Schenn, Couturier new top prospects for Philadelphia Flyers

By Chris Roberts
Photo: The eighth overall pick in the 2011 draft, Sean Couturier debuts at the number two spot in the Flyers top-20. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

It will be years before hockey historians decide whether the Flyers made the right decision shipping out their two proven star centers for futures. The answer is never easy or straight forward, but Flyers’ General Manager Paul Holmgren felt the moves to trade Mike Richards and Jeff Carter were vital to the organization’s future. The consequence is a prospect pool front-loaded with marquee forward talent.

The rest of the additions to the pool by means of draft and free agency add a variety of size and talent to a pool that had become stagnant with underachievers and disappointments. The result is a prospect pool and future from which the Flyers’ organization can hope for great things as opposed to just a few fringe NHLers and role players.

1. (NR) Brayden Schenn, C, 8.5C
Acquired via trade with Los Angeles, June 23rd, 2011

20-year-old Brayden Schenn stands at the top of the world of hockey prospects for a very good reason. He managed almost two points per game while in the WHL and notched 18 points in just seven games at the World Juniors. He not only averaged over two and a half points per game but also tied a World Junior Championships record for most points by a Canadian player. He also scored at a point-per-game pace in seven AHL games as well as earning his first two NHL points during an eight game stint with the Los Angeles Kings. Then he was traded for former Selke runner-up and captain of the Philadelphia Flyers Mike Richards.

The past 365 days have been an adventure for Schenn, who seems assured the position of third line center on the Flyers’ opening game roster. The rest will be up to Schenn. He has been tested and has dominated at every possible level with only the NHL standing before him. With the talent, work ethic, and two-way play to make a significant impact at the NHL, it is only a matter of time before he feels right at home as one of the future leaders of this young Flyers’ forward core.

2. (NR) Sean Couturier, C, 8.5C
Drafted 1st round, 8th overall, 2011

When Schenn and Sean Couturier suited up together in quest of World Junior Championship gold in Buffalo this past winter, it is doubtful either suspected they would be competing at the same NHL camp by fall. The trades completed by the Flyers the day before the draft that brought Schenn to Philadelphia were one thing, but for a player of Couturier’s caliber to fall to the organization at eighth overall was even more incredible.

The soft-spoken Couturier fought mononucleosis all season but still managed to improve on his offensive point-per-game. Though he finished with 96 points once again, he did so this time in 58 games for a 1.66 point-per-game average. That number was better than any other player in the 2011 NHL Draft. He was also a significantly better two-way player than any forward mentioned in the same draft realm.

The Flyers’ organization, in need of defensemen, did not hesitate to snag Couturier with their pick while ignoring many talented blueliners such as Dougie Hamilton (BOS). Couturier was the only Canadian player from his draft class to take part in the 2011 World Juniors, and he is among the most NHL-ready players in the draft. Whether the Flyers will use this or opt to give him more time to dominate the junior ranks has yet to be determined. It is one of the biggest questions going into camp this September.

3. (4) Erik Gustafsson, D, 7.0C
Signed as a Free Agent, March 31st, 2010

After being overlooked as an 18-year-old, defenseman Erik Gustafsson is starting to get plenty of attention as a 22-year-old. As a rookie in the AHL, he dropped a 49-point bomb on the league from the blue line while finishing just a point behind the Phantoms’ leading scorer, Denis Hamel. His career AHL point-per-game average, which includes a stint at the end of the 2009-10 season, is at .78.

With the departure of Sean O’Donnell, there is an opening along the Flyers blue line for 2011-12. However, Gustafsson, who demonstrated he can play in the NHL during a brief call-up, will have to battle former prospect Oskars Bartulis and NHL veteran Andreas Lilja for a roster spot.

There is also another interesting development coming along within the Flyers organization that involves Gustafsson. At the end of the 2011-12 season, both Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle are in need of extensions. Gustafsson, whose skill set resembles Carle’s, could down eventually fill a similar role.

4. (3) Eric Wellwood, LW, 6.5B
Drafted 6th round, 172nd overall, 2009

A former sixth round selection, Eric Wellwood has made a name for himself in recent years as an integral part of the Windsor Spitfires back-to-back Memorial Cup Championship teams. While his play was overshadowed by the likes of Taylor Hall, Ryan Ellis, and others, Wellwood had his own niche on the team. The speedy forward became one of the most reliable two-way players on the roster, and once his offensive game developed a little more, he became a significant match-up problem for those lining up against a deep Spitfires’ roster.

Likewise, in his first professional season, Wellwood was not necessarily the highlight of the Phantoms’ team, but despite finishing seventh in scoring on the team, he was the first forward chosen to get regular call-ups with the Flyers. The then 20-year-old impressed all who witnessed his three game NHL stint with incredible speed and a willingness to drive the net. Though he only managed one assist, he left a much larger impression.

