As the Philadelphia Flyers prepare to enter their 35th season in the National Hockey League tonight, they do so with a great deal of optimism and promise. In terms of roster depth, many have argued that this is the best team the Flyers have iced in decades. With a hoard of quality players at every position, the team is expected to make a strong bid for the Stanley Cup this season.
Despite the Flyers’ great depth, however, the team will once again rely on its AHL affiliate, the Philadelphia Phantoms, when the need arises. After all, injuries are about as much a part of hockey as pucks and missing teeth are. For the record, 13 players saw action with both the Flyers and Phantoms last season.
The following is a by-position listing of the 14 current Phantoms who I believe have a chance to play for the Flyers this season. Keep in mind that many of these players are extreme long shots to see action in the NHL this year, especially the ones further down on the list. Still, given the right circumstances, each has at least an outside chance of donning an orange and black sweater in 2001-02.
1. Marty Murray
An elite point producer at the AHL level, Murray is a very good bet to see time with the Flyers as an injury fill-in this season. Speedy, versatile and mentally tough, the diminutive center is a savvy player who knows his limitations. In seven games with the Calgary Flames last year, Murray played well in a defensive role without trying to overcompensate offensively. According to general manager Bob Clarke, the Deloraine, Manitoba native was the best player for the Calder Cup-winning St. John Flames during the playoffs last season. In 26 career NHL games, Murray has only six points (three goals, three assists). Prior to last year, he put up big numbers in a pair of seasons in Europe.
2. Mark Greig
The Phantoms’ captain has seen action with the Flyers in each of the past three seasons, notching 11 points (five goals, six assists) in 25 games. He is always a reliable call-up because, like Murray, he plays a smart defensive game and even chips in with some offense every now and then. In 120 career NHL games, Greig has tallied 39 points (13 goals, 26 assists). A former first round entry draft selection of the Hartford Whalers (15th overall in 1990), he has established himself as one of the best veteran players in the AHL. Greig always seems to make some sort of contribution when plays for the Flyers, though the team’s depth will almost ensure that he sees less NHL time than he’s used to this season. Greig typically averages about eight games per season with the Flyers.
3. Mike Watt
We won’t be seeing Watt for a while – either in a Flyers or Phantoms uniform. The 25-year-old left winger will be out of action for several months after injuring his shoulder in the Flyers’ first preseason game of the year. Once healthy, Watt may be the team’s top call-up candidate. Acquired over the summer for defenseman Mikhail Chernov, Watt has the most NHL experience of any Phantoms forward (152 games played). He has been a steady offensive performer in three minor league seasons. Watt played the entire 1998-99 season with the New York Islanders, notching 25 points (8 goals, 17 assists) in 75 games.
4. Tomas Divisek
Of the organization’s European prospects in the AHL, Divisek has the best chance to crack the Flyers’ lineup this season. After an injury-riddled and inconsistent campaign last year, the versatile Czech will be looking to get off to a fast start in this, his third season with the Phantoms. Divisek finished last season with 32 points (10 goals, 22 assists) in 45 games. Though he is probably a full step too slow to become major force in the NHL, the 22-year-old has the talent to become a decent third or fourth line player. He has a fan in Flyers head coach Bill Barber, so look for him to reappear (if briefly) with the big club this season. Divisek looked nervous and unprepared during a two-game stint in the NHL last season. Expect him to be ready if called upon this year. Unquestionably, good health will be the key to Divisek’s season.
5. Vaclav Pletka
For the second straight season, Pletka was quite vocal about his frustrations in not making the Flyers out of training camp. He reportedly considered going back to his native Czech Republic to play this season. One would have to figure that Pletka, a very emotional player on and off the ice, will be out to prove the Flyers wrong this season. With the Flyers’ depth, however, there simply is no room for Pletka at the current time. Besides, the Flyers do not believe he is quite NHL-ready yet anyway. Last season’s Phantoms Rookie of the Year, the feisty left winger notched 41 points (20 goals, 21 assists) in 71 games, not exactly eye-popping numbers. His size (5’10”, 185 lbs) works against his NHL chances, but a strong first half may get him a look after the All-Star break.
6. Petr Hubacek
In all likelihood, Hubacek will spend the entire season in the AHL. He started last season – his first in North America – with the Flyers, but the experiment soon turned to disaster. He did nothing to redeem himself after being shipped to the Phantoms, notching just nine points (three goals, six assists) in 62 games. The Flyers are hoping a full season of AHL hockey will toughen up the young center. On numerous occasions last season, Hubacek was criticized for all but completely shying away from physical play. His effectiveness along the boards was often nonexistent. His defensive game needs a lot of work as well. Hubacek does have offensive talent, but the Flyers want to see him make several improvements to his overall game before he returns to the NHL.
7. Mark Freer
Preseason games notwithstanding, Freer hasn’t been spotted in a Flyers uniform since the 1991-92 season. Originally signed as a free agent by Philadelphia way back in 1986, Freer went on to spend the majority of his career in the IHL. After returning to the organization last season, he put up good numbers (31 games, 41 assists) in 76 games with the Phantoms. Unless the Flyers run into major injury problems, we won’t be seeing Freer in a Flyers sweater this season. Regardless, he is a veteran presence who could feasibly fill in on an emergency basis. Freer has 39 points (16 goals, 23 assists) in 124 NHL games.
