Group of talented rookies responsible for Flyers quick turnaround

By Chris Shafer

Photo: Winger Eric Wellwood is not only among the fastest skaters in the Flyers organization, but may be one of the fastest young players in all of hockey. (Bill Streicher/Icon SMI)

For rookies in the Flyers' system, the 2011-12 season was unlike any other. The team was in the midst of a turnover and with that turnover came opportunity. The rest of the opportunities were given out due to injuries, but each player was able to step up and make the Flyers' regular season a success.

To finish in the second round of the NHL playoffs with so many rookies playing so many key roles is nothing short of astonishing. They ranged from snubbed 19-year-old stars to 25-year-olds who had yet to see the grind of a long season and from World Junior Championships superheroes to guys doing whatever it would take to play in the NHL. This was the year the Flyers turned their organization over to the kids.

Most Improved Prospect: Marc-Andre Bourdon, D, Philadelphia Flyers (NHL)

Going into this past season, the former QMJHL Defenseman of the Year, Marc-Andre Bourdon, had been slipping down the prospect chart. His skating, which needed work coming out of the Q, had yet to really correct itself. Meanwhile his offensive game, easily his best weapon in Canadian Juniors, could not materialize at the professional level in part due to his skating. His physical presence was not nearly as evident as when he signed his contract, and on top of everything, a laundry list of injuries were starting to pile. Noticing his NHL dreams slipping away, Bourdon rededicated himself in the offseason. The result was the opportunity of a lifetime; a call-up to the NHL. Once there, the physical play that had been missing in the AHL in prior seasons manifested. Bourdon showed he could be defensively aware, outlet the puck from the zone, throw some monster hits, and even get a hard slapshot on target from the point. He even played through a concussion in order to keep his NHL dream alive knowing that it could vanish just as quickly as it appeared. Though there is still competition to be on the Flyers' blue line next season, Bourdon has a solid chance of making the team.

Best Defensive Prospect: Sean Couturier, C, Philadelphia Flyers (NHL)

Normally the "Best Defensive Prospect" suggests a player on the blue line. Then again, normally 19-year-old rookies do not hold star Evgeni Malkin to only two even-strength points in the regular season and only one even-strength point in a postseason series when both are on the ice. The other Flyers skaters were not as lucky, with Malkin scoring eight points in six postseason games and another nine in six regular season games. With Couturier's size, defensive aptitude, physical play, on-ice awareness, reach, and stick work, he would not look all that out of place on the blue line. Head Coach Peter Laviolette certainly has no problems in putting him in crucial game situations against the best in the world. He may be a forward, but Couturier is the best defensive prospect in the system. He may be the best defensive player in the organization under the age of 25.

Best Offensive Prospect: Matt Read, RW, Philadelphia Flyers (NHL)

While Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn certainly have more offensive upside in the future, 2011-12 was Matt Read's year. Coming into the season, he was already older than the other with a four-year run at Bemidji State University to thank. At the beginning of the season he was picked by TSN analyst Bob McKenzie to win the Calder Trophy as the rookie of the year. In the end though, he only managed to finish fourth in scoring among rookies and was not a candidate for the Calder. His postseason was also not as strong as Read hoped, and the long NHL season clearly wore him down. An NHL campaign, complete with playoffs, is roughly three times as long as the NCAA year. Even so, in his rookie season Read notched 24 goals and finished with an impressive 47 points.

Prospect of the Year: Sean Couturier, C, Philadelphia Flyers (NHL)

It is hard to argue against Sean Couturier for the Flyers' prospect of the year; everything from his dramatic fall in the draft, to his impressive preseason, to his outstanding defensive play, to his flashes of offensive brilliance. The wild ride that was Couturier's first NHL season has left him as an indispensable part of the Flyers' organization and a fan favorite. It certainly goes a long way to cleaning up the burnt bridges and various debris left over after an offseason of chaos for the fans in Philadelphia. Even without Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, the future for the organization seems brighter than ever before.

