Rookie Trio Helps Boost Philadelphia Phantoms

By Bill Meltzer

The Philadelphia Phantoms have enjoyed a good deal of success during their
brief AHL existence. Most of their success, however, has been due to the
play of minor league veterans. Some of the minor league vets, most notably
Vaclav Prospal, Craig Darby and Mike Maneluk, were still young enough
during their Phantoms stay to still be considered of NHL prospect age.
More typically, however, the Phantoms have relied upon older, “career” minor
leaguers such as Peter White, Jim Montgomery, Shawn McCosh and Bruce

While the team has had a handful of standout rookies along the way
(Jean-Marc Pelletier and Mark Eaton come to mind), the team’s first year
players have more typically been eased slowly into the lineup by coach
Bill Barber. Before they earn steady ice time, they must show across-the-board
improvement in their game. If they do not show the all-around development
that Barber demands, the coach will not hesitate to bench them or have
them demoted to a club in a lower league; Francis Belanger being a perfect case
in point. If the young player succeeds in gaining Barber’s confidence with
his work habits and willingness to take criticism, he will see increasing
ice time over the second half of the season.

This season, the Phantoms have had two rookies (Francis Lessard and Tomas
Divisek) who almost immediately became integral parts of the hockey team
and a third (Ruslan Fedotenko) who responded very well to an early season
ECHL demotion and shortly thereafter, became a fixture in the Phantoms
lineup. Along with recalled players Mark Eaton and Andy Delmore and
Phantoms sophomore Mikhail Chernov, the Flyers organization now has, for
the first time since the mid-1980s, the beginnings of a decent crop of
young p at the minor league level.

None of the Phantoms current top rookies are without flaws in their games,
but there is a significant foundation of talent for all three to build
upon. As the AHL playoffs rapidly approach, the three players are being
counted on to be strong contributors in the Phantoms quest for their
Calder Cup. Bigger and better things may lie in their futures.

Tomas Divisek

Coming into his first North American training camp, the Flyers
organization was a bit uncertain what to expect from the Czech forward. As a 19 year
old, he had become a regular starter for Slavia Prague in the Czech
Extraleague, notching a respectable 7 goals last season despite the
limited ice time that is typically given to young players in Europe’s top leagues.
Moreover, Divisek was one of the bright spots on the disappointing Czech
entry (7th place) at the 1998-99 World Junior Championships. Divisek was
the leading point scorer for the Czechs (6th best overall in the
tournament), and tied for the tournament lead in assists. He was also his
team’s top faceoff taker, and was barely nosed out of the top 10 overall.
Divisek’s chemistry with WJC linemate Vaclav Pletka subsequently led the
Flyers to use a late round pick on Pletka in the 1999 entry draft.

Although the organization was hopeful that they had a keeper in Divisek,
there were still some questions about aspects his game. Divisek’s
instincts, ice vision, and ability to protect the puck are above-average
for a player his age but his hands are only average to slightly above
average. He lacks the finishing touch of a prolific goal scoring prospect.
Additionally, his skating is average at best and remains his biggest
obstacle to a potential NHL future.

Divisek also faced a language barrier early in the season. Divisek
understood a little English upon arriving for camp this past fall but
spoke almost none. Roman Vopat, who was with the Phantoms at the beginning of
the season, initially served as Divisek’s translator. With amazing rapidity,
however, Divisek has come a long way in his mastery of English. He can now
understand a good deal of English and can also respond with

Divisek played very well early in the season, but through the first dozen
or so games, the results were not showing in the statistics column.
Nevertheless, Barber was impressed by the Czech’s work ethic and his
commitment to playing a two-way game (something that was lacking team-wide
early in the season). He stuck with Divisek in the lineup and the rookie
responded by quickly becoming one of the Phantoms most consistent game-in
and game-out performers. Divisek rarely has had two bad games in a row.
Upon the subtraction of veteran Jim Montgomery from the Phantoms roster,
Divisek began to assume a more prominent offensive role on the team.
Shifted from center to play left wing on Peter White’s line, Divisek drew
raves from Barber for the way the rookie’s energy seemed to spark veterans
White and Mark Greig.

