Flyers Seidenberg Showing He Belongs in NHL

By Bill Meltzer

Seeing open ice in front of him, Dennis Seidenberg pinches from the point into the left circle and fires a low accurate slapshot on net. Bruins goalie John Grahame makes the save but leaves out a rebound that the Flyers Marty Murray barely misses converting into a goal. Seconds later, virtually the identical sequence unfolds again. Seidenberg claims the puck and, from nearly the same spot, puts a shot on net. This time it’s a wrist shot. Once again, the goalie has to fight off the puck and once again there is a rebound opportunity for Murray. This time the diminitive forward makes no mistake. The first goal of the game belongs to Philadelphia.

Later, the Flyers rookie defenseman draws oohs and aahs from the First Union center crowd as he takes the puck from the Bruins Glen Murray, wheels up the ice and shows some fancy stickhandling around two Bruins to lead the rush up ice and dish to John LeClair for a scoring chance. It is just one of many near-misses for the Flyers on a night where they pepper Grahame with 48 shots but just cannot seem to finish.

Finally, with time running down in the game and the Flyers trailing 2-1, Keith Primeau wins a right circle faceoff cleanly back to Seidenberg. The rookie puts yet another low accurate shot on goal, his 10th shot on goal in the game, and Grahame makes a skate save but kicks the puck into the slot. LeClair pounces on the rebound at the right side of the net to score his first goal in five games and earn the Flyers a point on a night where they seemed destined to lose despite noticeably outplaying the Bruins at even strength.

After the game, reporters clamor to talk to Seidenberg. Many of the out-of-town reporters want to know “who is this guy?”

There soon may be no need to ask. The 21 year old rookie, who played well for his native Germany at the 2002 Olympics and the World Championships, has quietly been nurtured into one of the most pleasant first year success stories in the league. Although Flyers head coach Ken Hitchcock has made Seidenberg a healthy scratch on several occassions this season, he has nothing but positive things to say about Seidenberg.

“I’m not surprised at all with how well he’s doing,” said Hitchcock on November 2nd. “Dennis played well over in a tough league in Germany, he played well for the national team and he’s got all the skills to succeed over here.”

Seidenberg’s other coaches and teammates echo the head coach’s sentiments.

Flyers assistant coach and former NHL head coach Craig Hartsburg says, “Seidenberg is a really smart kid in the way he reads the play– at both ends. He knows when to go [in the rush] and when to stay back. He’s got the speed where even if he’s caught he’ll get back. He competes, too. He’s not the biggest guy out there but he doesn’t get tentative out there and he’s not afraid to get hit to make a play.”

Others marvel at his shot and his passing ability. Says Flyers captain Primeau, “He creates a lot of chances because he keeps the puck low where us guys up front can deflect the puck or get a rebound. And he is very good at making a breakout pass to us in stride which makes it a lot easier to carry the puck into the zone and maybe get a chance to score.”

Perhaps the greatest compliment of all comes from a fellow defenseman, veteran Eric Weinrich, who has played with and against the best players in the world. He says of Seidenberg, “He’s a special player. You can’t teach a lot of the things he does in terms of anticipation and seeing the ice. And he does a lot of things in terms of his preparation and mental toughness that a lot of the young guys don’t have. He’s not one of those guys who comes in and then kind of fades into the background. Dennis is already pretty good but he’s just going to get better and better.”

The modest, soft-spoken Seidenberg, the Flyers 6th round pick in the 2001 entry draft takes the praise in stride.

“Everyone in this league is so good and I just have to be ready when the coach calls on me,” he says simply.

Asked if he is surprised by his rapid acclimation to the NHL, Seidenberg shrugs and says “There’s always a lot of areas to improve. I came here and I wasn’t sure if they wanted me to play on the farm team or the NHL but I just have to be ready. Of course I want to show that I can play in the NHL. This is where everyone wants to be. But you can’t just say well I made it now or whatever. I know I have a lot to prove and a lot of work to do.”

Hitchcock believes that the DEL was good preparation for Seidenberg, the first German player ever drafted by the Flyers. Although Germany’s youth hockey development program lags behind the top European hockey powers, the German Elite League features a high caliber of skill. The league annually boasts a healthy contingent of former NHL players and top Euro league veterans who are lured by the money. As a teenager, Seidenberg established himself as a regular in the league. Nevertheless, given the North American failure or minor league gestation period needed by more hyped German prospects, ranging from Stefan Ustorf to Jochen Hecht, the quick ascension of Seidenberg has surprised many German hockey observers.

