The Philadelphia Flyers’ European Blueprint

By Al Alven

Six players.

430 total games of NHL experience.

A world of potential. Literally.

A major part of the Philadelphia Flyers’ blueprint for success this season has been the addition of several high-profile European players. This season, no less than six such players are poised to play a major role with the team. Never before have so many non-North American-born players figured so prominently into the Flyers’ plans.

The list includes two holdovers from last season (Roman Cechmanek and Ruslan Fedotenko) and four
additional players acquired over the summer (Pavel Brendl, Jiri Dopita, Jan Hlavac and Kim Johnsson). Ranging from 20-year-old rookie prospect to 32-year-old NHL newcomer, this list of players is diverse and, in terms of NHL games played, relatively inexperienced.

Still, each of the six brings the potential for immeasurable value to the 2001-02 Flyers roster. This article will briefly profile each of these players and discuss their projected roles with the team.

Pavel Brendl

Originally pegged to start the season with the Philadelphia Phantoms of the AHL, Brendl wasted no
time in proving where he really belongs. The 20-year-old Czech right wing stormed out of the game
in the preseason, scoring two goals his first game and never looking back. Brendl was not only a big surprise for the Flyers in training camp, he was arguably the team’s best player in several games. Playing mainly on a line with Jeremy Roenick and John LeClair in exhibition action, Brendl finished the preseason with nine points (three goals, six assists) in only six games. He also saw time on an all-Czech line with Jiri Dopita and Jan Hlavac. Brendl, the wildcard in the big Eric Lindros trade with the New York Rangers, has not yet officially been named to the Flyers roster, although both general manager Bob Clarke and coach Bill Barber have indicated that he has made the team.

Expect Brendl to start the season on the right wing on either the Roenick/LeClair or Dopita/Hlavac line. He could also see significant time on the team’s first powerplay unit as time progresses. In his time with the Rangers organization, Brendl was consistently bashed for his perceived lack of motivation, commitment and conditioning and his unwillingness to play defense. It is clear to this point that Brendl is out to prove New York wrong. He arrived in camp in what Flyers strength and conditioning trainer Jim McCrossin termed “below-average” condition but since day one of his arrival, he has worked very hard both on the ice and in the gym.

No one has ever questioned Brendl’s hands or hockey sense– they are world-class. Given his considerable talent and drive to prove his critics wrong, look for Brendl to parley his success at the junior level (320 points in 178 games over three seasons with the Calgary Hitmen) into a serious bid for the Calder Trophy this season– provided that he gets the necessary time on the powerplay units to rack up the special teams points that are necessary to boost his overall point totals into Calder range. The Flyers had built a strong offensive arsenal before Brendl arrived in August. His addition gives the team yet another dangerous weapon at its disposal.

Roman Cechmanek

When Brian Boucher faltered in net during the early weeks of the 2000-01 season, Cechmanek (who began the season with a brief stint with the Phantoms) ran with the opportunity he was presented with. The Cinderella story of the NHL last season, Cechmanek’s success surprised North American observers who were not familiar with him. Many European players, coaches, coaches and hockey journalists, however, said all along that Cechmanek would be a fine NHL goalie if he were given the chance to start. Few, though, expected him to succeed to quite the extent he did.

Cechmanek quickly established himself as one of the NHL’s elite goaltenders. Given that he finished the season with 35 wins and 10 shutouts, it would be hard to fathom that he started the season in the AHL but for the fact that top prospect Maxime Ouellet was absolutely dazzling in the preseason. A fiery competitor with a rather unorthodox style that includes intentionally playing shots with his mask, Cechmanek finished as the runner-up to Dominik Hasek in the Vezina Trophy voting.
Among starting goaltenders, Cechmanek finished first in goals against average (2.01), second in shutouts (10) and tied for third in save percentage (.921). The 30-year-old netminder would have been a lock for the Calder Trophy had he not been beyond the rookie age limit.

