Flyers top-20 features numerous NHL players

By Chris Shafer
Photo: Eric Wellwood has seen a lot of time in Philadelphia lately, providing a lot of speed and energy to their top-nine forwards. (Photo courtesy of Bill Streicher/Icon SMI)

With a recreated roster, the Flyers are once again a significant competitor in the East when many thought this could be the season that the organization took a step backwards.

The team has had 12 rookies step into significant roles this season; only four were expected to make major contributions when training camp let out. Some prospect graduations are already taking place and many more will likely follow.

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

Thanks to injuries and some rotten luck, the once top prospect in the world, Brayden Schenn, got off to a slow start in Philadelphia. It was not hard to imagine his backburner status in the minds of most Flyers’ fans as they watched the bigger and more collected Sean Couturier steal the spotlight. Even so, Schenn cannot be discredited for the achievements of his peers nor can he be blamed for injuries that plagued his early season. His first NHL goal did however come in spectacular fashion on hockey’s biggest regular season stage at the 2012 Winter Classic.

To this day Schenn plays on a line above Couturier as quite a few young players are still trying to find their bearings on the Philadelphia roster. The physicality and the defensive play have come naturally. The offense has come around as well but not as consistently as a top offensive prospect would necessarily expect. With each touch of the puck, he grows ever more dangerous, and with the varied development curve of NHL prospects, there is no reason to worry. Schenn is showing flashes of first line potential already, and there is certainly more to come.

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

There is no question Wellwood learned from the best during back-to-back Memorial Cup Championships with the Windsor Spitfires, but no one was sure if his offensive output would ever translate to the NHL. While he was one of the fastest players on the ice at all times and as sound a defensive forward as there was in Canadian Juniors, he was a late bloomer offensively. The Flyers took a chance on him based on a point-per-game playoff run with Windsor in 2009-10. Since then he has yet to really slow down.

Though young, he was among the Phantoms’ offensive leaders last season, and with 21 points in 33 games in between injuries and call-ups, he has been easily one of the most consistent weapons for Adirondack when in the lineup. His pure speed makes him dynamic for catching opposing defenders forgetting about the cross-ice lead pass and his defensive prowess makes him perfect for Laviolette’s system. Already on the Flyers NHL roster, it really is only a matter of time before he finds a regular spot in the lineup.

3. (3) Erik Gustafsson, D, 7C
Signed as a Free Agent, March 31st, 2010

Despite spending plenty of time on the injured reserve list, Gustafsson still managed to become an NHL regular by the time the season entered the stretch run. Injury upon injury piled up on the blue line even after the Flyers made deadline acquisitions for two veteran defenders. The team’s defense has been held together mostly by hopes, dreams, and rookies, which is normally a recipe for disaster. Once the early season goaltending issues began to solve themselves, things were a lot smoother. When Ilya Bryzgalov is at the top of his game, rookie mistakes seem to be less obvious, but Gustafsson still has a few things to iron out.

The size problem is starting to come up more in discussions though, and if he is going to make it long-term in the NHL, Gustafsson will need to figure out how to win battles on the boards. His puck-moving, positioning, and point-work is already NHL level. There is now added emphasis on the closing of Gustafsson’s 2011-12 season with the Flyers. Should he perform well before some of the more established defensemen return from injury, the Flyers may decide not to retain some of the veteran free agents on the roster in favor of the young puck-mover.

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

Bourdon was the best surprise of the season for Flyers’ fans who thought the defense was about to tailspin. His physical play and shot from the point along with some decent board-work in his own zone sold the organization enough to trade another strong prospect in Kevin Marshall to Washington. The Flyers will certainly look to upgrade the blue line this offseason, and Bourdon will have to battle Gustafsson along with veterans for limited spots. Also creeping up the roster is Brandon Manning who posted a few very strong debut games with the Flyers’ organization while Bourdon has been hurt.

There is plenty to look forward to for the former QMJHL Defenseman of the Year, Marc-Andre Bourdon. He will get hard looks in camp next season, and his physicality mixed with a booming shot from the point gives him as good a shot as any defensive prospect at becoming a regular with the Flyers.

5. (11) Jason Akeson, RW, 7C
Signed as a Free Agent, March 2nd, 2011

It is not everyday that an AHL rookie leads their team offensively, but the dynamic Jason Akeson has done just that after dazzling quite a few fans during preseason with his stellar vision and puck-distribution.

Though he is small in stature, he has the balance to compete along the boards and keep the pressure on the forecheck. It gives the Flyers some depth options on the wing moving forward, particularly with Giroux, Couturier, and Schenn likely holding down the middle long-term in Philadelphia.

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

Ranford has not been entirely sharp all season, and at one point, there was the potential that he would not improve on his 2010-11 numbers at all. With a late flurry though, he has caught up and slightly improved.

