Flyers Prospect News and Notes (10/26/2002)

By Bill Meltzer

A look at who’s hot and who’s not in the Flyers system.

Brendl Breaking Through?

In the Flyers last game, a 6-2 spanking of the Habs, Pavel Brendl had a beautiful assist on a goal by Marty Murray and later scored his first goal of the season (the first “real” goal of his NHL career– last season he scored a freak goal against Olaf Kölzig on a flip-in from center ice as Brendl was about to go off on a line change).

New Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock seems determined to get the most out of Brendl by being stingy with his ice time until the young player consistently proves he deserves more. Brendl has been a healthy scratch in two games and has barely seen the ice in about 3 of the 5 games in which he has been in the lineup.

To Brendl’s credit, he hasn’t pouted or sulked about his sparing playing time. He seems to be making the effort to do the things that Hitchcock wants to see from him– getting more involved in the play in all three zones and not just floating around the circles. He isn’t all the way there yet, but there’s a dramatic difference between the Brendl we see out there now and the guy about whom former Flyers assistant coach E.J. McGuire said last winter did not show the will to compete. It was nice to see Brendl rewarded with a multi-point game in the match with Montreal.

Brendl is still very much a work in progress and it’s foolish to say he’s turned a corner because of one strong game but it’s also foolish to write him off yet. Points aside (October stats are largely meaningless, especially for rookies), there are signs of hope.

Seidenberg Back in the Lineup

After being a healthy scratch in the Flyers 2-1 loss in Buffalo, rookie Dennis Seidenberg returned to the Flyers starting lineup in the Flyers win over Montreal.

The most notable occurance for Seidenberg in the Canadiens game occurred when the young defender was turned inside out by Saku Koivu, who proceeded to beat Flyers goalie Roman Cechmanek through the five hole from the inside of the right circle.

These are always telling moments for young defensemen. They measure the player’s poise and maturity. All defensemen, especially inexperienced ones, make costly mistakes. The difference between the good ones and the mediocre ones is that the good defenders learn from their mistakes and they don’t panic.

You can learn a lot more about what a young defenseman is made of after he makes a gaffe than when things go smoothly. Will he get tentative? Will he try too hard to make up for the mistake by forcing the play?

Seidenberg passed the test this time. After the Koivu goal, Seidenberg looked fine. He didn’t do anything remarkable but he wasn’t tentative or overanxious either. File that away as the season progresses.

Somik Looking to Get Back Into Action

Radovan Somik has been struggling with injuries since the end of the pre-season. In just his third game back, he suffered a hip flexor injury. He is out for tonight’s game on the Island but should be ready to go early next week.

Lefebvre Recalled

With Somik, Murray (groin pull in the Montreal game), and Todd Fedoruk (thumb injury in the Montreal game) temporarily out of the lineup, the Flyers have recalled Guillaume Lefebvre from the Phantoms. They also recalled André Savage.

Lefebvre is a fundamentally sound two way player who, like Patrick Sharp, seems likely to eventually stick in the NHL as the type of role player who is a 3rd line natural but who can fill in successfully on any line. He was off to a good start with the Phantoms (3 points including a goal in 4 games, +3). Lefebvre did not look out of place during a late season recall to the big club last year. His stay with the Flyers will probably be brief this time and his ice time limited but look for him to eventually work his way into Hitchcock’s plans for the checking lines.

This could happen sooner rather than later if Somik can’t stay healthy, his play faulters or if Brendl ends up back in the doghouse.

Niittymäki Makes His North American Pro Debut to Mixed Results

Finnish goaltender Antero Niittymäki had a terrific pre-season for the Phantoms after being sent down by the Flyers. However, he has had a mediocre beginning to his first North American professional regular season.

Niittymäki looked very nervous and tentative in his first outing against Wilkes Barre/Scranton, although he was the winning goalie. He gave up four goals, only one of which he had absolutely no chance to stop. He struggled terribly with rebounds and also got beaten short-side on a side angle goal. Although 3 of the goals came over the first 30 minutes of the game, truth be told, Niittymäki still looked a little shaky. He wasn’t awful but he didn’t slam the door either. He got away with at least two preventable rebounds he left out in the slots.

I did not see the Phantoms 3-2 home loss against Norfolk last night but, from the game description, it seems as though at least one of the goals was preventable– a slapshot by Casey Hankinson from just over the blueline.