Cechmanek was roundly criticized for a poor playoff performance, but, truth be told, his
postseason showing was not nearly as bad as it was made out to be. His 3.11 GAA and .891 SP was more a byproduct of a poor defensive team effort– and a single catastrophic period in game 6– than a reflection on his play alone. His numbers for games 1-5 were close to being in line with
his season numbers. In the other games, Cechmanek was not flawless, but he came up with numerous stops on breakaways and 2-on-1s to give the Flyers a chance to win games 1,2 (an OT loss), and 4 (another overtime loss). He was very solid in the game 3 and 5 victories. The Flyers loss of the series was a team-wide failure– not a goaltending letdown.

Cechmanek will enter this season as the Flyers’ starting goaltender and, barring injury, will retain
that job throughout the year. Boucher has publicly voiced his displeasure with being a backup on numerous occasions, but he does not have what it takes to displace Cechmanek at this point. A veteran of seven professional seasons, Cechmanek has long been considered one of the world’s best netminders by those who follow the international hockey scene. Prior to his arrival in North America, he was named the top goaltender in the Czech Republic in each of his six seasons with Vsetin of the Czech Elite League. He also has five Elite League championships and three world
championships on his resume– all of which came with Cechmanek as the starter. There is oft-repeated misinformation (most frequently given out by ESPN/ABC commentator Barry Melrose), that Cechmanek was a long-time backup to Hasek in international games. Actually, the only medal Cechmanek has won as a backup to Hasek was the gold medal the Czechs took at the 1998 Winter Olympics. Otherwise, the two goaltenders had not crossed career paths until last season in the NHL. Contrary to what has been reported at times, Hasek is neither Cechmanek’s mentor, nor are they good friends away from the ice (there is no animosity– they just don’t know one another all that well).

Cechmanek is generally a cool competitor who keeps both wins and losses in perspective, although he has been known on occassion to chase after referees yelling about calls or non-calls around the crease. An improved Flyers defense should take some of the pressure off of him this season. A little extra offensive support won’t hurt either. At the very least, expect Cechmanek
to duplicate the success he achieved last year. There’s no reason to believe that he can’t once again challenge for the Vezina.

Jiri Dopita

Widely recognized as the worldís best player outside of the NHL for the better part of the past decade, Dopita finally decided to cross the pond to play in North America this season after his Czech team, Vsetin, went into bankrupcy and chaos despite having an on-ice championship dynasty.

As time goes by, Flyers fans will likely be quite pleased with his decision. After being acquired from the Florida Panthers at the NHL Entry Draft in June, the 32-year-old center
officially signed on to join the Flyers. His friendship with countryman Roman Cechmanek– Dopita’s longtime teammate with both Vsetin and the Czech national team– reportedly played a role in his decision.

Like Cechmanek, Dopita had declined offers to play in the NHL for years. Unlike Roman, whose refusals to play in North America led NHL teams to steer clear of him at the entry draft, Dopita’s rights have been owned by several NHL teams and numerous NHL teams inquired about acquiring his rights over the years, on the condition that they could get him signed. None succeeded until the Flyers this summer. Prior to having his rights traded to Florida, Dopita was drafted by both the Boston Bruins (133rd overall in 1992) and New York Islanders (123rd
overall in 1998). In addition to being a member of six Czech national and three world championship teams, he, along with ex-Flyer defenseman Petr Svoboda, was one of the key inspirational leaders of the Czech team that captured the gold medal at the 1998 Olympic Winter Games.

Dopita’s game is a rare mixture of attitude, strength, speed and playmaking ability. Keith Primeau recently called him the strongest player he’s ever played against, particularly in the faceoff circle. Primeau’s comments echoed an identical statement made by Mats Sundin at the World Cup of Hockey back in 1996.

