There are no shortage of intriguing storylines and possibilities as the Flyers prepare to open their 41st preseason training camp on Friday morning, at the SkateZone in Voorhees, NJ.
On the whole, the Orange and Black will be looking to put the worst season in its storied history in the rear-view mirror. General manager Paul Holmgren, entering his first full season at the helm, has been universally praised for quickly rebuilding the team’s farm system, while adding quality players to its NHL roster, via free agency and trades.
Whether or not the Flyers can rebound and climb back into playoff contention in 2007-08 is rightfully the main theme heading into camp. At the same time, there is a great deal of optimism surrounding the youthful core of the organization, a group Holmgren has noted as being one of the strongest to take the ice in Philadelphia in many years.
Much of the attention in camp will center around two of the most promising forwards in the Flyers system: Steve Downie and Claude Giroux. The team’s top prospect, left winger James vanRiemsyk (2007, second overall) will not be in camp, as he prepares to begin his NCAA career at the University of New Hampshire this season.
For Downie, the long, winding road to Philadelphia is finally complete. After a controversial, but highly-successful, four-year stint with three teams in the OHL, the rugged right wing is poised to make his mark. The main question is, will he make the Flyers or begin his pro career with the Phantoms?
Downie, the team’s first-round pick in 2005 (29th overall), arrived in town earlier this summer in phenomenal shape. His trademark intensity has been on display, even in friendly scrimmages and casual skating sessions with teammates. Look for him to make an impact, one way or another, during the preseason.
Giroux, meanwhile, is most likely to be returned to his junior team, the Gatineau Olympiques of the QMJHL, after camp. However, Holmgren has made it clear that the 19-year-old speedster will get a long, hard look in camp. A strong performance could land him a surprise spot, especially considering that he did sign a contract with the Flyers this past summer.
This will be Giroux’s second camp with the team, which selected him in the first round (22nd overall) in 2006.
Somewhat lost in the shuffle of names, it would seem, is second-year pro Ryan Potulny. The former University of Minnesota star has been plagued by injuries during his brief pro career, having appeared in only 67 combined games with the Flyers and Phantoms thus far.
The Grand Forks, ND native is on the bubble heading into training camp, though his strong performance over the second half of last year with the Flyers (12 points in 35 games) will work in his favor. Potulny’s primary challenge is to remain healthy through camp and beyond. His offensive ability and improved all-around play make him a darkhorse player in the Flyers system.
It would appear to be do-or-die time for Stefan Ruzicka. Now entering his third pro season, the Slovakian native has a lot to prove. After a pair of up-and-down seasons with the Phantoms and a stint in Flyers head coach John Stevens’ dog house last year, he will need a strong camp and a solid season to stick with the organization.
Ruzicka possesses skill and his offensive ability is evident. But, his work ethic remains in serious question. He looked impressive at times during a 41-game run with the Flyers last year, during which he tallied 13 points (three goals, 10 assists). Still, he will have to turn in a effective, consistent effort in camp to earn a spot with the team on opening night.
One player who is expected to turn some heads is Mario Kempe, a 2007 draft selection (fifth round, 122nd overall) who scored 42 points in 62 games as a rookie with the St. John’s Fog Devils of the QMJHL last season. The 5’11, 180-pounder from Sweden possesses blazing speed and has a number of flashy moves in his repertoire.
While the 19-year-old forward would figure to be a longshot to make the Flyers, stranger things have happened. In all likelihood, he will return to the Q, where he could blossom into one of the circuit’s elite offensive performers this season.
Other longshots to make the Flyers out of camp include Frederik Cabana, Jonathan Matsumoto and Denis Tolpeko.
Cabana impressed as a 20-year-old rookie with the Phantoms last season, notching 19 points (four goals, five assists) and 78 PIMs in 61 games. Matsumoto left Bowling Green University after stellar junior season, joining the Phantoms late last year. Tolpeko enjoyed an unheralded rookie season with the AHL team last year, finishing sixth on the team with 30 points (11 goals, 19 assists) in 58 games.