1. Bruno St. Jacques
In almost any other year, St. Jacques’ terrific preseason would have won him a job straight out of training camp. When the Flyers acquired Eric Weinrich and Kim Johnsson over the summer, however, the 21-year-old defender’s immediate fate was all but sealed. But this is not at all a bad thing. St. Jacques, entering just his second season of professional hockey, should do well by the valuable experience he’ll gain with another season in the AHL. He only played in 45 games last season because of a shoulder injury, so extra seasoning is practically essential in this case. St. Jacques was so steady in training camp that he stayed with the Flyers throughout the preseason. He played alongside Eric Desjardins in the final two exhibition games and didn’t look out of place at all. The Flyers are very impressed by St. Jacques’ game. He is mobile with the puck and doesn’t hesitate to get physical when need be. St. Jacques is a Phantom for now, but his first NHL call-up could be right around the corner. If Chris McAllister falters in his role as the Flyers’ seventh defenseman (not unlikely), he could easily slip into that role.
2. Francis Lessard
Hyperactive and ultra-physical, the 22-year-old Lessard has averaged 363 penalty minutes in his two seasons with the Phantoms. In just 142 games, Lessard easily eclipsed Frank Bialowas as the team’s all-time leader with 746 penalty minutes. “The Animal” had 555 PIMs in 156 games with the Phantoms. That should tell you all you need to know about Lessard’s on-ice mentality. Maturity-wise, he has a ways to go before he can prove that he is ready for regular blueline duty in the NHL. A decent puck-moving defenseman who covers his own end well, Lessard simply has to play a smarter game on a more consistent basis. The Flyers love the fear factor that he can put into opponents, but they are not too keen on his often out-of-control style of play. Regardless of the game situation, Lessard looks for the big hit on almost every shift. His fights are often ill timed as well. The Flyers would simply like to see him use more discretion on the ice. That being said, the organization is very high on Lessard’s ability to develop into a sixth or seventh defenseman. Look for him to get at least a sniff this year.
3. Brad Tiley
A true minor league veteran, Tiley has appeared in 674 combined games in the AHL and IHL. Last season, his 10th as a professional, he tallied 30 points (11 goals, 19 assists) in 56 games with the Phantoms. The previous season, with the Springfield Falcons, Tiley notched 68 points (14 goals, 54 assists) in 80 games en route to winning the Eddie Shore Award as the top defenseman in the AHL. He is a very responsible defender, which places him ahead of John Slaney (see below) on the Flyers’ call-up depth chart. Tiley, who played in two games with the Flyers last season, has also appeared briefly for the Phoenix Coyotes. In 11 career NHL games, he has yet to register a single point.
4. John Slaney
Once upon a time, Slaney was considered to be one of the brightest prospects among young offensive defensemen in the NHL. Indeed, he has grown into that role – in the AHL. A former first round draft selection of the Washington Capitals (ninth overall in 1990), Slaney was last season’s winner of the Eddie Shore Award, notching 67 points (18 goals, 49 assists) in 65 games with the Phantoms and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Slaney has the most NHL experience of any current Phantom (263 games played), and is probably good enough to be a sixth or seventh defenseman on one of the NHL’s lesser teams. He could see time with the Flyers for those reasons, but he can be a liability in his own end at times. That certainly works against his chances.
5. Joe DiPenta
Way back, before the Flyers acquired Weinrich and Johnsson, there was talk that DiPenta would be competing with St. Jacques and Lessard for a Flyers roster spot in training camp. Like St. Jacques, DiPenta is entering his second season of professional hockey with the Phantoms. A strictly defensive rearguard, DiPenta recorded eight points (three goals, five assists) in 71 games as a rookie. At least another full season in the AHL will be essential to his longterm development. DiPenta did, however, have a solid training camp with the Flyers this year. Depending on his play with the Phantoms, he could get a look later in the season.
1. Maxime Ouellet
After three outstanding seasons at the junior level (QMJHL), Ouellet is set to take the reigns as the new starting goaltender for the Phantoms. One of the top prospects in hockey, he plays the game with a level of maturity that is very impressive for a mere 20-year-old. Ideally, the Flyers would like to see their “goalie of the future” gain a full year’s worth of experience in the AHL. With two quality netminders playing for the big club, the organization can afford to take its time in allowing Ouellet to develop. Realistically, he may be two seasons away from seeing any kind of regular duty in the NHL. Expect to see him with the Flyers only if Roman Cechmanek or Brian Boucher goes down with a serious injury at some point. Ouellet appeared in two games with the Flyers last season before being sent back to his junior team, the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. His season was cut short by a broken thumb, but not before he registered 18 wins, a 2.65 GAA and a .913 save percentage in 25 Quebec League games.
2. Neil Little
Actually, Little is probably more likely than Ouellet to receive a call-up to the Flyers this season. He is less likely, however, to actually get into a game. Little has been recalled to the Flyers as a backup several times over the past few seasons, but has never seen a single minute of NHL action. He could play a similar role this season, especially if one of the Flyers’ goaltenders suffers a short-term injury. The fact that the organization likes Little in his current role was obvious when the goaltender was given a contract extension this summer. He is a true leader and a great veteran player for the Flyers’ AHL prospects to learn from. Having played and lived in Philadelphia for the past four seasons, Little is also a great asset because he knows the ins and outs of the city so well. Thus, he can help enculturate young players who may be initially awed by the big city experience. In many ways, Little’s value to the organization is often underrated.