That of course is the tangible evidence that the former second-to-last pick in the 2010 Draft is progressing well. The intangible evidence starts with his skating. He has worked very hard to correct a lot of the stride problems that slowed him down before. He has become better rounded and all of his offensive game is certainly still there. It is very likely that he will jump onto the Phantoms for next season.

7. (10) Nick Cousins, C, 7C
Drafted 3rd round, 68th overall, 2011

The talk around Philadelphia surrounds Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek, but the last piece of the Jeff Carter trade is making some noise of his own. A lot of analysts and scouts felt that Nick Cousins was better than his draft number when the Flyers found him in the early 3rd round, but not many expected him to be top 10 in OHL scoring in 2011-12. He has already notched 86 points in 64 games.

While the Flyers seem to be set at center long-term, there is no guarantee that everyone will remain in the middle. Cousins is smaller, but his tenacity and energy are something that every lineup could use. Even if he never becomes a top six NHL forward, a third liner with an attitude and some skill can go a long way in today’s NHL.

8. (12) Brandon Manning, D, 7C
Signed as a Free Agent, November 23rd, 2011

The last of the main three defensive prospects for the current Flyers’ system, Brandon Manning made his NHL debut long before anyone expected. Injury after injury piled up, and the AHL rookie quickly became an NHL rookie.

The do-it-all defenseman was always going to be strong physically and bring a solid shot from the point, but there were other questions surrounding Manning’s NHL potential. However, instead of looking sluggish he carried himself with the speed of the NHL level, instead of making rookie mistakes in his own end he cut down on turnovers, and instead of panicking he played a very composed game for a 21-year-old. His leadership role in Chilliwack may have groomed him for two-way NHL success.

9. (9) Ben Holmstrom, C, 5.5A
Signed as a Free Agent, March 17th, 2010

Defensive forwards such as Ben Holmstrom are invaluable to an organization. They throw that extra check, pursue the puck that extra second, and dive in front of that shot no one else will touch.

Despite limited call-ups this year, the Phantoms’ captain has made good use of his time in the AHL. He is the third leading scorer on the roster and is second in penalty minutes. When the Flyers eventually do promote Sean Couturier up the depth chart, a move that could happen next season, the next in line for the checking line center position is Holmstrom.

10. (NR) Zac Rinaldo, LW, 5A
Drafted 6th round, 178th overall, 2008

There was a very real concern when Rinaldo first made his way on to the Flyers’ roster this season that something very wrong could happen. Experiences with Dan Carcillo taught the organization that the best intentions, or often worst from the other side of the coin, can bring about the worst kind of attention from the league and officials. Despite this, General Manager Paul Holmgren remained consistent that Zac Rinaldo would be a "player in this league."

Rinaldo has proven Holmgren to be a man of his word. He has found a physical, in-your-face niche on the fourth line without going too far overboard. He has found himself some suspension time, but all things considered, it seems very marginal based on the volatile potential he displayed in juniors.

11. (15) Blake Kessel, D, 7D
Signed as a Free Agent, September 14th, 2011

Despite being drafted by the Islanders, the Flyers lucked into University of New Hampshire product Blake Kessel. Though he has some flaws to iron out defensively, he has become a welcome addition on the Phantoms particularly with the departure of Erik Gustafsson, who once was the go-to guy in Adirondack for any needed offense.

Kessel is not quite up to Gustafsson’s level just yet, but he has some time to grow. The 22-year-old has notched 17 points in 51 games with the Phantoms and is very easily leading all roster defensemen in points.

12. (19) Niko Hovinen, G, 7D
Signed as a Free Agent, May 17th, 2011

The 6’6 monster goaltender for the Pelicans of the SM-Liiga had yet another monster year. Some of Hovinen’s fans overseas are already confident that he can jump into an NHL back-up role as soon as next season. Though there are no indications that this will be necessary, Hovinen’s first trip to the North American game will come in 2012-13. The Flyers lose every goalie under contract with the Phantoms this offseason with the exception of recent free-agent signee and Ohio State product Cal Heeter. Potentially, Heeter and Hovinen will split time in Adirondack with Hovinen likely getting the bulk of the games.

13. (8) Mike Testwuide, RW, 6C
Signed as a Free Agent, March 19th, 2010

When Testwuide came to Philadelphia, he was more hyped than Ben Holmstrom. It was Testwuide’s hands as a big power forward that gave him the potential to make an impact on the Flyers’ roster quickly. In the meantime, Holmstrom’s drive has put him in a position ahead of the young powerf orward despite signs before that Testwuide would be the more important player for the organization.

That does not however mean that Testwuide is out of the mix. He is the sixth leading scorer on the Phantoms this season and has all the talent to put everything together. More importantly, he is a defensive stalwart. He was arguably the best defensive forward in Adirondack last season, and he is doing it once again this season.

