For much of the early part of Philadelphia Flyers history, goaltending was a major strength of the organization. From Bernie Parent to the young Pete Peeters to Pelle Lindbergh to the young Ron Hextall, the Flyers rarely had reason for concern between the pipes. For much of the last decade plus, however, the Flyers have been suspect in goal, with draftees such as Dominic Roussel and Tommy Söderström failing to take the starting job and run with it and veterans such Hextall, Sean Burke, and John Vanbiesbrouck suffering letdowns at crucial moments.
In recent years, the organization has re-stocked its goaltending depth through the draft; nabbing 1999-2000 rookie sensation Brian Boucher in the first round of the 1995 draft; Jean-Marc Pelletier (now with the Carolina organization) in the second round of the 1997 draft; 1999-2000 Finnish Elite League Rookie of the year Antero Niittymäki in the sixth round of the 1998 draft; and Maxime Ouellet, who is considered a franchise-goalie caliber prospect in the first round of the 1999 draft.
Last season, the Flyers used a mid-round draft pick to take veteran Czech star Roman Cechmanek, hoping that Cechmanek could step in as Boucher’s backup. Instead, as Boucher struggled, Cechmanek (after a brief stint in the AHL early in the season) not only claimed the starting job, he ended up as the runner-up for the Vezina Trophy and 4th in the Hart Trophy balloting. The big netminder, who will turn 31 by the end of the 2001-02 season, enters the upcoming season firmly entrenched as the Flyers starter.
In the 2001 entry draft, the Flyers took two more well-regarded goalies, selecting Austrian goalie Bernd Bruckler (pronounced “Baron Brookler”) and Roman Malek. Bruckler enters University of Wisconsin (famous for goaltending alumni Curtis Joseph, Mike Richter, and Jim Carey) as a freshman this fall and Malek, 23, has become one of the top goalies in the Czech Extraleague.
It is always possible that some of these players will fall by the wayside in the next few years and disappear from the charts or, alternatively, may be moved in trade as Pelletier was in the Keith Primeau deal. This will be a telling year to tell whether the Flyers system depth in goal is real or illusory. Ouellet will be entering his first full pro season; Boucher and Niittymäki both suffered sophomore slumps in their respective leagues (NHLer Boucher more so than Niittymäki); Bruckler is still unproven above the USHL level; Malek has yet to crack the Czech national team for the World Championships. However, it is clear that, as things look now, goaltending depth is the greatest strength of the Flyers system.
Grade: A- (Note: Boucher, a graduated prospect, does not figure in the grade, nor does Cechmanek)
The Flyers have had major trouble drafting and developing defensemen. The current picture is somewhat improved in terms of depth of prospects, but the overall quality still remains suspect. There is not a single defenseman in the system who can confidently be predicted as a top-pairing prospect in the NHL and only Jeff Woywitka seems to be on pace to project as a #3 defenseman. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that there is an abundance of potential #4 to 6 defensemen, several of whom (Bruno St. Jacques, Francis Lessard, and Joe DiPenta) are knocking on the door of the NHL roster after one or two pro seasons.
The organizational outlook will look much better if 2000-01 WHL “overage” sensation Jim Vandermeer, signed as a free agent, can translate his recent junior success to the pro level but that is an open question at this point. It would also be of tremendous help if a pair of European defensemen selected in the recent draft– German blueliner Dennis Seidenberg and Finnish defender Jussi Timonen– develop as the Flyers European scouting staff has predicted they will.
As it stands now, with the Flyers blueline aging and a lack of top-notch prospects currently in the system, defense remains an organizational trouble spot.
In fairness to the Flyers, the big team has been helped by young graduated prospects over the last couple of years, especially budding star Simon Gagne (1998 first round pick) and 2000-01 rookies Justin Williams (2000 first rounder) and Ruslan Fedotenko (1999 free agent signee). Young enforcer Todd Fedoruk also cracked the NHL lineup last season and showed he could handle himself against some of the league’s better fighters.
What is left in the system below the NHL level is no better than ordinary. This will be a big year for Alexander Drozdetsky, whom the organization will be looking to start developing into the offensive talent they project him to be. At the minor league level, center/winger Tomas Divisek and small sniping winger Vaclav Pletka are as good as it gets. Divisek is a hard worker and reasonably skilled, but he seems a stride slow and was totally overmatched in his first NHL look-see last season. Pletka has soft hands and has worked hard to improve the other aspects of his game but he can’t stay in the lineup if he doesn’t score and has not yet scored enough at the AHL level (20 goals as a rookie last season) to be considered a major threat to crack one of the Flyers scoring lines, at least early in the upcoming season.
The Flyers have given some hype to Guillaume Lefebvre, Konstantin Rudenko and Radovan Somik as potential NHL prospects, but all are far from blue-chippers. Ditto David Nyström.
The Flyers selected veteran Russian standout Andrei Razin in the recent draft. He may join the Flyers organization in 2002-03.
It’s not fair to discount an organization’s graduated prospects when assessing the system. In the Flyers case, the success of young Simon Gagne, and, to lesser extents, Boucher, Fedotenko, Williams, Andy Delmore, and Fedoruk, should count to the benefit of the organization. Of the Flyers graduated prospects, only Gagne enters the 2001-02 season as a sure bet to play a major role on the big team. Last years second year players (Boucher and Delmore) both struggled mightily. Fedotenko must build on his promising rookie year. Williams still has to add muscle to his frame (which was of big help to Gagne last year– Simon added strength without compromising any of his speed). Fedoruk, like most 4th liners, walks a fine line between sitting and playing, depending on whether he has been helping, hurting, or has been a non-factor in his relatively limited ice time.
On the strength of Gagne and the potential of last year’s rookies, the Flyers deserve a solid grade in this area, even though last year’s second year players were mostly disappointments.
Upcoming Draft Picks:
The Flyers have stocked up on high round choices over the next two seasons, owning their own first and second round pick in both years as well as Tampa Bay’s and Phoenix’s 2nd rounders in 2002, and Phoenix’s first round pick in 2003. The Phoenix pick in 2003 could become a top 10 selection if the Coyotes, as expected, continue to operate in “re-building” mode. The Flyers also acquired an extra 3rd round pick in 2002 and additional mid-round picks.