Unfortunately for one of the NHL’s most proud organizations, it’s been more of the same thus far in 2006-07. The only difference is that the Flyers, contenders through all of the adversity of the previous year, have been uncharacteristically mired at or near the bottom of the league standings from the outset of the campaign.
Though team officials have been extremely hesitant to publicly admit it, the Flyers have essentially entered into a rebuilding phase for the first time in well over a decade. And, thus, the Phantoms have played a major role in shaping the current structure of the NHL team as well as helping to map the franchise’s blueprint for the future.
Overall, an NHL-leading 15 different players have seen action with both the Flyers and Phantoms this season. The Phantoms have suited up an AHL-high 36 players to this point.
The team has endured instability off the ice as well. The early-season firing of Ken Hitchcock as Flyers head coach had a trickle-down effect on the organization, which started with John Stevens being named as his replacement. Stevens tabbed then-Phantoms bench boss Craig Berube to join his staff as an assistant, thus resulting in Berube’s assistant, Kjell Samuelsson, taking over the reins of the AHL team.
Paul Holmgren, at the same time, became the new general manager of both the Flyers and Phantoms, replacing Bob Clarke, who resigned the same day Hitchcock was relieved of his duties.
“It has been a tumultuous year in many respects,” explained Holmgren. “There has been a lot of change, a lot of activity, no question. But, the bottom line is, we believe we have a number of bright, talented young players in our organization. Some of the players we expected to play with the Phantoms this season have already found their way to the big club, due to the situation we’ve found ourselves in.
“Growing pains are to be expected, and it’s certainly going to take some players a while to adjust and feel comfortable at either the AHL or NHL level. All in all, though, we feel we are heading in the right direction and continue to look forward to watching our young players improve and grow together.”
The Phantoms entered their 11th season of existence with a relatively young team and a ton of question marks, particularly at the forward positions. The team was set to rely heavily on the contributions of sophomore Stefan Ruzicka and first-year pro Ryan Potulny, but neither stayed with the team for long.
Ruzicka, a native of Nitra, Slovakia who enjoyed a very strong two-year stint with the Owen Sound Attack of the OHL from 2003-05 and Potulny, an offensive force in three seasons at the University of Minnesota, have essentially been playing as Flyers regulars since being recalled a few weeks back. Both may be with the NHL team for good.
Ruzicka still ranks fourth on the Phantoms in scoring, despite having appeared in only 11 games with the team. He tallied 13 points (7 goals, 6 assists), a -3 rating and 13 PIMs with the Orange and Purple, and thus far has three points (1 goal, 2 assists), a -3 rating and four PIMs in 12 games with the Flyers.
Potulny remains fifth on the Phantoms with 12 points (7 goals, 5 assists), to go along with a +3 rating and 12 PIMs, in 12 games with the Phantoms. The Grand Forks, ND native recently notched his first NHL goal, and presently has accumulated three total points, a -2 rating and six PIMs in eight games with the big club.
“Ryan and Stefan are basically getting the chance to show what they can do [for the Flyers], and they’ve both done very well thus far,” Holmgren explained. “Again, these are two players who were expected to play primarily with the Phantoms this year. Ryan is a rookie and Stephan is a second-year guy. Both came in with excellent credentials, but it’s a lot to ask of them so soon, to play in the NHL and contribute.
“It’s a real learning experience for both of them, as it is with all of the young players who have and are getting an opportunity with the Flyers this year. It’s up to them to make the best of it, but all we can ask for at this point is effort and consistency. Again, both Ryan and Stefan have shown us both thus far, and we have very high hopes for both players.”
Another player presently on recall to the Flyers, albeit in what is assumed to be a temporary situation, is fourth-year pro Matt Ellison. The 23-year-old left winger has endured a series of nagging injuries, but has consistently been one of the Phantoms top two-way players when he has been in the lineup.
Ellison has only played in 14 of the team’s 27 games so far. Regardless, he currently ranks seventh on the squad with 11 points (4 goals, 7 assists), to go along with eight PIMs and a -4 rating.
“Ellison is a gamer, a guy who goes out and plays hard every night,” said Holmgren. “He’s one of a number of players just trying to find his place right now. But, he does a lot for the Phantoms, both in even strength and special teams situations. He’s a player we like, but it’s really a matter of just finding a place for him to play at this point.”
