Young Players Looking to Impress at NHL Level

By Mike Castor

This year’s Philadelphia Flyers Camp was the most competitive camp in the last 15 years. The youth shined in much of camp. The Flyers have a nice mix of toughness and skill in their prospects. Many of the veterans are finding themselves pushed for their jobs by younger players– if not right away, in the very near future.

There are not many open spots on the roster open as we speak, but it seems the young kids want to break into them, and a few have succeeded in doing so. The one thing that all the kids have shown is a willingness to compete and to learn how to play the game at the NHL level.

Even now that the season is about to start, Bill Barber will have many decisions to make. There are several ongoing roster battles. The battle for the 2nd and 3rd line wingers is very heated. The battle for the team’s enforcer is also a raging battle that will go on beyond the start of the season.

There is a great feel of anticipation to start the season. All of the players seem to enjoy working with Bill Barber and his coaching staff (Mike Stothers and E.J. McGuire). The players acquired in the off-season seem to be fitting in well.

A look follows at some of the younger players who have been fighting to make a name for themselves.

Pavel Brendl

Brendl has arguably been the big story at camp. The puck just seems to follow this kid and he has the hands of a surgeon. Even his much-maligned attitude seems vastly improved– at least for now. Brendl stated that he is willing to work on any part of his game that the staff indicates is in need of improvement. Many of his critics have questioned his effort to get back to playing defense. Pavel took that to heart and said that he lead his junior team in plus minus two years ago. He seems willing to give up offensive chances to stay back and work on his defensive positioning. The combination of hard work and offensive production has won him an opening night place on the team.

After leaving the Rangers, Brendl has taken a few shots at his former organization. For one, he said that the team complained about his conditioning, yet never gave him a workout plan to follow. He also said that he felt isolated from the Rangers front office and coaching staff– he heard complaints about himself through the media, but no one ever spoke to him directly. Brendl said that in the time since Glen Sather took over as Rangers GM, he and Brendl had all of one conversation with one another.

That will not be a problem here. Barber’s greatest strength as a coach is his communication with players. And if Brendl’s efforts do not please the big club, he’ll be skating across the parking lot with the Phantoms.

My opinion is that the Flyers are trying to be vocal in their praise for his efforts so far in order to show Brendl that the work ethic he has since the trade is exactly what they want and expect from him. Also, there is a PR benefit to having this kid make the team out of camp. It makes the Lindros deal with the Rangers look like more of a steal for the orange and black. Even so., Brendl came to camp having to win a roster spot– it is now his to lose.

Justin Williams

Nineteen year old Williams has been the most improved holdover player in training camp. He stayed in the area all off-season to workout and add some sorely needed muscle mass to his frame.

His body mass is much more noticeable now. Williams has said from the onset that he wants to play with the top 6 forwards. In the first preseason game he had a beautiful goal. He remained impressive in each of his successive outings.

Williams is highly creative and often looks like the puck is glued to his stick. Last season, he played too much of a “junior hockey” style, holding on to the puck way too much. He will look to play more a team-oriented style this year.

As a rookie, Justin did not play much down the stretch and into the playoffs. Bill Barber is very pleased with the progress he has made since last year. Justin is still ahead of Brendl on the depth chart, meaning that he will probably get first crack at a spot on the Roenick line (and powerplay time), while Brendl will start the year on the third line with Jiri Dopita and Jan Hlavac.

Todd Fedoruk

Fedoruk, a heavy duty enforcer, is another player that has committed to getting better in the off-season. He stayed in the Philadelphia area to workout and tried to improve his skating ability. He has always been an above-average skater for such a big man, but he still had work to do on getting the most out of the first stride off his push-off leg, which is the key to staying in the play at the NHL level.

In the past, the Flyer’s brass has had some problems with Fedoruk’s weight. Even after Fedoruk quit drinking (a problem that has dogged his progress since his junior days), Fedoruk was carrying 247 lbs on his 6’2″ frame. Many people get nervous when they see a players’ weight creep up that high. The Flyers in particular are sensitive to it, because one time prospect Shane Kenny ate himself out of a pro career.

Todd has added greater muscle tone and shed some weight. He is listed currently at 235.The Flyers are happy with his work to cut down his body fat.

Fedoruk had a good preseason. He hit everything that moved, contributed a little opportunistic offense, and had a great fight with young enforcer Stephen Peat.

Clearly, the Flyers love Fedoruk’s fighting ability and he is a boisterous, fun-loving presence in the lockerroom. All the players in the room respect Todd’s game and they feel comfortable with him watching their backs. He is a young kid with a lot of potential and heart. However, Jesse Boulerice is pushing Todd very hard for the team’s enforcer. Fedoruk stated himself that he is feeling the heat from Jesse.

Boulerice has won the first round of the battle– on a technicality. Fedoruk can be returned to the AHL without going through waivers, whereas Boulerice can’t. The battle is far from over, though. Fedoruk is very capable of being the one to take the job over the long haul.

Maxime Ouellet

This is the goalie of the future for the Flyers. He shined in his lone preseason action with the big tream. Maxime made the Flyers last season but was soon sent back to juniors to get more work. Oulluet is big and graceful in playing his position. He is a classic butterfly goalie that looks up to Martin Brodeur. The plan for him is to split the games for the Phantoms with Neil Little, with Ouellet handling an increasing load as the season progresses. The Flyer’s brass loves his style and maturity. Ouellet stayed very busy in camp, splitting time with the Phantoms and the Flyers.