Says Hitchcock, “Everyone I talk to from Germany is surprised because Dennis wasn’t a top draft pick and the guys who were, like Marco Sturm, have needed minor league seasoning when they got here [Editor– Sturm actually went directly to the NHL]. But I’m really not surprised at all that Dennis is here with us and doing well. The German Elite League is very good hockey, better than the American Hockey League in terms of skill level.”

Neverthless, when Seidenberg was signed by the Flyers this summer, the initial buzz was that he would start the season with the Philadelphia Phantoms of the AHL. Bruno St. Jacques was slotted to move into the starting blueline job vacated by the departure of free agent Luke Richardson. However, a great camp by Seidenberg, coupled with a disappointing preseason by St. Jacques, enabled Seidenberg to win an opening night starting spot with the big club, while St. Jacques was sent back to the AHL. Although St. Jacques has gotten back on track with the Phantoms and remains an above-average NHL defensive prospect, Seidenberg has justified the wisdom of the decision. Things haven’t always gone smoothly. Like any defenseman, especially a rookie, Seidenberg has made mistakes and some of them have ended up in the Flyers net. But the rookie’s ability to learn from his mistakes can carry him a long way.

That’s not to say that Seidenberg, like any young player, can’t succomb to jitters. There have been a few times where he has looked like he’s nervous and pressing but he works through it and gets back on track. Interestingly, his least impressive games have typically seemed to come on the heels of being scratched. Hitchcock stresses that the scratching have been only to try to help Seidenberg acclimate himself to the long NHL grind and to get little-used seventh defenseman Chris McAllister a little playing time. However, the coach says he may have to reconsider his handling of Seidenberg.

“That’s something we have to review as a coaching staff,” Hitchcock says, “We’ve sat him out a few times now and in the first game back he had a nervous performance and in the second game he had a good performance. I don’t know if it’s an advantage to rest him like that. …He is coming along really nicely anyway.”

Quick development is nothing new for Seidenberg. As a 19 year old, he established himself as a regular starter in the lineup of Adler Mannheim. Adler coach Bill Stewart quickly came to have confidence in Seidenberg, pairing him with former German national team player Brad Bergen. Other Adler teammates included ex-Flyers Mark Pederson, Yves Racine, and Todd Hlushko. Seidenberg’s steady play belied his age. Did he ever talk to the NHL alumni, especially fellow defenseman Racine, about what it takes to make it to the best league in the world?

“Not really, no,” says Seidenberg. “It’s good to ask questions sometimes but you can’t look ahead at something like that. You have to concentrate on playing for your team. But, yeah, it’s good to watch what some of those guys do and learn from them. I learned a lot in Mannheim.”

One of the players from whom Seidenberg learned the most was Bergen. The two clicked immediately and became Adler’s best defensive pairing.

Although no longer with Adler, Seidenberg still takes interest in how the team is playing, in part because his younger brother Yannic now plays for the Mannheim club.

Seidenberg’s strong play in the DEL resulted in him earning a spot on the German national team at the Winter Olympics and in the 2001 and 2002 World Championships. Although Germany’s national team is still a notch below the top world hockey powers, any time a teenage player can earn a spot on his nation’s World Championship roster, it is a noteworthy accomplishment.

Seidenberg, a naturally gifted athlete who excels at tennis as well as hockey, often played forward as well as defense during his time as a junior league player. He would skate a shift on defense and then move up front for a shift at wing. After a short rest, he’d be right back out there on the blueline again.

As a 17 year old, Seidenberg played for the European Bauer Pioneers team against North American junior teams from the AJHL, BCJHL and junior ‘minor’ leagues. Seidenberg more than held his own over the course of the schedule. In fact, he excelled, leading all defensemen on his team in points with 57, most of them in powerplay situations. He also performed very well defensively.

Seidenberg opines that he has been blessed with good coaching throughout his young career but says that he is amazed by Hitchcock’s already-legendary attention to detail. He also says that he is benefitting from the extensive experience and knowledge of assistants Hartsburg and Wayne Fleming.

Could Seidenberg hit a wall at some point and fall into a slump? Quite possibly. NHL success is never a given for anyone, especially rookie defensemen. But Hartsburg believes that Seidenberg is well-equipped to handle the inevitable bumps in the road.

“He’s going to be around for a long time if he stays healthy. He’s a level-headed kid. He doesn’t get too excited or get too down. That’s what you need to make it.”