Russian-born Denis Tolpeko is one of the more intriguing rookies on the team. Fresh off of a three-year, two-team stint in the WHL, the 21-year-old left winger has been a solid contributor at both ends of the rink, and currently ranks ninth on the team in scoring with nine points (3 goals, 6 assists) in 19 games.
“Denis is a player who is still adjusting to the pro game, another one of our rookies,” said Holmgren. “He’s shown some promise, after coming out of the WHL, where he played for Regina and Seattle. He put up pretty good numbers in junior (111 points in 149 games) and, with all of the players we have going back and forth from the Flyers, will be called upon to develop into an offensive leader for the Phantoms.”
Left winger Frederik Cabana is the team’s youngest player at age 20 (he won’t turn 21 until mid-May). He has, however, already established himself as a viable two-way threat and is relied upon by coach Samuelsson as one of the team’s top penalty-killers. Cabana, who is coming off of a four-year stint with the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL, has registered nine points (1 goal, 8 assists), a +1 rating and 48 PIMs (second most on the team to Triston Grant’s 82).
Another rookie, Gino Pisellini, has played in a limited checking line role thus far. The former Plymouth Whaler (OHL) captain was expected to start the season with the Trenton Titans in ECHL, but has gotten a chance to play in the AHL due to all the injuries on the Flyers’ roster.
Pisellini, a native of Melrose Park, IL, has two points (1 goal, 1 assist), a -1 rating and 25 PIMs in 15 games for the Phantoms to this point.
“Cabana has done a real nice job for us as a rookie,” said Holmgren. “He’s a good, solid checking line guy who can play a few different positions and kills penalties. Freddy was somewhat of an agitator in juniors and I think he’s growing well into that role here with the Phantoms. We project him to be a guy who could make the Flyers eventually if he continues to do all of those little things well, and perhaps adds a bit more offense to his game.”
“Pisellini is a player who, under normal circumstances, probably would have started the season with Trenton in the ECHL. But, he’s had a chance to play due to injuries and other factors, and has done a good job for us thus far. He adds a lot of muscle and is a solid physical presence on the ice.”
With Riley Cote having been limited to just three games thus far due to injury, sophomore Triston Grant has been called upon to serve as the Phantoms primary enforcer this season. The 22-year-old left winger presently leads the team in PIMs by a healthy margin with 82 (the next-highest, Cabana, has 48).
Grant has appeared in 17 games with the Phantoms, registering five points (3 goals, 2 assists). He made his NHL debut earlier in the season, seeing action in eight games with the Flyers and tallying one assist.
“Triston is a guy we always look to for energy and to keep other teams in line,” said Holmgren. “He got into a handful of games with the Flyers earlier this year and looked pretty good. He has a great attitude and is real team-oriented guys. Obviously, it takes a lot more than fighting to make it in [today’s NHL], but Triston has some skill and is a capable two-way contributor.”
Just as Potulny and Ruzicka were originally expected to be prime contributors to the Phantoms’ forward corps this season, it was assumed that Alexandre Picard would continue to emerge as a leader on the backline for the team. Instead, however, the Gatineau, PQ native was also recalled to the Flyers amid a wave of injuries to the NHL club in late October.
Picard, who registered three points (1 goal, 2 assists), a +4 rating and 2 PIMs in six games with the Phantoms, has been a pleasant surprise for the Flyers. He has contributed immediately, playing well at both ends of the rink and in special teams situations. Picard actually ranks second on the Flyers among rearguards in scoring to Joni Pitkanen, with eight points (2 goals, 6 assists) in 18 games.
While he has also made his fair share of mistakes thus far, his -13 rating is much more indicative of the team’s overall struggles than it is the quality of his own play.
“Alex was probably the Phantoms best defenseman during the first few games of the season, before he was recalled to the Flyers,” said Holmgren. “And, honestly, since he’s come up to the NHL, he’s been one of the Flyers best defensemen as well. He’s a player the Phantoms definitely miss, because he’s very consistent and smooth, and can do a lot of things at both ends of the rink.
“We’re going to give Alex every opportunity to stick with the Flyers. Barring something unexpected, I don’t think we’ll be seeing him back down in the AHL at all, quite frankly. Another full year in the AHL might have been good for his development, but he looks to be ready for the NHL now. He’s looked particularly at home on the power play for [the Flyers], which, of course, is an excellent sign.”
Like Picard, Jussi Timonen has also found his way across the parking lot to the bright lights of the Wachovia Center rink. Timonen, the younger brother of Nashville Predators star defenseman Kimmo Timonen, came to North America from Finland at age 23 prior to the season. He started with the Phantoms, notching eight points in 17 games while earning fairly substantial minutes early in the campaign.