Ditto for David Laliberte, a former Flyer draftee (124th overall in 2004), who returned to the organization after overcoming a career-threatening back injury. Laliberte’s rights were lost after the team decided not to sign him following the 2005-06 campaign.
He was signed after enjoying a renaissance with the P.E.I. Rocket last year, proving he was healthy again en route to posting 98 points (50 goals, 48 assists) in 68 games as an overager.
At this stage, there would appear to be few, if any, potential openings on the Flyers blue line, with veterans Kimmo Timonen, Jason Smith, Derian Hatcher and Denis Gauthier, and second-year returnees Lasse Kukkonen and Braydon Coburn penciled in for the opening night roster.
A few players, such as fourth-year pro Randy Jones remain on the bubble at this point.
Coburn, in particular, will be one of the most watched players in camp this season. The multi-talented, 6’5, 220 lb. defender was acquired from the Atlanta Thrashers for veteran Alexei Zhitnik at last season’s trade deadline. The move was considered to be Holmgren’s shrewdest to date, as he acquired a former first-round pick (eighth overall in 2003) and potential franchise cornerstone for an aging spare part.
After coming to the Flyers, Coburn proved to be a valuable component on a blue line in the midst of being reconstructed. He appeared in 20 games for the team down the stretch in 2006-07, registering seven points (three goals, four assists) and 16 PIMs, while playing big minutes in all game situations.
Coburn would appear to be a lock to reclaim a spot on the Flyers’ roster this year, but he will have to have a strong camp to ensure it. Regardless, he is presently viewed as one of the most important pieces of the team’s future puzzle.
The same can be said for Ryan Parent, a four-year standout with the Guelph Storm of the OHL, who will be turning pro this season. Parent, who also starred on the blue line for Team Canada’s gold medal-winning entries at the World Junior Championships in each of the past two years, was also acquired at the trade deadline last season (in this case, as part of the big Peter Forsberg trade with the Nashville Predators).
Parent’s training camp performance will decide whether he makes the Flyers or begins his pro career in the AHL. Interestingly, Holmgren has noted that the Prince Albert, SK native has a strong shot at making the quick jump to the NHL, due to his overall maturity and outstanding skating ability.
One potential victim of the numbers crunch is third-year pro Alexander Picard. After starting last season with the Phantoms, Picard was recalled to help fill in while the spiraling Flyers suffered huge losses to injury on the blueline. The then-21-year-old went on to appear in 61 games with the big club, sticking with the team and proving to be one of its most reliable defenders.
With the recent additions and potential promotion of Parent, there would figure to be very little room for Picard on the Flyers’ roster, at least at the start of the season. He will be looking to prove otherwise in camp; at the very least, if he is sent to the Phantoms initially, Picard will likely be the Flyers’ top defensive call-up candidate.
While Picard’s status remains up in the air, it is being assumed that rookie rearguard Oskars Bartulis will begin his pro career with the Phantoms.
The Latvian import is fresh off of a strong three-year stint in the QMJHL with the Moncton Wildcats and Cape Breton Screaming Eagles. A strong two-way performer who has drawn comparisons to former Flyer Petr Svoboda, Bartulis has seen his stock rise considerably over the past few years. Still, at least one year of seasoning in the AHL appears to be in the cards for the 20-year-old.
Another intriguing prospect, 2007 second-round draftee Kevin Marshall, will be making his training camp debut for the Flyers this year. Marshall, a standout performer on the blue line for last season’s QMJHL champion Lewiston MAINEiacs, is practically a lock to be sent back to juniors. This will be a valuable opportunity, however, for the rough-and-tumble rearguard to make a positive impression on the Flyers’ brass.
If the Flyers have an organizational weakness in terms of position, it’s between the pipes. The team appears set at the NHL level, with veteran Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki manning the nets. Beyond that, however, it’s a very mixed bag.
This summer, Holmgren proclaimed former University of Alabama-Huntsville standout Scott Munroe to be the team’s top goaltending prospect, a somewhat surprising assessment. While Munroe enjoyed a solid rookie season with the Phantoms in 2006-07 for a mediocre team, he is still considered by most observers to be an NHL longshot.
