Scott Laughton new top prospect for Philadelphia Flyers

By Chris Shafer

erik gustafsson - philadelphia flyers

Photo: Defenseman Erik Gustafsson is one of several Flyers defensive prospects with NHL experience. (Bill Streicher/Icon SMI)

While the Philadelphia Flyers do not necessarily have a deep or talented prospect pool, it is not because of poor drafting and prospect development. On the contrary, the Flyers' prospect pool is shallow because the organization does a masterful job transitioning their prospects directly to the NHL, with Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier, and Matt Read the most recent to make the jump.

Regardless, there is not a lot in the way of reinforcements waiting in the wings. There are some solid, older prospects on verge of consistent NHL play and some younger guys with solid potential, but the vast majority of their pool is made of boom/bust prospects and long-shot projects.

This fact has never stopped Paul Holmgren before though. Another off-season has passed, and there are a few more interesting names on the list. Next year, there will be more, ones brought in once again using any avenue available.

1. (NR) Scott Laughton, C, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 20th overall, 2012

If there is a prototypical Flyers' first round selection, Scott Laughton would be him. He is a physical two-way forward with enough skill to keep himself relevant and enough compete to make him look dominant. He is also a smart hockey player and a character guy who can lead on the ice.

Indeed, there is nothing flashy about Laughton, but that may be why he seems so natural within the Flyers' system. Better prospects have obviously grown up under the organization's watch, but this is a guy who embodies all of the characteristics that Paul Holmgren is looking for in a young prospect.

Laughton may not have the offensive game to sell jerseys, but that is what was said about Mike Richards when he was drafted. Either way, Laughton has the kind of game that helps a team win championships.

2. (7) Nick Cousins, C, 6.5B
Drafted 3rd round, 68th overall, 2011

Nick Cousins is coming off a breakout season with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, and the Flyers organization has extremely high hopes that he can become the kind of bottom-six terror that makes the team that much harder to play against. It also helps that with his uncanny ability to make life miserable for other players, he brings quite a bit of skill to the table. His upside is limited, but should he reach his potential, he will be able to fit anywhere in the Flyers' bottom six.

Recently though, Cousins fell into some legal trouble. Whether or not this will affect his future with the Flyers or even as a hockey player has yet to be seen.

3. (3) Erik Gustafsson, D, 6.5B
Signed as a free agent, March 31st, 2010

With Chris Pronger possibly out of commission for good and Andrej Meszaros expected to miss an extended amount of time, Erik Gustafsson is almost assured a legitimate shot on the NHL team this season. His play in the postseason pretty much secured him at least the opportunity to join the NHL ranks.

What is most incredible about the situation is how patient the Flyers' had been with both Gustafsson and fellow prospect Marc-Andre Bourdon going into this season. They were never given a real opportunity to log NHL minutes before this past year, and should the Flyers' blue line get depleted again, as so often it does, Paul Holmgren would find replacements in other ways.

Gustafsson's cool head, calm hands, and expert vision give him a boost over other Flyers defensive prospects, particularly with the offseason loss of Matt Carle.

4. (4) Marc-Andre Bourdon, D, 6.5B
Drafted 3rd round, 67th overall, 2008

Another young defenseman pushing for playing time this season is Marc-Andre Bourdon, who became somewhat of a mini-sensation in Philadelphia thanks to his play. Just like many prospects before him, when Bourdon introduced his on-ice personality to the fans there were many wondering just where he had come from. A few big hits and shots from the point later and none of that mattered.

The biggest concern with Bourdon is his concussion history. He has had a concussion in each of the last two seasons, and he even played through one this year with the intention of staying in the NHL. While all signs show that he is concussion free right now, it is something to watch in the future.

5. (8) Brandon Manning, D, 7.0C
Signed as a free gent, November 23rd, 2010

Brandon Manning, the third of the Flyers' main three defensive prospects, is only third right now because of his age and lack of professional experience. Even so, he possesses just as much if not more potential than the other two. His small four game sample size was more than enough to confirm suspicions that the Flyers' may have found a real gem in the former Chilliwack Bruins' captain.

Despite his great second half of the year in the AHL and stint in the NHL, Manning actually missed the entire and summer and first half of the hockey year with an injury. Because of this, all of the hype surrounding his arrival almost vanished by the time he started appearing for the Phantoms. That still did not take away from all of the great things he can do once on the ice.

6. (2) Eric Wellwood, LW, 6.0A
Drafted 6th round, 172nd overall, 2009

Eric Wellwood has now established himself as an NHL player only two years removed from his second straight Memorial Cup Championship with the Windsor Spitfires. On top of that he has bragging rights as one of the fastest players in the NHL. What he does not have though is a full NHL season under his belt, something that he looks to rectify in the upcoming year.

While he is not guaranteed a spot in the top nine, Wellwood's skill set as a two-way winger with a little offensive upside would go nicely on either the wing of Sean Couturier or Brayden Schenn. His versatility could serve him well throughout his NHL career.