It’s not really surprising that Niittymäki has had some early season growing pains in the AHL rookie year– so did Maxime Ouellet last year and Brian Boucher had an up-and-down AHL rookie year as well. There’s no reason to worry. In the first place, it’s a long season. Secondly, young goalies and defensemen always tend to take longer than forwards to come into their own. Lastly, Niittymäki still needs time to complete the adjustment to the North American rinks– a factor that is especially important for a goalie because they have to adjust to playing the angles a little differently. He’ll need at least a half season of play before it’s fair to start saying whether his rookie season has been a success or a disappointment.

St. Jacques Getting Back on Track

After losing out to Seidenberg in a battle for the last defensive starting job with the big club, Bruno St. Jacques has had to shift his focus to returning to the kind of hockey that got him noticed in the first place– aggressive hitting, poised defense.

According to Jim Segrest, Bruno did not play well in the season opener, a 1-0 overtime win. However, he looked to be back on track in the first game against Wilkes Barre/Scranton. He was throwing his weight around with authority, making quick decisions and showing much better mobility than some seem to think he possesses.

Although that one match is the only one of the Phantoms four games to date that I have seen, the stats seem to bear out that Bruno is indeed back on track. Despite the fact that the opening game was a 1-0 OT squeaker, the Phantoms got blown out in the return match with WB/S, and last night’s game was another loss (in which 2 of the 3 goals against came at regular strength), St. Jacques is a team-best +3 on the season (to go along with a pair of assists).

Patrick Sharp Looking to Boost Phantoms

After making his NHL debut in the Flyers opening night tie against Edmonton, Patrick Sharp was sent back to the Phantoms as the Flyers ended their season opening trip to western Canada.

Sharp scored a powerplay goal in his AHL debut against Wilkes Barre/Scranton and had a very strong all-around game but has not appeared again on the scoresheet in the three subsequent contests. Overall he has the one goal in four games, to go along with a -3. Again, it’s a long season. He’ll be fine– I would be surprised if Sharp does not wind up winning the Phantoms rookie of the year award at the end of the season.

Vandermeer Scuffling

Jim Vandermeer looks more and more like another “overage junior” phenom who comes back down to earth once he starts playing with pros, rather than teenagers. The 22 year old defender still seems get caught out of position with a little more frequency than you’d like to see. The toughness is there. The hitting ability is there. But he seems to work at “AHL speed” and has not shown any signs that he’s close to mastering that level of play. He is an average AHL defenseman and doesn’t seem ready to imminently become much more than that.

That may be a harsh judgement, because he’s only a second year pro and he’s still young but Vandermeer doesn’t do anything that jump out at you on the ice that would suggest he’s about to come into his own. It’s not a question of stats (4 GP, 0 PTS, -2, 23 PIM). It’s a matter of a defenseman showing the qualities you look for– Does it seem like he’s always knocking someone to the ice or standing someone up at the blueline? Does he make quick, accurate decisions with the puck? Does he have good wheels? Does he make good breakout passes? Does he protect his goalie? So far with Vandermeer, only the latter question can conclusively be answered with a yes. That’s not enough.

The good news? He’s only a second year player and still has youth on his side. There’s no question (unlike with Ian Forbes) that he is not over his head at the AHL. John Stevens likes his work ethic. So there’s still time for Vandermeer to work his way up the depth chart. But with Seidenberg and St. Jacques ahead of him and with Jeff Woywitka and Joni Pitkänen coming soon, I don’t like his chances in this organization. Vandermeer needs to make his move now if he’s going to be in the Flyers NHL plans.

Forbes Demoted to Trenton

Ian Forbes chances of ever making the Flyers grow dimmer and dimmer. A third year pro, he still has yet to earn a starting job at the AHL level, much less becoming even a blip on an NHL radar screen. Forbes has filled out and no longer looks gawky on his skates but he still is no more than a mediocre minor league defenseman.

The Phantoms recently sent Forbes back down to the ECHL Trenton Titans in order to get playing time. Some hold out hope that he could still turn a corner but, as with Forbes’ Trenton teammate Matt Zultek, I’d be shocked if he makes it to the NHL.

