Flyers Update Plans for Several European Prospects

By Bill Meltzer

With the key exception of Jeff Woywitka, most of the current Flyers prospects of note outside the North American professional ranks are European born and trained players.

Philadelphia Flyers Assistant General Manager Paul Holmgren recently updated the club’s plans for several key players. It is well known in all corner that the team plans to make every effort to get it’s top prospect, Joni Pitk√§nen, under contract this off-season. Less clear, until now were the organization’s short-term goals for several other players.

Roman Malek : With the Czech playoffs poised to start, Malek is coming off a record breaking regular season; one of the best for a goaltender in European hockey history. Although the player has one year remaining on his contract with Slavia Prague, his Edmonton-based agent,
Peter Svoboda indicated two months ago that he would advise his client to sign with the Flyers if a deal could be worked out.

Back in November, Holmgren indicated that the organization was quite happy with Roman Cechmanek and Robert Esche and would take their time formulating a plan on whether to pursue a deal that would see Malek at least competing for an NHL backup job next season.

Now, however, Holmgren confirms to Hockey’s Future, “we do have interest in signing him for next season.” He did not elaborate any further.

Back in 1997, after the Flyers collapsed in the Stanley Cup Finals in part due to shaky goaltending from Ron Hextall and Garth Snow, the organization initially planned to bring 1994 draftee Johan Hedberg to training camp to compete for a job. However, Hedberg’s agent badly overcalculated their bargaining position and the Flyers abruptly ended the negotiations, re-signing restricted free agents Snow and Neil Little in quick order. Hedberg, who had already announced his intention to leave the Leksand Stars, was stuck playing in the IHL while awaiting a trade of his rights to another organization.

This is unlikely to happen with Malek, as Svoboda is a savvy player agent. If he plays ball with the Flyers– which means being flexible enough to consider the possibility of at least some AHL time, his client will get a legitimate shot at an NHL backup job either out of training camp. The money will not be any better once the CBA expires and, as a player who has stated he eventually wants to give North American hockey a shot, the time is now for him.

There figures to be some serious competition between Malek and Esche for the backup job to Roman Cechmanek in 2003-2004, although Holmgren clearly did not want to cast it in this light, given the overall strong play and positive locker room presence of the popular Esche.

Alexander Drozdetsky : Holmgren had a surprise revelation for Hockey’s Future. The organization attempted to get the Russian winger’s name on an entry level contract last summer but “he felt that he would not be ready just yet.” Instead, Drozdetsky returned for another season of Russian hockey.

Drozdetsky’s streaky 2002-2003 season has made his status a tough call for the Flyers once again. Holmgren says, “We will speak with him and his agent again soon and share thoughts and ideas as to what is best for us and for Alexander.”

It seems probable that the Flyers have determined that Drozdetsky has accomplished just about he’s going to do in European hockey– even if he gets statistically better and more consistent with another season– and it’s time for him to start trying to adapt to the North American style; probably in the AHL, as he does not seem NHL ready.

Drozdetsky remains a hit or miss prospect in terms of his North American upside. It is the feeling here that he needs to come over now, even if he still has issues with consistency, strength and defensive lapses. Expect a contract offer, which the Drozdetsky camp would be wise to accept this time around.

Pavel Kasparik : At the beginning of this season, Holmgren was quoted on the Flyers official web site as saying that the organization thinks Kasparik “is a good prospect. Our scout in the Czech Republic [Vaclav Slansky] has continued to follow him and thinks he is a player that we would look at to sign this summer and possibly play with the Phantoms next year.”

However, after what can only be deemed a disappointing season from Kasparik, the organization is now saying something else. Holmgren tells Hockey’s Future, “We have kept our eye on Pavel Kasparik, but we have never talked about ‘bringing him over.’ In our opinion, he still needs to improve in many areas and we do not feel that he is ready for AHL or NHL hockey just yet.”

The Flyers’ assessment seems well-reasoned, as Kasparik has simply not gotten the job done at either end of the ice most of this season and it is a considerable stretch to envision him making an impact for the Phantoms, much less the Flyers.

Given that Kasparik is already 23 and has not shown that he can take his “breakthrough” 2001-2002 season to the next level, the Flyers assessment of “not just yet” is getting close to meaning “we’re not going to sign him.” Big players are often late bloomers but it’s unlikely Kasparik is going to get much better. Thus, it is Hockey Future’s assessment that Kasparik basically has one year left before he becomes a non-prospect.

Nikita Korovkin : The Russian back has had a fine season in the Western Hockey League to get himself onto the organization’s prospect radar screen as one of the more promising members of the club’s 2002 draft class. The team has until 2004 to sign Korovkin before he could re-opt into the draft. The plan right now is have him play another WHL season and then make a contract offer determination sometime during next season.

Says Holmgren, “Korovkin has had a good year. We will continue to follow his progress for the rest of this season and next. We feel it is a little early to call him a legitimate professional prospect, but our hope is that he commits himself to a strong overall fitness routine that will get him in top condition. By doing this and adding to his overall game, he has a chance.”

Translation: the organization still seems to feel that conditioning is a significant issue with the player before he could adapt to the rigors of the professional game. Although Korovkin has been very consistent this season at the junior level, a whole other level of demands– both in terms of muscular and cardiovascular strength– is required of a pro.

This is by no means a shot at the player but an indication that the organization believes he has a bit further to go than some Western League observers have suggested.