7. (5) Jason Akeson, RW, 7.0C
Signed as a free agent, March 2nd, 2011

While a lot of speculation has floated around Jason Akeson's name not showing up as one of the black aces for the Flyers' 2012 postseason run, it likely has far more to do with his two-way game than his status within the organization. Though he is not particularly physical enough to play down low at the NHL level or adept enough defensively to play in a two-way role, it is something he is working on in the AHL.

What is known about Akeson's play however is his crisp passing, his incredible creativity, and his clear vision. There are not many players, even at the NHL level, who can bring what he can bring to the table offensively every night. The only question mark is whether or not he can handle doing that against NHL competition while being asked to remain defensively sustainable game in and game out.

8. (12) Niko Hovinen, G, 7.0C
Signed as a free agent, May 17th, 2011

The long-anticipated arrival of Niko Hovinen is finally here. The departure of Sergei Bobrovsky came and went rather quietly for someone with such potential. While part of the reason is certainly the introduction of Ilya Bryzgalov to Philadelphia, there had to be some kind of insurance plan should the Bryzgalov experiment hit a worst case scenario. Niko Hovinen now represents Philadelphia's insurance plan.

Last season, Hovinen was arguably the top goaltending prospect in Europe. His towering size, quick reflexes, and consistency helped the Lahti Pelicans of the Sm-Liiga go from near relegation in 2011 to the championship series in 2012. He now hopes to be a stabilizing factor in Glens Falls with the Adirondack Phantoms.

9. (9) Ben Holmstrom, C, 5.5A
Signed as a free agent, March 17th, 2010

Ben Holmstrom is now two years removed from his breakout season where he established himself over Mike Testwuide as the Flyer's future shutdown center. He has surpassed him physically, defensively, offensively, and even in a leadership role now looking to his second straight season as captain of the Phantoms. Holmstrom also got five games of NHL experience this past season with the Flyers.

10. (NR) Shayne Gostisbehere, D, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 78th overall, 2012

Scott Laughton may have been selected in the first round, but the majority of buzz surrounding the offseason has been how well Shayne Gostisbehere has performed in both Flyers camps and team USA camps. Nicknamed "Ghost," Gostisbehere came out of nowhere to be a top blueliner performer on an ECAC Championship team as a rookie. In that same Union College locker-room was also Greg Coburn, the younger brother of Flyers' defenseman Braydon Coburn.

It is no secret the front office follows and acquires numerous prospects that are involved somehow under the Flyers umbrella, whether they are direct family members, teammates, or even teammates of family members. While that practice does not necessarily speak directly for the creativity of the scouting staff, it does show that the organization takes pride in keeping the Philadelphia locker room together. Gostisbehere has a lot of people watching this season to see what he can do, fans included.

11. (14) Oliver Lauridsen, D, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 196th overall, 2009

Lost in the fold behind the NHL exploits of Erik Gustafsson, Marc-Andre Bourdon, and Brandon Manning as well as the hype surrounding Shayne Gostisbehere is the 6'6 defensive giant, Oliver Lauridsen. Though it was a learning season for him, he still has a full year of professional hockey under his belt, and the most important process for him was catching up to the speed. When he was first drafted, the biggest knock against him was how he might struggle to keep up with the smaller players despite his impressive wing-span.

Lauridsen's progress through his three years within the organization has been impressive so far. His footspeed, agility, and acceleration issues are far less noticeable. Outside of that front though, he still has an external battle waging against a handful of young defensive prospects that already have NHL experience. It will be a rough road for Lauridsen, but so far, patience and hard work are how he got to where he is now.

12. (17) Marcel Noebels, RW, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 118th overall, 2011

Recently Marcel Noebels got his first taste of North American postseason play with the Portland Winterhawks. He was a huge contributor for them with over a point-per-game pace through the playoffs. That is not all that shocking considering how much his production improved after his mid-season trade from the Seattle Thunderbirds.

All of that is behind Noebels now though. His new experiment will be the AHL, and he will have some talented teammates for the time being. Should the lockout situation continue to look bad, he has the opportunity to have both Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn in his locker room. As a power forward winger, Noebels could not ask for a better way to start his professional career.

13. (NR) Anthony Stolarz, G, 7.0D
Drafted 2nd round, 45th overall, 2012

Anthony Stolarz hails from a land where Martin Brodeur is king. In fact, he grew up worshiping the future hall-of-fame goaltender from his home just an hour south of where Brodeur earned his legend. Now the 18-year-old is batting for the opposite team, and he is willing to do what it takes to make it to the NHL.

At 6'5 already, Stolarz has something special that cannot be taught. His size is an obvious factor in why the Flyers selected him in the second round based, but that does not mean the young netminder has limited resources between the pipes. His positioning and quickness can use some work, but he is as aggressive as he needs to be. It has helped him so far in his tryouts with Team USA.

For now Stolarz's adventures will take him to the University of Nebraska-Omaha where he looks to compete for the starting job as a freshman.

14. (NR) Andrew Johnston, LW, 6.5D
Signed as a free agent, May 21st, 2012

If there is any player that defines the new Paul Holmgren method of prospect pool building, it is Andrew Johnston. While it is not exactly a method of throwing things at the wall to see what sticks, the Flyers' organization is completely unafraid of giving out contracts to free agent prospects who both appear to have NHL potential in various capacities and fit the kind of locker room atmosphere the organization is trying to create.