When camp opens up in September, Wellwood will find himself in a battle for one remaining top nine position against former prospect Andreas Nodl, recent free-agent signing Matt Read, and the Flyers’ first pick in 2011, Sean Couturier.

5. (5) Brendan Ranford, LW, 7.5D
Drafted 7th round, 209th overall, 2010

It is doubtful that anyone could predict Ranford’s 2010-11 season as soon as the Flyers selected him with the second to last pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. For a hefty portion of the season, he was among the elites in scoring not only in the WHL but in all of Canadian Juniors. A late-season injury, the recovery period that followed, and a suspension tapered his production significantly, but he still finished in a tie for thirteenth in scoring in the WHL with 33 goals and 53 assists for 86 points in 68 games.

Ranford was the 63rd forward chosen out of Canadian Juniors in the 2010 draft. Only 10 of those forwards scored more points than him in 2010-11 and even fewer had a better point-per-game average. For now he will return to the Kamloops Blazers as the only player to notch over 50 points last season. He still needs work on his skating and acceleration, but it is something he has clearly been working on.

6. (NR) Matt Read, RW/C, 6.5C
Signed as a free agent, March 23rd, 2011

A relative unknown to many following Philadelphia hockey when he was signed, Matt Read certainly earned some attention with an 11 game, 13 point campaign with the Phantoms at the end of the 2010-11 season. Despite leading the Bemidji State Beavers in scoring as a sophomore and junior, Read fell to second in scoring as the senior captain of the team. He also received less hype than signings of prior years such as Mike Testwuide and Erik Gustafsson.

The now 25-year-old Read has done everything to give himself a chance to win a starting position in the Flyers’ top nine for 2011-12. He has some legitimate competition though in the defensively responsible Andreas Nodl, the speedy Eric Wellwood, and the highly touted Sean Couturier. While Read does not have incredible stick skills, all-world skating, or the size to handle any opponent, his work ethic keeps him right in the thick of things.

7. (7) Kevin Marshall, D, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 41st overall, 2007

It almost feels as though Kevin Marshall has been floating around the Flyers’ prospect pool waiting for his turn for ages. The 2007 draft pick is now 22 years old and watching James vanRiemsdyk, who was taken a round before him, prepare for his third straight NHL season. Though Marshall’s development has been steady, it has taken a while for him to adapt professionally. On top of that, many of his flaws that revolve around puck-handling and outlet passing have not shown distinct signs of improvement.

Without the ability to move the puck effectively, Marshall may struggle to find a role outside of a pure shut-down defenseman particularly in a system such as the current one run by head coach Peter Laviolette. His talents in the crease, while bodying up opponents along the boards, and skating with forwards in the defensive zone have grown to the point where he can dominate a large part of his competition.

The only thing remaining for Marshall is to take the next step. He managed 14 points in 2010-11, which is a sizable increase from his nine points in his rookie AHL season. There are other obstacles in his way right now though such as prospects Erik Gustafsson and Oliver Lauridsen along with veterans Oskars Bartulis and Andreas Lilja. The recent signing of Blake Kessel does not help matters either, and Colin Suellentrop, who was just drafted by the organization, possesses a very similar skill set.

8. (9) Mike Testwuide, RW, 6.5C
Signed as a free agent, March 19th, 2010

Testwuide was considered one of the most NHL-ready NCAA free agents to come out of school in 2010. While he still has yet to see NHL action, he finished fourth in scoring on the Phantoms with 39 points off of 18 goals and 21 assists, and even though that was significant enough for the team, his defensive game is what really stood out. In 76 games played with the Phantoms, he managed a positive 12 plus/minus rating on a team with a goal differential of negative 51.

Testwuide’s combination of size, intelligence, and defensive awareness could fit right into the new look Flyers as determined by an offseason push to get bigger and more physical on the outside. However, he has competition from all angles once again this year, and even though there are spots open on the NHL roster, there are more skaters than in any recent years that could be qualified to throw their name into that slot.

9. (11) Ben Holmstrom, C, 5.5A
Signed as a free agent, March 17th, 2010

Right next to Testwuide is the Flyers’ pleasant surprise prospect of the 2010-11 season. Despite not being as offensively gifted as many skaters on the roster, Ben Holmstrom managed to finish fifth on the Phantoms in scoring right behind Testwuide. In 79 games played, he scored 16 goals and added 22 assists for 38 points. When coupled with his physical and effective defensive play as a newly converted center, it is clear that the Flyers have found someone they can plug into the NHL lineup.

The question for Holmstrom at this point is more about when than if. Veteran center Blair Betts is signed through this season, but afterwards it may be Holmstrom’s job to play a fourth-line shutdown role. What the Flyers also enjoy about Holmstrom’s game is that it is versatile. His value not only comes with his play but also his ability to shift left and right, up and down the lineup. Right now he is competing with Zac Rinaldo, Tom Sestito, and a number of NHL veterans for the right to play on the Flyers.