It wasn’t long, however, before Timonen was summoned to the Flyers, where he was paired right away with countryman Pitkanen. The two established an immediate chemistry and, despite the team’s general struggles and their own ups and downs, continue to show promise as a duo. Timonen has four assists, a -9 rating and four PIMs in 12 games with the Flyers thus far.
“We liked what we saw out of Timonen in training camp and earlier this season,” said Holmgren. “This is also his first year in North America, so adjustment is expected. We didn’t necessarily plan to have him playing for the Flyers so soon, but he has formed a nice pairing with Joni Pitkanen, a fellow Finn. They seem to have some chemistry together, and that is definitely something we’re hoping to continue to see develop.”
While Picard and Timonen have, in many ways, exceeded expectations to this point, Lars Jonsson is considered by most to be, at least, a minor disappointment. The former Boston Bruins first round draft pick (7th overall, 2000) was a summertime free-agent pickup of the Flyers, who hoped that the Swedish native could make a quick transition to the North American game and help them on the power play.
Jonsson has been somewhat of an enigma, while splitting time with the Flyers and Phantoms. The fact that he has yet to stick with the big team, despite all the injuries and while Picard and Timonen have done so, speaks volumes for where the organization believes he is at in his development.
Jonsson, who is on recall to the Flyers at this time, has recorded two assists, a -4 rating and six PIMs in eight games with the parent club. He had eight points (1 goal, 7 assists), a -2 rating and eight PIMs in 13 games with the Phantoms prior.
“Lars has had a lot of ups and downs so far,” said Holmgren. “His skill level is really apparent, especially in the way he moves the puck up the ice and in power-play situations. There have also been times where he’s really struggled. It’s an adjustment period for Lars, for sure. He’s going to make turnovers and needs more experience in the physical game [in North America].
“He’ll continue to get some chances with the Flyers, but we really need Lars to focus on his consistency and decision-making. He has a lot of potential, and has the ability to be a regular NHL defenseman. It just could take some more time.”
Rounding out the Phantoms’ young defensive core is Nate Guenin, a former draft pick of the New York Rangers who went unsigned after a solid NCAA career at Ohio State. The Flyers acquired the 6’2, 210 lb. Sewickley, PA native over the summer via free agency, and have thus far been pleased with is output.
Guenin made a name for himself with the Buckeyes, not for his offense, but for his sound defensive play, his physical presence and leadership skills. He is currently has five points (1 goal, 4 assists), a -11 rating and 29 PIMs for the Phantoms.
“We regard to Guenin, we thought he was a strong pickup for us this summer,” said Holmgren. “He’s another big, strong kid who brings a lot of leadership to the table. He’s a character guy, which is something we really like. Nate has done a good job clearing the crease and taking care of his own end so far. We think he has NHL potential, but he’s going to have to continue to work hard to get to the next level.”
As 20-year-old rookies, Rejean Beauchemin and Martin Houle received a true education in (and a rather rude introduction to) the professional game last season. With veteran backup Jamie Storr on recall to the Flyers for much of the year, the two netminders endured a long, trying campaign that saw them face a ton of shots and plenty of adversity while playing behind a very inexperienced team.
Not much has changed in that regard this season. Scott Munroe, 24, a product of the University of Alabama-Huntsville, has been added to the mix, after seeing action in a handful of games at the end of last year. All three goalies have struggled in the midst of a very difficult situation.
Statistically, and perhaps surprisingly, Munroe has been the best of the trio thus far. The Moose Jaw, SK native has an unimpressive 3-6-0-1 record, but owns a very respectable 3.20 goals against average and .906 save percentage. Houle is 5-6-0-2, with a high 3.84 GAA and .887 save percentage, while Beauchemin has lagged behind with a 2-5-0-0 mark, 4.68 GAA and .850 save percentage.
“We have a very unique situation with three young goaltenders here,” said Holmgren. “Rej, Martin and Scotty have all been faced with a lot of adversity this season, and it’s been really tough on them. All three have excellent outlooks and always stay on the positive side of things.
“I don’t know that any of the three can be accurately judged yet, especially based on statistics. They have all faced a lot of shots and have been under pressure every night, playing for a young, inexperienced team that has not had the luxury of a stable lineup in front of them. We have a young defense, so inexperience is a real factor also.”
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.