Junior Hockey Report

The nicest story so far has been that of Russian defenseman Nikita Korovkin , who has been stellar for Kamloops. He has 9 points in 13 games (including 4 goals (3 PPG)) but just as importantly, he’s been strong in his own end of the ice (+14).

Jeff Woywitka would be with the Phantoms if the rules allowed it. There’s not much left for him to prove in junior hockey but a little extra experience won’t hurt him a bit, either. People forget that he was one of the youngest players in the 2001 draft class. His play for Red Deer so far this year has been very steady as usual (12 points, 3 goals (all PPG), +5, 14 PIM).

In other junior news, Mathieu Brunelle has 14 points (7 goals) in 13 games for Victoriaville of the QMJHL….Rosario Ruggeri (Chicoutimi) is also playing quite well (13 points, including 4 goals (2 PPG) and a +7 rating in 15 games…. Thierry Douville isn’t shaping up as much of a prospect– he’s no better than an average junior defender– but it’s fun to watch his PIM totals. He hasn’t disappointed in that regard. He already has 94 PIM in just 11 games.

European Report

After a scorching start, Alexander Drozdetsky has cooled off for CSKA Moscow. He’s scoreless in his last 7 games although he has chipped in with 3 assists. For the season, he has 7 goals and 11 points in 16 games. In the bigger picture, he has added some of the badly needed muscle the Flyers were looking for and his overall level of play has picked up.

Roman Malek has emerged as not only the best goaltender in the Czech Extraliga this season but arguably the best goalie in Europe this season. He’s been sensational for Slavia Prague, with a sterling 1.32 goals against average and a .959 save percentage. The victim of a near total absence of goal support in the early going, Malek has been notching wins lately as the Slavia offense has finally gotten going.

Joni Pitkänen made a single bad defensive mistake in the last game Kärpät played but he otherwise played one of his best games on the young season. Overall, he’s coming along just fine this season (7 points including 2 goals, 14 PIM, even +/- (+8,-8)).

Jussi Timonen is not getting a lot of ice time for TPS Turku but he has dressed as a starter in the last 10 games. He has not yet gotten on the scoreboard and he’s been out for 4 goals against (and just one goal for) but he’s shown improvement in recent games.

Timonen’s TPS teammate Marko Kauppinen is a mainstay on TPS’ blueline and has scored three goals but he’s not a strong candidate to come over to play here.

Huge Swedish defenseman David Printz got off to a terrible start to the SM-Liiga season but he’s played much better in his last few games for HPK. He’s still a longshot project.

Pavel Kasparik has been a major disappointment for Sparta Prague. Coming off what looked to be a breakthrough season, good things were expected from him this year. In fact, it was said he was within a year of being ready for North American pro hockey. He hasn’t delivered, with only 3 points in 15 games. He is still looking for his first goal of the season.

Milan Kopecky looks like he might be sticking in the Czech Extraliga. After bouncing back and forth between Division 1 Beroun and the elite league (including 7 games at the beginning of this year), Kopecky is now dressing regularly for Slavia. He isn’t getting a lot of ice time but he’s playing.

Konstantin Rudenko finally seems to be healthy after a year of shoulder problems. He has 2 goals in 9 games for Yaroslavl.

David Nyström is a good division-1 level player in Sweden but he still has not made it to Elitserien which for all intents and purposes means that he isn’t a prospect. He does lead his club, Halmstad, in points (10 points, including 7 goals, in 12 games) but he’s not showing any signs whatsoever that he could ever be more than an average Elitserien player, much less an NHLer.

College Report

There is little doubt that Colin Shields has the hands to play pro hockey but the overall consensus on him seems to be that he’s fairly one-dimensional. However, he’s been quite good in the early going for Maine this year. The goals are there as expected (4 goals (3 PPG) in 3 games) but so too have been improvements in his all-around game. The Flyers, without saying so directly, seem to have him pegged as a minor league prospect. But a big year this year could still change their thinking about his level of upward mobility.

Bernd Bruckler has split the first 4 starts for Wisconsin this season with Scott Kabatoff. Bruckler had a bad first game but was solid in his second outing. His teammate John Eichelberger still has yet to show the playmaking skills he did before he was recruited by the Badgers and is fading as a prospect.

No report on Harvard goalie Dov Grumet-Morris or huge Colgate defenseman Joey Mormina.