10. (NR) Nick Cousins, C, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 68th overall, 2011

The one deviation from the new size initiative for the Flyers in the 2011 draft was Nick Cousins. Standing at 5’10 on a good day, Cousins will have to demonstrate what every undersized NHLer had to fight through; that he can effectively use his skating and puck-handling to match against players much bigger than himself. As the second leading scorer of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds last season, he certainly has the skill. He possesses the creativity for point production as well as an offensive awareness not found in many NHL prospects, but what really brings his play to life is his tenacity.

Nick Cousins scored 29 goals and notched 39 assists for 68 points in 68 games last season. While it may look tight in the NHL as far as Flyers’ centers are concerned with Claude Giroux established while Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier wait in the wings, anything can happen in the span of a couple years. The Flyers’ offseason itself is a testament to how much and how quickly things in the NHL can change.

11. (12) Jason Akeson, RW, 7.0D
Signed as a free agent, March 2nd, 2011

Another small forward acquired recently by the Flyers was the OHL‘s leading scorer in 2010-11, Jason Akeson. The playmaking winger has even earned comparisons to Claude Giroux because of his vision and passing. To put things a little more into perspective, Akeson played in 188 OHL in three full seasons with the Rangers, and in that span of time, he notched 184 assists with 84 of those assists coming last year. He was also at least a 20-goal scorer in each of those three seasons while competing as a point-per-game player in the postseason.

After going undrafted, Akeson found his way to Philadelphia where he has the opportunity to join a young, almost established core of skilled forwards. While there is plenty of competition, Akeson brings skills to the table about which very few Flyers’ prospects can brag. Another thing that will help him is the fact that he refuses to let his stature define him as a player.

12. (13) Brandon Manning, D, 7.0D
Signed as a free agent, November 23rd, 2011

Brandon Manning has been the captain of the Chilliwack Bruins for the last two years. He has established himself as a physical monster who can chip in significantly in the offensive zone as well. Even when invited to NHL camps before the 2010-11 season, he decided that he had one more year with the Bruins to finish in the WHL. In 53 games, he managed 21 goals, 32 assists, and 129 penalty minutes.

The left-handed shot also has a massive shot from the point which he demonstrated in 45 career WHL goals. His physical play is also well represented by 415 career penalty minutes. He is a mean, physical, dominating, mature, and skilled presence on the blue line which is something the Flyers’ defensive prospect core desperately needed before signing Manning.

13. (8) Marc-Andre Bourdon, D, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 67th overall, 2008

The organization has been extremely patient with Bourdon since he ventured over from the QMJHL after being named the league’s defenseman of the year for 2008-09. He struggled with the pace in 2009-10, and not all that much changed last season. His skating his not improved significantly or quickly enough to push his development forward. He also went down midseason with a concussion suffered while in a fight.

Bourdon took a conditioning stint in the ECHL before returning to play out the end of the season with the Phantoms, but there are still flaws in his game that need correcting. In the meantime, he has been jumped within the organization by quite a few defensemen while Oliver Lauridsen and recent signee Blake Kessel are right on his heels as his stock has fallen. As one of the highest scoring active defensemen during his QMJHL career, Bourdon has to do better than 29 points in 107 games.

14. (NR) Marcel Noebels, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 118th overall, 2011

Already 19 years old, Noebels was one of the older players taken in the 2011 draft. When he went undrafted out of his hometown Krefeld of the DEL, he opted for the Seattle Thunderbirds of the WHL where he put up 54 points in 66 games. He finished third on his team in production and second in goal-scoring with 28 goals.

As a powerforward, Noebels fit right into the Flyers’ offseason plan of getting bigger and more physical on the outside. He understands his role and has learned to use his body effectively in the WHL. The real question now is whether or not it will translate to the professional level.

When Noebels came to Flyers’ prospect camp, he brought with him a contract offer from the Krefeld Penguine with the intention of asking the organization whether the DEL would be a better developmental option than the WHL. The Flyers have chosen the WHL, which is where Noebels will continue his career for the time being. A contract is already waiting for him in Philadelphia when he is ready.

15. (NR) Blake Kessel, D, 7.0D
Signed as a free agent, September 14th, 2011

Blake Kessel, brother of Toronto Maple Leaf sniper Phil Kessel, opted out of his final season at the University of New Hampshire and became a free agent. James vanRiemsdyk had played a season with Kessel at UNH and was even in the same draft class, Kessel being drafted in the sixth round by the New York Islanders.