Munroe beat out 21-year-old incumbents Martin Houle and Rejean Beauchemin for the Phantoms’ starting role over the course of last season. Beauchemin, once considered a very promising prospect, only appeared in seven games for the AHL team, and would up finishing the campaign on loan to the Bakersfield Condors of the ECHL.
Having Munroe, Houle and Beauchemin return to battle it out for minutes with the Phantoms would have been complicated enough. However, Holmgren made the competition even more intriguing by signing former Flyer Brian Boucher and 2005 draftee Jeremy Duchesne over the summer.
Boucher is expected to serve as the Phantoms starter initially, but could move up to the Flyers should either Biron or Niittymaki falter or get hurt. Even under such a scenario, that would leave only two spots on the Phantoms for four players to battle for, as the Flyers do not want to carry more than two goaltenders on their AHL affiliate.
Consider also that the team’s new ECHL affiliate, the Wheeling Nailers, is being shared with the Pittsburgh Penguins. It has already been reported that the Pens plan on sending two netminders to Wheeling, which means that the training camp battle between Munroe, Houle, Beauchemin and Duchesne could quickly decide who has a future with the organization.
The Flyers generally hold a prospect mini-camp over the summer, but opted to bring in their young organization hopefuls just before the start of the main camp this year. Physicals, on and off-ice drills and intra-squad scrimmages were held over a five-day span, starting last Saturday.
A total of 30 players took part, with forwards Downie and Kempe and defenseman Parent the primary standouts. Giroux did not arrive in the Philadelphia area until Tuesday, due to his participation with Team Canada in its Super Series against Russia.
Giroux finishing with a total of three goals and five assists in the eight-game series.
The Flyers camp wrapped up with a scrimmage against a team of Washington Capitals prospects in Voorhees on Wednesday. The Flyers took the game, 5-3, with Kempe notching two goals, and Downie, Giroux and David Laliberte each netting one apiece.
Head coach John Stevens was happy with the overall results of the camp. “I thought it was very well done and well organized,” he told philadelphiaflyers.com. “We got the [fitness] testing in for those guys, they got a lot of good instruction on the ice, and it culminates with a game at the end of the week.
“It’s a real good preparation for these guys heading into pro camp because it’s going to escalate and the tempo’s going to go up. They should be comfortable around here in their surroundings and then settle in and hopefully get some experience playing against pros.”
The Clarke Cup
Stevens also noted that he intends to place a heavy emphasis on competition from the start of training camp, due to the number of new faces and young players fighting for spots in the organization.
Along with Holmgren and the rest of his coaching staff, which consists of returning assistant Terry Murray and first-year assistants Joe Mullen and Jack McIlhargey, the sophomore bench boss has devised a plan that will see the camp roster broken down into four mini-squads that will compete in a round-robin tournament.
The unit that wins the challenge, which runs from Friday to Sunday, will capture the first annual “Clarke Cup” (named, of course, after all-time Flyers great Bobby Clarke). In a further nod to the franchise’s rich history, each of the squads will bear the name of a hall-of-fame member of the organization.
“Terry Murray had the suggestion and we all agreed that it was a good one,” said Stevens. “The Flyers have such a rich tradition that we figured, why not take some of the Hall-of-Famers and put them as the names of the teams?”
The breakdown of the teams is as follows (with tentative line combinations as specified by the coaching staff):
Simon Gagne – Danny Briere – Mike Knuble
Kyle Greentree – Frederik Cabana – Jesse Boulerice
Garrett Klotz – Pete Zingoni – Darroll Powe
Flyers preseason schedule
SEPT 17 at New Jersey Devils (Trenton, NJ)
SEPT 18 vs. Ottawa Senators (London, ON)
SEPT 22 at New York Rangers
SEPT 24 vs. New Jersey Devils
SEPT 25 at Ottawa Senators
SEPT 26 vs. Washington Capitals
SEPT 28 at Washington Capitals
SEPT 29 vs. New York Rangers