Fastest Skater: Eric Wellwood, RW, Philadelphia Flyers (NHL)

If at any point during the season you were curious as to the origins of the orange blur that buzzed across your television whenever the Flyers were playing, your search for answers has come to an end. Eric Wellwood is the Ferrari of ice hockey. Arguably one of the fastest players in the game, this two-time Memorial Cup Champion may have received a quiet welcome only due to a team effort of rookie seasons by Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn, and Matt Read. Even so, Wellwood is not a player who will be denied an NHL roster spot any longer. His speed makes him a weapon, and his puck-sharking wreaks havoc on the forecheck.

Hardest Shot: Marc-Andre Bourdon, D, Philadelphia Flyers (NHL)

One reason Marc-Andre Bourdon was able to separate himself from other Flyers defensive prospects this season was his slapshot. Bourdon possesses a strong shot from the point, something no other current defenseman on the roster has other than Andrej Meszaros. While another defensive prospect, Brandon Manning, also has a hard shot, Bourdon showed that he can effectively get the puck on net at the NHL level and make opposing defenders think twice about going down in front.

Overachiever: Harry Zolnierczyk, LW, Philadelphia Flyers (NHL)

This was a tough decision between Zac Rinaldo, who some feared was a nuclear bomb ready to drop on the Flyers' season, and Harry Zolnierczyk. Even so, everyone already knew Rinaldo could hit and fight and get in faces and play with reckless abandon. However, no one really knew that Zolnierczyk could be an NHL competitor. Even though Wellwood eventually took his position, the Flyer who play-by-play announcers from Boston to San Jose were calling "Harry Z," was battling every game to live out his dream in the NHL. He had speed, but he did not possess the speed of an Eric Wellwood. He could hit, but he could not hit like Zac Rinaldo. He could not pass like Claude Giroux or shoot like Jaromir Jagr. All Zolnierczyk could do was compete, and he did that. In doing so, he earned himself some NHL time and possibly a future in the best league in the world.

Underachiever: Mike Testwuide, RW, Adirondack Phantoms (AHL)

Two offseasons ago, Mike Testwuide was the most hyped player signed as part of General Manager Paul Holmgren's new free-agent prospects initiative. Though he has experienced tremendous success with a number of prospects such as Sergei Bobrovsky and Eric Gustafsson, Testwuide is still quietly waiting around in the AHL. The 25-year-old powerforward is not particularly making his presence known either. Forwards such as Matt Read, Eric Wellwood, and AHL rookie Jason Akeson have leap-frogged him. Ben Holmstrom, who signed at the same time as Testwuide, was much less hyped but, now as captain of the Phantoms, has enjoyed far more success. Meanwhile Testwuide has been a strong two-way player, as was expected of him, but he has yet to take his game to the next level.

Highest Risk/Reward: Brendan Ranford, LW, Kamloops Blazers (WHL)

The undersized, poor-skating forward the Flyers took with the second-to-last pick of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft came out in 2010-11 and had an outstanding season, through most of which he was among the top scorers in all of Canadian Junior Hockey. He slightly improved his offensive numbers in 2011-12, but his entire game got much better too. His skating has noticeably improved as well as his defensive play. Still, with Ranford's agent in talks with the Flyers organization without a deal currently in place, Ranford could be headed to free-agency this offseason. Despite his impressive numbers, his skating may not have improved enough to earn him a place within Head Coach Laviolette's system, one clearly geared toward forwards who can go end-to-end quickly.

Breakout for 2012-13: Brayden Schenn, C, Philadelphia Flyers (NHL)

There is absolutely no question who the breakout star of 2012-13 is going to be for Philadelphia. Couturier had more regular season production and earned every minute of ice time he got. That said, Brayden Schenn is older and has the raw offensive skill to really start to churn out some production. Flashes of it came out in the postseason, but Schenn has another offensive gear. Eighteen points in seven World Juniors games and a nearly two-points-per-game pace in the WHL a couple of seasons ago speaks volumes. While it could be a tight race to see who the better player is between Schenn and Couturier by the end of next season, it is clearly Schenn who will be making up ground.