As the season starts, the pressure is on Brian Boucher to perform– if he wants to remain in the organization long-term. Max’s one major problem is his stick handling must improve. Also the team He is the Flyer’s top prospect and one of the brightest young talents anywhere in hockey.

Jesse Boulerice

Jesse moved up the charts quickly in the battle for the enforcer role. The Flyers made a surprise move by giving him #21 at the start of camp, which has a long history of being the number worn by the Flyers primary enforcer.

Boulerice has worked out to add muscle to his chiseled 6’2 220lb. body– he came to camp as the organization’s best-conditioned player.

Boulerice has made the team at the start of the season and many think that the inside track is his to keep the job. A once-highly regarded junior player, Boulerice has decent raw skills that will allow him to get about 8 minutes a game in ice time. Unfortunately, Jesse’s development as a player fell significantly off course because of the incident with Andrew Long. It seems like he is finally back on track.

Boulerice has immense fighting skills and a nasty deposition on the ice. Jesse is in a heated battle for the enforcer role with Todd Fedoruk. Boulerice must learn to know when to drop the gloves in the NHL. Fedoruk understands the timing of fights better than Jesse does. However, Bill Barber has been enthusiastic in his praise of Boulerice’s strength and fighting abilities. He even added a nice goal in the first preseason game.

Boulerice is on the opening night roster. Now he’ll have to continue to improve in order to hold that spot.

Francis Lessard

When Lessard is skating on the ice either in scrimmages or regular games, all the other players know it. The first day of inter-scrimmages, he laid hits on everyone. Later in the week he slashed Todd Fedoruk in his equipment. They both dropped the gloves and went at it. Both players had to be separated. They got a lecture to save it for opponents on game day.

This was not the first time that Lessard’s wrecklessness caused him to have on-ice issues with teammates. In last year’s camp, he took a high run at Mark Recchi, which raised eyebrows among some of the veterans.

Lessard only knows one style– straight ahead. Just ask Eric Lindros how hard Lessard can hit! Bob Clarke and Bill Barber love this kid. Francis has averaged 300 + PIMs in the AHL in his two pro seasons.

Lessard will put his body on the line every night for his teammates; home or road. There is no doubt he is in the Flyers long-term plans, the only question is when.

In the off season the Flyers gave Chris McAllister a contract extension. This will hold Lessard back because they are somewhat similar players– actually, Lessard has the potential to be a better defender than McAllister. Although he’s not an offensive defenseman, many people feel Lessard offers some puck-moving abilities as well as his physical game.

The Philly coaches are trying to get him to play more under control and pick his spots according to the time, place, and score. He made some progress in that area last year, but he still plays out-of-control too frequently. Many times, he tries to plaster a forward and takes himself out of position. He can probably harness that enough to be a #7 defenseman in the NHL- ala McAllister– but the challenge for him is to improve enough to crack the starting 6.

Like Boulerice, Lessard is a workout addict. He is now listed at 223 lbs of solid muscle on his 6-2 frame. All Flyers’ fans should keep an eye on him. It has been a long time since the Flyers had a defensemen that can play regular shifts and still scare people too. The Flyers have said that if he does not make the team this season, he will be up for a regular roster spot by next season.

Joe DiPenta – Joe was signed as a free agent last year and has impressed many with his defensive skills. He has nice size at 6’3 228 lbs. DiPenta is a Chris Therien with less skill. DiPenta can move the puck well for a player his size and does see his forwards to make a nice outlet pass. He’ll hit and occasionally fight, but he’s typically not a “mean” player.

Before the additions of Eric Weinrich and Kim Johnsson, DiPenta was said to be a top contender to make the team. He has subsequently been bypassed by the more readily noticeable play of Lessard and Bruno St. Jacques. DiPenta seems like a long shot to make the team at any point this year. The AHL will serve him well to round his game. While he did not look out of place in camp, he has not stood out, either.

Bruno St. Jacques

If there was a blueline job to be had this preseason, Bruno would have won it. He is rated very highly by many of the people that head up the Flyers’ front office and he only improved that standing with an outstanding preseason. St. Jacques is a very steady defenseman that plays the body well and can make the outlet pass to the forwards.

One thing that works against St. Jacques is a lack of experience. He missed a significant portion of last season with a shoulder problem. Even so, St. Jacques emerged as one of the main defensive leaders with the Phantoms during their playoff run.

St. Jacques looked great paired with Eric Desjardins in several exhibition games. I expect him to improve his all around game greatly with the Phantoms this season. His first NHL call-up is not far away.

Tomas Divisek

Tomas has shown a real knack to go to the front of the net in training camp. Any players that are willing to do that on a nightly basis will open eyes. He has a nice combination of size and skill. Diviesk tends to work well in traffic and can fight through checks. Like every other prospect listed above, the Lindros trade has set him back on the depth chart. Divisek is a center that was switched to the wing last year. Many people see him a better fit on the Flyers depth chart as a center. He has not looked out of place in the preseason games.