Divisek quickly began to rise on the team’s scoring charts until going
down with a separated shoulder in December. He was sidelined for the better
part of a month. However, upon returning to the lineup, he has picked up where
he left off offensively. Despite his (statistically) slow offensive start
and missing a spate of games with the injury, he is flirting with 20+
goals and has brought his season point totals up near a point per game. Over the
last 35 games he has played, he is over a point per game.

How important has Divisek become to the Phantoms? He now sees double duty
at both center and wing, plays on the first powerplay unit, plays 4-on-4,
takes faceoffs, is often is among the forwards sent out on the shift
immediately following a goal for or against, and even sees a little
penalty killing time. It is clear that Barber has a great deal of faith in
Divisek. Although he is coming off a pretty rough weekend set against the Rochester
Americans, Divisek enters the home stretch of the regular season as a
confident, well-rounded young player with a bright future ahead. Of the
trio, Divisek seems the most likely to reach the NHL the fastest.

Francis Lessard

Lessard was originally a third round selection of the Carolina Hurricanes
in the 1997 entry draft. He was traded to the Flyers before he could
re-opt into the 1999 draft. Playing for Drummondville in 1998-99 (he had
previously been with Val d’Or), Lessard was a teammate, and sometimes the
defensive partner, of Flyers draftee Jean-Phillipe Morin. Lessard was
something of an unpredictable performer in junior hockey. He could
dominate defensively and could step up in big games. In 1998, he was named to the
Memorial Cup All-Star Team after playing a key defensive role in leading
Val d’Or to the QMJHL playoff championship. In his final junior campaign,
he showed some offensive prowess as well, posting a very respectable 12
goals and 48 points in 53 games. On the other hand, Lessard’s trademark
ultra-aggressiveness has also gotten him into trouble at times. He
sometimes would find himself way out of position after going for a big
hit. His penalty minute totals have always been problematic. One the one hand,
coaches do not want to curtail his aggressiveness. He needs to be an
aggressive physical player in order to be effective. On the other hand,
for a player with ambitions of someday being a regular NHL staring defenseman
to routinely rack up over 300 penalty minutes is not desirable in this day
and age. For one, it leaves the club playing short one defenseman far too
much of the time. For another, all the PIMs (particularly the time spent
serving out needless misconduct minutes) rob Lessard of ice time to
further hone his game. Lessard is talented enough to be an asset to his team on
the ice; it’s hard to help your club when you are back in the locker room
because of a misconduct you took on an after-the-whistle scrum.

With the Phantoms, Lessard has continued to tread the fine line between
helping and hurting the club with his aggressiveness. For the most part,
he has walked the line successfully. In general, Barber has been pleased
with Lessard, praising him as a player with “the heart of a lion” and one
of the club’s hardest workers in practice. Lessard has, perhaps
surprisingly, had more ups than downs this season, which bodes well for
the future. He has consistently ranked among the AHL’s top plus-minus players.
Opposing forwards already know that they had better skate with their head
up when Lessard is prowling the ice. He routinely punishes opposing
players around the net and likes to challenge at the blueline. At the offensive
end, Lessard has shown a couple of glimpses of skill (although he is not
likely to ever be much of an offensive defenseman in the pros). On the
flip side, he has sometimes been made to look bad when he’s overplayed the rush
and taken some bad penalties that have proven costly to the club, either
in stalled momentum or in key powerplay goals against. Lessard has already
shattered the Phantoms all-time single season penalty mark and stands a
chance of compiling a ridiculous 400 minutes in penalties before the
regular season is over.

Like Divisek, Lessard has had to deal with some communication problems
this season. Most young French-Canadian players speak at least enough English
to get by. Lessard’s English skills are less-than-average in comparison to
other Quebecois players. However, he is slowly improving in this area.

