Flyers ratings updates

By Bill Meltzer

At the conclusion of the 2002-2003 season, the profiles for all players in the Philadelphia Flyers system will be updated to reflect their play this season and reassess their futures. For now, though, there have been modifications made in the overall system rankings and adjustments on some players “potential level” rankings. Here’s a look at the key changes that have been made.

Seidenberg, Brendl move to ‘Graduated’ list

At this point, Dennis Seidenberg and, to a lesser extent, Pavel Brendl have both solidified their roster spots with the Flyers to the extent that it makes sense to take the NHL rookies off the prospect list and move them to “graduated” status. Neither is likely to be demoted to the Phantoms.

The case for Seidenberg is self-evident. He’s clearly an NHL player. We won’t know for several years how good of an offensive and defensive NHL defenseman he’ll prove to be, but he definitely belongs in the league and fully merits being considered an NHLer now and not a prospect. Brendl, though, is a lot more complicated.

Brendl’s NHL roster spot is safe but his hold on his spot in the starting lineup– currently on Keith Primeau’s line and the second powerplay unit– is still rather tenuous. While he’s played impressively for the most part since getting the chance to play on the scoring lines, it’s doubtful that once John LeClair returns from his shoulder injury that Brendl will continue to receive the kind of ice time he has lately, unless he lifts his game yet another level higher and makes it impossible for Ken Hitchcock to demote him.

Of course, injuries are always an X-factor and are impossible to predict. Injuries elsewhere in the Flyers lineup could take care of the numbers problem and keep Brendl on the top two lines. Although the knee sprain suffered by Justin Williams in the January 18 game against Tampa Bay does not appear serious, it is the same knee that he suffered sprained ligaments in earlier this season and missed a couple weeks of action.

Nevertheless, presuming good health for Williams and the other forwards on lines 1 and 2, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere for Brendl to go once LeClair returns. He won’t go back on Michal Handzus’ line because the line has been more effective with Donald Brashear banging people around and creating space than it was as more of a “skill” line with Brendl.

Giving Brendl 4th line type of ice time (not necessarily skating on the 4th line itself but, rather, playing the odd shift here and there each period) hasn’t given him much chance to build on anything offensively, nor has it filled a defined role on the team. While Brendl’s defensive play and overall intensity have improved considerably, his bread and butter will always be his ability to get involved in the offense. So if he’s not playing on a scoring line 5-on-5 and getting powerplay time, Brendl really doesn’t have a role on the 2002-2003 Flyers.

So why is his roster spot safe? First of all, there is nothing to gain by sending him down to the Phantoms, especially now. Secondly, there are still quite a few people on the Flyers– most notably (and most vocally) Mark Recchi– who think that Brendl is on the right track now and will break through, if not immediately then eventually. Hitchcock seems to concur. Lastly, Brendl still has so many skeptics around hockey that he really doesn’t have a lot of trade value at this point. So the Flyers would do best to hang on to him and treat his development as at least a two season project. Even if he were to be traded, however, it would be to play on someone else’s NHL roster.

Brendl’s selection the NHL YoungStars game underscores the fact he is now an “NHL” player. Realistically, Brendl is going there based on his still-considerable potential and for the undeniable fact that this is a lean year for the “entry level contract” NHL players who would play in that sort of game. You aren’t going to see the Ilya Kovalchuks and Dany Heatleys out there.

Earlier this season, Radovan Somik was moved to the graduated list. That was based on his age and underscored by his role with the club. Hitchcock wants him to be a checker and he does that well.

Roman Malek jumps ahead of Antero Niittymäki in the rankings

Antero Niittymäki is a couple of years younger than Malek and has come on to play well in his first AHL season. He remains a good NHL prospect. However, Malek has had such a sensational season in the Czech Republic this year that he merits moving ahead of Niittymäki on the rankings chart. Although both have 7.0 ratings, this was the tie-breaker in my estimation. Malek is NHL ready now; he could at least be an NHL backup right now. Niittymäki is not NHL ready, although he seems on track again after a rough first two months in the AHL. The ratings change is an acknowledgement of Malek, not a knock on Niittymäki because he struggled early.

Jim Vandermeer vaults to 8th on the charts

Jim Vandermeer had an up-an-down rookie season for the Philadelphia Phantoms last year and struggled a bit defensively at the start of the season. However, he really came on over the last couple of months. With Bruno St. Jacques unavailable for call-up due to a shoulder injury (he recently returned to the lineup), Vandermeer earned his first NHL recall to fill in for the injured Marcus Ragnarsson.