14. (17) Oliver Lauridsen, D, 6C
Drafted 7th round, 196th overall, 2009

The Great Dane, Oliver Lauridsen, is becoming more and more important to the Phantoms’ blue line. With the departure of Marshall, he has become the true shut-down defense in Adirondack even though Brandon Manning can certainly hold his own.

Though there is very little offensive output to speak of, he continues to progress. The sluggish skating that he displayed during preseason is still there, but Lauridsen has plenty of time to work on it. His role is more to be a physical presence than to skate at lengths with opposing forwards, but that is still a skill he will need to mature before he can accomplish what Gustafsson, Bourdon, and Manning have recently done at the NHL level.

15. (NR) Harry Zolnierczyk, RW, 5A
Signed as a Free Agent, March 8th, 2011

On a one-year deal with the Flyers, Zolnierczyk was potentially fighting for his NHL career this season. If it was a test, then he has passed with flying colors. Those flying colors are of course orange and black, and flying clearly implies how he gets around the ice. While with the Flyers for a large portion of the season, Zolnierczyk displayed his speed, his forechecking, and his defensive prowess. Though he does not excel at one thing he makes up for it by doing everything at full tilt. That has not only earned him enough time in the NHL to brag to all of his former teammates at Brown University, but it has probably earned him another contract to stay in the league as well.

16. (16) Tom Sestito, LW, 5.5B
Acquired via trade with Columbus Blue Jackets, February 28th, 2011

When the Flyers acquired Sestito, they were hoping for a big guy who could skate, fight, and chip in a little offensively. Injury, as well as the faster Zolnierczyk, kept Sestito in and out of the lineup all season, but he has already demonstrated his usefulness on the ice. Next season there will be more competition for fourth line positions, and once again Sestito will be in the mix as the true heavyweight. The Flyers may like a defensive specialist on the opposite wing of Rinaldo for most games, which could limit Sestito’s playing time in the future.

17. (14) Marcel Noebels, LW, 6C
Drafted 4th round, 118th overall, 2011

Though it was not in the top tier of the World Juniors, Marcel Noebels was one of the top scorers in the U20 tournament in which Germany competed this season. He got off to a slow start in his second year with the Seattle Thunderbirds, but his performance in the World Junior Championships, along with a trade to the Portland Winterhawks, helped reawaken Noebels’ offensive game.

He already has a contract in place with the Flyers’ organization for next season so he is likely to make his professional debut with the Phantoms next season.

18. (20) Colin Suellentrop, D, 6C
Drafted 4th round, 116th overall, 2011

Colin Suellentrop‘s development is certainly not one to be measured by offensive production, but that is not the key to his game. He is averaging roughly the same amount of production this season as last year, but he is slowly becoming a more reliable defenseman. Consistency defensively and physically is what the Flyers wanted to see from Suellentrop, and of the defensemen who have played with the Oshawa Generals for the majority of the season, he is the plus-minus leader.

Defense is not all there is to the NHL level though. Suellentrop has the ability to help build a rush by getting out of his own zone effectively. That may be the most vital part of his game to harness if he wants to make it to the Flyers’ roster. It is not only about how to defend the net but also how to get the puck going the other way. That may become a struggle for the young blueliner.

19. (NR) Michael Parks, RW, 6.5D
Drafted 5th round, 149th overall, 2010

The Flyers saw some potential in Michael Parks back in 2010 after his first season with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders of the USHL. The following season he nearly doubled his production, and it has been smooth sailing ever since. Though he is average size and certainly not going to be blowing off all the hinges offensively, Parks has a poise and maturity while playing hockey that the Flyers could not ignore. A lot of this was demonstrated in his first season at the University of North Dakota where he finished fifth in scoring as a freshman. As he continues to grow and develop, he will get a bigger load of the responsibility which the Flyers organization is anticipating. They will take his development at its own pace for now.

20. (NR) Tyler Brown, C, 5.5C
Signed as a Free Agent, March 2nd, 2011

Tyler Brown was a relative unknown coming into training camp for the 2011-12 season, but GM Paul Holmgren mentioned time after time that Brown was someone the organization liked. As camps continued it was clear why the organization felt they had found a player in Brown. His compete level is top notch and his in-your-face game play is something any team would be happy to have. In the end though, he was bested by some of his rookie peers including Zac Rinaldo and Harry Zolnierczyk, both of which brought a little more versatility to the Flyers’ checking line.

It remains to be seen whether or not Brown can overcome the organizational depth to make the NHL roster. There are a lot of factors involved and quite a few players in his way. On top of that, his offense has not manifested in a way that could force the Flyers to bump him up the lineup. He was not an offensive heavyweight from the start, and he is not as specialized as others.