Dopita has the ability to make an immediate offensive impact in the NHL. However, the Flyers’ roster depth may create some ice-time issues. With Primeau and Roenick playing ahead of him, Dopita is slotted to be the Flyers’ third line center at the start of the season. With Jan Hlavac and one of Pavel Brendl, Ruslan Fedotenko, Rick Tocchet or Justin Williams playing alongside him, this obviously won’t be a typical third line in the NHL. Dopita, who still talks to English-speaking reporters via translation from Czech teammates, has made it known that he wants as much icetime as the Flyers are able to give him. He has the ability to dominate a game, given his
offensive talents (he notched well over a point per game in each of the past seven seasons in Europe) and his physical prowess (6’3″, and close to 230 lbs). He has also been a dominant faceoff man over the course of his pre-NHL career. Like all veterans of European hockey, Dopita must adjust to the smaller North American rinks. Because he plays a relatively physical style– more so in “big games” than on a routine basis–this may actually play right into his game.

Dopita speaks little English, but he understands a fair amount. While communication issues may take some time to work out, it will help having so many Czech teammates– probably including one or both of his linemates. Look for Dopita to start slowly, and then emerge as a solid contributor at both ends of the rink. Powerplay time is still up in the air at this point, but Barber has said that he’d like to get Dopita into special teams situations on the penalty kill and possibly the powerplay as well. Dopita is about six years beyond Calder Trophy eligibility, but he may
well be regarded as the top first-year player in the NHL by year’s end (much like Cechmanek last season). However, the true test will come in the playoffs, as it is Dopita’s reputation as a clutch performer in big games that has the Flyers organization the most excited about his acquisition.

Ruslan Fedotenko

“Rusty” had a surprisingly solid season for the Flyers in his rookie campaign last year. When the team faced injury difficulties early in the season, Fedotenko was summoned from the Phantoms. No one expected him to stick around for long, but his maturity and solid fundamental skills allowed him to earn a full-time roster spot. In 74 games, Fedotenko tallied 36 points (16 goals, 20 assists) and was a plus eight. The Ukrainian right winger tied for fifth among NHL
rookies in scoring. While his goal scoring was streaky, Fedotenko’s overall effort was remarkably consistent throughout the season, recording 18 points in the first half of the season and 18 points in the second half. He was also comfortable away from his home rink, recording more points on the road (20 in 38 games) than he did on First Union Center ice (16 in 36 games).

Fedotenko’s level of maturity is rare for such a young player. By the end of last season, it was difficult to remember that he was a rookie. He plays with the savvy and quiet confidence of a five-year NHL veteran. Fedotenko is not flashy with the puck, but he is an emotional player who brings a ton of enthusiasm to the rink. He plays a strong game along the boards, goes to
the net effectively and is a very persistent forechecker. He’s not afraid to get his nose dirty and
even drops the gloves on occasion.

That being said, with all of the Flyers’ new acquisitions, Fedotenko is going to have to work extra
hard to keep his roster spot. He’s a great player to have around because his work ethic and exuberance for the game often rubs off on other players. He also has solid leadership-by-example potential, despite the fact that he is so young. However, those qualities alone will not be enough for Fedotenko to keep his job should he falter at any point this season. He is not as purely
talented as Brendl or Williams, two players he will be battling with for ice time. He also lacks the valuable intangible of experience and the vocal presence that Tocchet can bring to a locker room. Fedotenko will most likely start the season by alternating between the third and fourth line, simply because of the Flyers’ tremendous numbers crunch. His style of play is always welcome in Philadelphia because it fits in well with the general philosophy of the organization. At the same time, however, it also invites the increased risk of injury.