Vandermeer played commendably but still found himself demoted to the Phantoms again in an ill-fated attempt to get Chris McAllister some playing time. McAllister’s disastrous play on the blueline led to a quick recall for Vandermeer. He recently scored his first NHL goal. More importantly– especially given the fact that, at the pro level, offense is not a major facet of his game — Vandermeer has not hurt the team defensively. There have been plays where he’s looked like a rookie, but that’s only to be expected.

Vandermeer needed to make his move this season before he got buried on the organizational depth chart. To his credit, he has risen to the challenge. Both Joni Pitkänen and Jeff Woywitka will be ahead of him on the pro depth chart when they arrive in Philadelphia; if not right away, then certainly within a year or so. So the time for Vandermeer to make case for the NHL had to be sooner rather than later.

Vandermeer has made the competition very interesting. The consensus was– and still is– that St. Jacques is the more advanced prospect. Once St. Jacques gets his game conditioning back to speed with the Phantoms, Vandermeer will likely go back to the Phantoms and Bruno will come back up. He’s earned the chance.

Vandermeer however, has certainly narrowed the gap and now presents St. Jacques with legitimate competition to be the one to move up to the next level. Bruno, unfortunately, can never seem to catch a break. He can’t stay healthy and others step up when he’s not at his best. Every season, just as he’s hitting on all cylinders, St. Jacques goes down and misses significant time with injuries. Of particular concern is the fact that he’s repeatedly hurt his shoulder. That’s not unexpected given the style St. Jacques plays. If he can stay healthy, St. Jacques deserves an extended look in the NHL. But will it be here in Philly?

Flyers GM Bob Clarke has indicated that if there’s no spot for St. Jacques on the Flyers, he’ll try to trade the player to an NHL team where he can start. The improvement of Vandermeer may also contribute to a decision to trade St. Jacques. The Flyers should hold on to St. Jacques and put him in competition for a starting spot next season. Especially if Ragnarsson and/or Eric Desjardins depart via free agency this offseason, it will be important to have as much depth as possible to compete for the starting lineup. It’s all well and good to “do the kid a favor,” but the needs of the organization have to come first.

Meanwhile, in the short term, there’s NHL playing time to be had for either St. Jacques or Vandermeer until Ragnarsson returns. There will be time for the player to show they belong. When Ragnarsson is back, the situation gets complicated again.

The Flyers starting 6 are entrenched in their roles. Hitchcock has said that McAllister no longer will be used as a defenseman, so there’s an opening for someone to take the 7th D role. The Flyers have three options when Ragnarsson comes back.

Option one is to use one of the rookies in the seven spot. Rookies, though, rarely make for ideal #7 defensemen. It’s hard to improve– or to stay sharp– if you don’t play in the games.

Option two is to fill the seventh spot with a veteran and use one of the youngsters if a longer-term fill-in is needed. Among players currently in the organization, John Slaney seems best suited that role, although his name has not widely been mentioned this season. Of course, the spot could also be filled via a minor trade for a lower tier NHL veteran.

Option three is simply to carry six defensemen and make the callup to a rookie if necessary. The drawback to that is if there’s a last second injury, the team can be temporarily caught one D short. However, since the Flyers have already made their West Coast visits for the season, it’s unlikely they’d have to start a game with 5 defenseman for more than a single game.

At any rate, it’s nice to see St. Jacques and Vandermeer creating numbers problems for the GM and Hitchcock.

Kopecky and Mormina Enter Top 20

With Seidenberg and Brendl moving to the graduated list, two other players had to be moved onto the top 20 list. Pavel Kasparik could have been added based upon his 2001-2002 season. The Flyers apparently considered signing him for this season, so he was on the verge of a North American pro career. But Kasparik has had a very rough season this year. Plus, he just turned 24, so this is virtually a make-or-break season for him as a prospect. While neither Joey Mormina (a 20-year-old collegiate stay-at-home defenseman) nor Milan Kopecky (at 21 has finally made it to dress regularly at the Czech Extraliga level) are having eye-popping seasons at their respective levels of play, they at least have shown progress this year.

Prospect rankings are dynamic, especially once you move past the top couple players. If he finishes with a flourish, Kasparik could easily move back up a number of spots at the end of the season.