After vanRiemsdyk’s departure, Kessel broke out offensively at UNH putting up 48 points in 38 games. His 2010-11 season was not as strong offensively as he fell down to only 27 points, but the former convert from forward honed his defensive skills. He still has a flashy offensive prowess, but his defensive game has slightly improved because of this.

The Flyers invited Kessel to camp but were at the 50 contract limit. With the eventual termination of Lehtivuori’s contract, the Flyers found a spot for him though. He will be joining the Phantoms for the 2011-12 season.

16. (15) Tom Sestito, LW, 5.5B
Acquired via trade with Columbus Blue Jackets, 2011

The massive Tom Sestito was an acquisition in which the Flyers traded their first selection in 2011, 3rd round pick Michael Chaput, in order to add some size to their prospect pool. The organization hopes that this addition will eventually pan out in terms of an improvement for their checking line. Sestito has size, a mean streak, and he can keep up the pace with NHLers. He already has thirteen NHL games under his belt including nine last season where he potted two goals and two assists. He also managed a hefty 40 penalty minutes in those nine games.

Once upon a time Sestito scored 42 goals in 60 OHL games. While that may be a major part of his bragging whenever a discussion about his hockey career arises, much more telling may be his 202 penalty minutes that same year. Sestito makes no apologies, and he certainly was not brought to Philadelphia to change that. He will be competing hard for a spot come training camp.

17. (NR) Oliver Lauridsen, D, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 196th overall, 2009

Lauridsen has traveled light-years from the point where he was a seventh round pick for the Flyers in 2009. At one point, he was a big guy from Denmark with a ton of raw potential and no legitimate direction to point it. Two more seasons at St. Cloud State University have molded him more into the kind of player the Flyers can use. His skating has solidified, his puck-handling has gotten better, and he has learned to use his 6’6, 230 pound frame to its full potential.

Unfortunately for Lauridsen, there are still light-years to go. He is still sluggish and still has problems with the puck. His skating is not bad, but his acceleration is poor. It will take a few years more at the very least for his game to round out to a point where he can use his size to dominate, but size is something that cannot be taught.

18. (16) Tye McGinn, RW, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 119th overall, 2010

McGinn shares many similarities with Noebels such as being drafted as an older player, being selected by the Flyers in the 4th round, and playing a similar style of hockey both with similar skill-sets at their disposal. The Flyers decided to take McGinn after his breakout season with the Gatineau Olympiques in 2009-10. The young powerforward had moved to the QMJHL after the Ottawa 67’s of the OHL decided to go in a different direction, but he made the most of his second opportunity in a new league.

As the alternate captain in back-to-back seasons, McGinn had the most success of his young hockey career in Gatineau despite playing shortened seasons. In total, he earned 126 points in 92 games in the last two years. His 58 goals during that span lead the rest of his former teammates by a significant margin.

McGinn has polished his offensive game in preparation of the professional competition, but in order for his game to translate, he will need to focus on knowing where to be. He will have the talent along side him to help the Phantoms return to the postseason, but the question is whether or not a still extremely young team can grow with some many new additions.

19. (NR) Niko Hovinen, G, 6.5C
Signed as a Free Agent, May 17th, 2011

When the Flyers made the decision to let former top prospect Joacim Eriksson walk, they had already made the conscious decision to bring 23-year-old Niko Hovinen into the organization. The 6’5 goaltender was originally drafted by Minnesota in the 5th round of the 2006 draft.

Despite struggling in his early SM-Liiga call-ups with Jokerit, Hovinen became a fairly successful back-up for the Pelicans. It was not until becoming the starter for the Pelicans last season that Hovinen really began to get attention. In 49 games played, he posted a 2.59 goals-against-average and a .921 save percentage. So far in preseason competition this year, Hovinen has absolutely dominated competition by winning 10 games without a loss and posting a goals against average under the 1.50 mark. The Flyers like his ability to cover the net even though he has some problems with rebound control and positioning. For now, he will stay in Finland, but he should be ready for the Phantoms in 2012-13.

20. (NR) Colin Suellentrop, D, 6.0C
Drafted 4th round, 116th overall, 2011

Just beating out some important Flyers’ prospects such as forward Tyler Brown, wrecking ball Zac Rinaldo, and the skilled Luke Pither, is a defenseman that will never get much recognition for his play. Taken two spots ahead of Marcel Noebels in the 2011 NHL draft, Suellentrop is easy to overlook if you need something flashy, but despite having one trick up his sleeve, he performs that trick exceedingly well.

14 assists on the 2010-11 season are not going to say anything about Suellentrop’s composed game-play, nor will his six points in his rookie OHL season. Despite his low offensive numbers, he is also not your typical shut-down defenseman. He can skate very well and keep up with opponents effectively. He is not massive like an Oliver Lauridsen type of player, but he has a very particular skill-set that may make him an effective NHLer even without a high-end offensive upside while others will fall short.