Johnston comes out of the SJHL where he was recently the single most dominant player on the ice during the RBC Cup. That is of course without including the incredible season he had with the Humboldt Broncos. The Flyers' offer that came after his impressive performance even convinced the now 21-year-old to skip out on his commitment to Union College, where he would have played with defensive prospect Shayne Gostisbehere.

The thing that separates Johnston the most from his piers is his skating. If size is the angle that the Flyers have started to look for in goaltenders, then speed is the new fad among forwards. Matt Read, Eric Wellwood, Harry Zolnierczyk, Matt Mangene, and of course, Johnston represent some seriously impressive skating, even as far as NHL players are concerned. Considering that head coach Peter Laviolette's system is heavily predicated on skating, it comes as no surprise that Paul Holmgren is pressing in this direction.

15. (11) Blake Kessel, D, 6.5D
Signed as a free agent, September 14th, 2011

Blake Kessel was signed just around the time people started to expect Erik Gustafsson to make a serious push towards NHL playing time. This was supposed to keep an adept puck-moving defenseman on the Adirondack blue line, but instead he did not live up to his expectations. The younger brother of Phil Kessel demonstrated that he had a background as a forward, but from the blue line, he had a rough time deciphering the speed of the professional game when compared to the college ranks.

Since Gustafsson came out at a much younger age and dominated, there were some lofty expectations placed on Kessel's shoulders. As of right now he is a ways away from making a legitimate NHL impact, but that does not mean the potential is not there. He is still an extremely creative puck-mover. Should he start to manage the speed of the game better he could very easily rebound from his forgettable first professional season.

16. (15) Harry Zolnierczyk, LW, 5.0A
Signed as a free agent, March 8th, 2011

Harry Zolnierczyk had done everything possible to make it to the NHL. The former captain of Brown University signed a one-year contract and competed out of camp as a long-shot to make the team. He found himself on the NHL roster for 37 games.

Zolnierczyk's game was surprisingly fast to those getting their first glimpse of him, and he played like he wanted to be there. Because of this he earned an extension on his contract, but the competition may have pushed him out of a roster spot. The emergence of Eric Wellwood has put him on the back-burner for now since both possess a similar skill-set with Wellwood being more inclined to a skill-game as opposed to Zolnierczyk's physicality. This certainly is not the end for him though. There are still plenty of opportunities down the road, possibly even with the Flyers.

17. (13) Mike Testwuide, RW, 6.0C
Signed as a free agent, March 19th, 2010

Mike Testwuide's heralded two-way ability and his emerging offensive capabilities made him look like the perfect power forward candidate coming out of college. As his development progressed though, he was beat out by quicker forwards who could better hassle the puck-carrier along the end boards and slip away with it from the corners. He also was not as physical as his teammate Ben Holmstrom.

That does not mean Testwuide lacks the potential to be an NHL player, but the road for him, particularly within the Flyers' organization, is looking more and more difficult with each passing season. He is also getting older, and while many bottom nine players in the NHL specialize in specific aspects of the game allowing them to succeed, the defensive game that earned him a reputation has not been of much help. Instead, the defensive roles on the Flyers' roster have been used interchangeably within Laviolette's system through faster players and puck sharks. At this point, Testwuide has a mountain to climb.

18. (NR) Tye McGinn, LW, 6.0C
Drafted 4th round, 119th overall, 2010

It was a disappointing first shot at the professional level for Tye McGinn. The offensive game that made him a powerful force on the outside for the Gatineau Olympiques failed to manifest as he finished with only 18 points through 63 games. Even defenseman Brandon Manning, who was also fresh out of Canadian juniors, finished with more points in just 46 games.

Power forwards generally take longer to develop than other forwards, but McGinn has his work cut out for him from this point onward. It will take a huge effort in 2012-13 to keep him in the hunt for a roster spot on the Flyers down the road.

19. (18) Colin Suellentrop, D, 6.0C
Drafted 4th round, 116th overall, 2011

Colin Suellentrop may be facing a numbers game as more defensive prospect progress past him. The latest blue line sensation in the Flyers prospect pool, Shayne Gostisbehere, is already showing tons of promise. When added to the experience gained by Erik Gustafsson, Marc-Andre Bourdon, and Brandon Manning during this past season, it makes his performance in the OHL in the upcoming season all the more important.

As a shutdown defenseman, Suellentrop will not be expected to make big plays, but he needs to demonstrate he can use his skill set to contribute at the NHL level better than some of the other prospects in the Flyers' pool.

20. (NR) Matt Mangene, RW, 6.0C
Signed as a free agent, April 1st, 2012

One of the more versatile prospects currently in the system, Matt Mangene represents yet another speed forward to fit into Laviolette's system. His ability to play defense in a pinch is unique, but his defensive abilities are not. Currently he has similar players in Eric Wellwood and Harry Zolnierczyk hovering above him on the depth chart.