Although Lessard still has a lot of learning to do on and off the ice, his
will to improve is considerable and his potential is undeniable. In some
ways, he reminds me a bit of former Flyer defenseman Andre “Moose” Dupont,
although Lessard is faster than Dupont. Like Dupont, even if he sometimes
makes you cringe by playing out of control, there’s also a lot to like
about the way Lessard plays and his playing style is spiced by the
occasional offensive outburst. On the balance, Lessard’s rookie AHL season
has been a nice success story. A solid playoff and a second season of
steady improvement (hopefully showing increased discipline) in the
American Hockey League could catapult him into a starting role for the Flyers,
perhaps sometime during the 2001-2002 season.

Ruslan Fedotenko

In some ways, Fedotenko’s success this season is the most unlikely.
Entering this season, he was the most obscure prospect of the trio. Unlike
Divisek and Lessard, who had gained degrees of notoriety in high profile
games, Fedotenko had no track record to speak of against top levels of
competition. The main resumé highlight that Fedotenko brought with him to
the Phantoms was an excellent 1998-99 season in the USHL. Although his
stats last season were impressive (43 goals and 77 points in 55 games, to
go along with 139 PIM), Fedotenko, who turned 21 in January, lacked a
track record against tougher levels of competition. Having never been
considered more than a “B” prospect by the CSB, Fedotenko left his mother club, Sokol
Kiev, to play for the Melford Mustangs in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey
League. There, he won his club’s rookie of the year award by posting 35
goals and 66 points in 68 games. Later, he transferred to the USHL, where
he showed both a scoring touch and a willingness to scrap.

The Flyers signed Fedotenko this summer as an undrafted free agent. The
personable young Ukrainian, who was already quite comfortable speaking
English, fit in quickly with his teammates. However, after getting glimpses
of offensive potential from Fedotenko early in the season, Barber soon
became concerned about the rookie’s commitment to backchecking.
Fedotenko’s defensive lapses, coupled with his modest ice time and limited offensive
production (no goals, 3 assists, -3 rating in his first 14 games), led to
his demotion to the Trenton Titans of the East Coast Hockey League.

The demotion was the best thing that could have happened to Fedotenko.
Almost immediately, he started pumping home some goals and rebuilding his
confidence. More importantly, he saw lots of ice time to straighten out
his play away from the puck. It did not take long for Fedotenko to be recalled
to the Phantoms. Ever since his return, Fedotenko has been one of the best
kept secrets around the AHL.
Playing mostly on the third line but also seeing shifts on the top line
and the powerplay, Fedotenko has vaulted up the charts. His +26 rating is tops
for all AHL rookies and among the overall leaders in that category.
Moreover, in the 44 games since his recall, he has scored 15 goals and
added 26 helpers.

Fedotenko can hardly contain his enthusiasm when asked about the
opportunity he’s been given this season. At the Flyers Wives Carnival in
February, it was pointed out to Fedotenko that his picture appears on the
Flyers (rather than the Phantoms) side of the Flyers/Phantoms 1999-2000
yearbook. Mind you, it is in the “Players in the System” section. He
joked that he bribed someone to get his picture on the Flyers side. Turning
serious for a moment, he quickly adds that he’s happy just to be in the
AHL and even happier that things are working out so well. But when the
possibility was mentioned that continued rapid progress might make him a
legit Flyers yearbook entry, instead of a small picture in the “Players in
the System” section, he could not stifle an ear-to-ear grin. “Wouldn’t
that be *awesome* ?!,” he said.

Needless to say, the road from Kiev to Philadelphia (via Saskatchewan,
Sioux City, and Trenton) is hardly a direct route. Fedotenko has taken an
arduous path, fueled by a lot of determination and hard work. He has
already proven a lot of doubters wrong. The next step, going from solid
AHLer to potential NHLer will be the hardest step of all, but Fedotenko
might just be up to the challenge.