Jan Hlavac

After a strong rookie season in 1999-2000, Hlavac avoided the sophomore slump and established himself as one of the New York Rangers’ top scoring threats last season, skating on Petr Nedved’s line. A key component in the Eric Lindros trade, the 25-year-old left winger now has the opportunity to prove that he can play effectively in games that really matter. In New York, he played two seasons with a team that, since the late 1990s, has perennially been out of playoff contention by early April. With the Flyers, he has the chance to become a major offensive force on a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. In his two NHL seasons, Hlavac’s game has shown a steady level of improvement. He has tended to be a better second-half performer. He tallied 42 points (19 goals, 23 assists) in 67 games as a rookie, then improved to 64 points (28 goals, 36 assists) in 79 games last season. Among second-year NHL players last season, Hlavac recorded the most goals and the second-most points. He is a very durable player who tends to heat up as a season wears on. For instance, 40 of his 64 points last season came in January, February and March. Similarly, during his
rookie season, 30 of his 42 points came in the first three months of the calendar year. Hlavac led the Rangers with six game-winning goals last season and finished the year with five powerplay markers.

You can pencil in Hlavac to start the season on the third line, to the left of center Jiri Dopita. The Czech duo showed good chemistry, although it was not until the end of the preseason that they started putting some of those chances into the net. The duo worked together during the preseason with an assortment of players at the right wing position. Because Dopita speaks little English, Hlavac is a logical linemate for communication reasons alone. These two players are fighting to see icetime on the Flyers’ second powerplay unit, although with Primeau, Mark Recchi, John LeClair, Simon Gagne, and Jeremy Roenick all slotted for powerplay time in front of them, it may be hard for them to see a lot of time on the man advantage. Playing with Dopita, Hlavac will try to improve his point totals for the third consecutive season. Defensively, Hlavac is not great, but he’s at least adequate.

Somewhere along the line, he did pick up a reputation for being quite uninterested in playing defense. It’s an undeserved label. Hlavac did not have a bad defensive repuation in Europe. Last season, playing on a Rangers team that gave up 40 more goals that it scoredast in the league in defense, Hlavac finished at plus-three. He was a plus-three during his rookie season as well, posting a plus or even rating in 52 of the 67 games he played in. While the plus-minus stat can be deceptive, it would be hard to argue that Hlavac is nearly as bad defensively as some of his critics claim.

Hlavac appears to be a player still on the upswing, both offensively and defensively. He may not develop into a top-tier superstar for the Flyers, but he looks to be a solid contributor for years to come. Consider him yet another dangerous weapon in the Flyers’ arsenal.

Kim Johnsson

Like Hlavac, Johnsson is entering his third season in the NHL after spending the first two years of his career with the New York Rangers. The 24 year old Swedish defenseman, acquired in the Eric Lindros trade, has posted respectable offensive numbers in his short career, averaging about one point for every three games played. In 151 total games, he has 47 points (11
goals, 36 assists). He is a combined minus-16 in two seasons, but playing on one of the league’s worst defensive teams will wreak havoc on any defenseman’s statistics (just ask Brian Leetch). He still has a ways to go before he can be considered a very strong defensive rearguard, but he’s working on it. He makes good reads but he doesn’t hit and he likes to gamble. In many ways, Johnsson is the smooth skating, puck carrying defenseman the Flyers have been coveting for so many
years. Johnsson brings what the Flyers’ brass hopes will be a new dimension to the team’s attack. He sees the ice very well and has the ability to jump into the play in the offensive zone. In preseason action with the Flyers, Johnsson fit in very nicely. He was generally
a strong two-way force at even strength and looked very comfortable when given his chance on the
powerplay. The Flyers knew about his reputation as a smooth passer, but they were surprised that he has such a heavy shot, too.

For years, the Flyers have been trying to find the right player(s) to take some of the puck-moving load off of Eric Desjardins’ shoulders. Johnsson, along with free agent acquisition Eric Weinrich, should be able to help swallow enough icetime to ensure that the Flyers’
captain remains fresh by the time April and May roll around.

Johnsson and Weinrich will be paired at the start of the season. The Flyers would also like to see Johnsson develop into a powerplay threat. He should see a decent amount of time on the team’s second PP unit this season and could even displace Dan McGillis on the first unit at some point. Johnsson can help the Flyers become a better team because of the extra dimensions that he brings to the teamís defensive unit. Look for his numbers to improve this season, especially if he receives a steady amount of icetime on the powerplay.