By Al Alven
There was a time not too long ago when even the thought of the Philadelphia Flyers owning the rights to several promising European prospects seemed unrealistic. Times and the NHL have changed, however, and the team now boasts a number of non-North American-born hopefuls on its depth chart.
Without question, Pavel Brendl heads the list. The 20-year-old right winger from the Czech Republic has been the Flyers’ most pleasant preseason surprise to this point. In fact, he currently leads the team with six points (three goals, three assists) in just three exhibition games. The wildcard in the big Eric Lindros deal with the Rangers, Brendl has grabbed the majority of the headlines from other Flyers prospects and rightfully so. He’s been that good so far.
For three of his fellow countrymen, however, the accolades have been more difficult to come by. In this report, we’ll examine the progress of 21-year-old forwards Tomas Divisek, Petr Hubacek and Vaclav Pletka. All three spent all or most of last season with the Philadelphia Phantoms of the AHL. Barring something extraordinary, that’s where they’ll start the 2001-02 season as well.
The furthest developed of the Flyers’ three Czech prospects playing with the Phantoms, Divisek could see some time with the big club this season. Like any Flyers prospect, Divisek faces the unenviable task of attempting to crack a lineup that is literally stacked with quality forwards. Should the Flyers run into injury problems, Divisek could be a call-up candidate because of the maturity of his game and his versatility. Primarily a center, Divisek can also play either wing position. He is a responsible two-way threat who makes up for his lack of superior offensive skills with plenty of savvy.
Now entering his third season in North America, Divisek is poised to become a premier player in the American Hockey League. He has looked good early on in the preseason, even scoring a goal in the 5-5 tie against the Islanders in Trenton on Friday (9/21). Divisek has the size (6’2″, 205 lbs) and the physical prowess to dominate the minor league circuit. That is, if he can stay healthy. A shoulder injury during training camp last season eliminated Divisek’s chances of making the Flyers roster. He also missed 12 games with shoulder problems during his rookie season.
He finished last season with 32 points (10 goals, 22 assists) in 45 games. In 1999-2000, Divisek earned Phantoms co-Rookie of the Year honors (with Ruslan Fedotenko) after notching 49 points (18 goals, 31 assists) in 59 games. Prior to arriving in the Western Hemisphere, Divisek showed limited offensive output in two seasons with Slavia Praha in the Czech Republic. In two seasons in Prague, he recorded 12 points (nine goals, three assists) in 62 games.
Divisek has been brought along slowly and, in turn, he has progressed to the point where he is a significantly better player than he was two seasons ago. Though he won’t develop into a top point producer, Divisek may one day mature into a solid third line player in the NHL. He is a smart player who makes good decisions with the puck and is very effective in traffic, particularly in the low slot area.
Don’t be surprised if Divisek sees some time with the Flyers this season. If he does make an appearance in the NHL, however, it will likely be a brief one, unless Jiri Dopita turns out to be a bust (and don’t expect that to happen). Last season, when the Flyers ran into major injury problems, Divisek was called up for a two-game stint. Playing right wing (as opposed to his more familiar center position), he looked nervous and out of place with the Flyers. He recovered once he arrived back in the AHL, finishing the regular season on a roll, then recorded 13 points (four goals, nine assists) in 10 Calder Cup playoff contests.
A big surprise at training camp last season, Hubacek actually made the Flyers roster out of the gate in his first season in North America. As the third line center in the season opener against Vancouver, Hubacek even tallied a goal in his NHL debut. An above-average skater with decent offensive instincts, Hubacek also has decent size (6’2″, 185 lbs) and playmaking ability.
Shortly after the first game last season, however, Hubacek began to look completely out of place. Suffering in all aspects of the game– particularly on faceoffs– he was shipped down to the Phantoms and completely lost his confidence.
What started out as a promising season soon turned to disaster. Not only did Hubacek fail to rediscover his game, he completely lost it. In 62 games with the Phantoms, Hubacek notched a ridiculously low nine points (three goals, six assists). Thus, it would be a gross understatement to say that Hubacek has a lot to prove this season. The Flyers’ brass is hopeful that a full season of AHL hockey will toughen up the young center. On numerous occasions last season, Hubacek was criticized for all but completely shying away from physical play. His effectiveness along the boards was often nonexistent. His defensive game needs a good deal of work as well. Though Hubacek possesses solid offensive skills, he often tries to do too much with the puck. He has good hands, but he has a tendency to try to make the flashy play when he clearly shouldn’t.
Having said all of that, perhaps expectations for Hubacek were too high last season. He was something of an unknown when he arrived at training camp last September. Often, players who come to North America for the first time go all out in their first camp, fearful of the consequences of not making a good first impression. After that, their level of play tends to slack off significantly. Another factor to consider is the difficulty some European players have with adjusting to the North American style of play (not to mention the lifestyle change).
All of these factors seemed to conspire to make life miserable for Hubacek in his rookie season. It is the hope of the Flyers’ brass that he will view his first pro season in North America as a learning experience. If he does so, they believe his considerable hockey skills will come to the forefront. So far, Hubacek looks determined to erase the memory of his 2000-01 performance. To his credit, he arrived at training camp this season in fantastic shape. He looks to have added a few solid pounds of muscle, something that can only help him in his quest to improve his overall game. Hubacek has not looked out of place in early preseason games and scrimmages.
Whether he can turn his fortunes around this season remains to be seen. Hubacek certainly won’t see any time with the Flyers until he can prove that he has made significant improvements in multiple areas of his game. Besides, like Divisek, Hubacek is looking up at a multitude of high-quality forwards ahead of him on the Flyers depth chart. In all likelihood, he will spend the entire 2001-02 season with the Phantoms.
Like Hubacek, Pletka turned some heads at training camp last season. Ultimately, the shifty right winger did not make the Flyers roster and wound up spending the entire season with the Phantoms. Pletka was reportedly quite upset about not making the NHL team, but he put his emotions aside and went on to record respectable numbers in his first pro season in North America. He finished the season with 41 points (20 goals, 21 assists) in 71 games, earning Phantoms Rookie of the Year honors in the process.
Unlike Hubacek, Pletka made a successful transition to the AHL from the Czech Extraleague. He is a very emotional player and, against the European stereotype, is not at all afraid of physical play. Though he’s a bit on the smallish side (5′ 11″, 185 lbs), he plays very well in traffic. He is also very elusive and has the ability to pick out the smallest portions of open net with sniper-like accuracy. The Flyers will be looking for Pletka to improve his overall game this season. He seems willing to make himself a better player, so that shouldn’t be a problem.
Pletka has shown big goal scoring ability in the past. Two seasons ago, while playing with Trinec in the Czech Republic, he recorded 49 points in 51 games. His 28 goals ranked him second in the Extraleague behind none other than new Flyer Jiri Dopita.
Again, like Divisek and Hubacek, Pletka faces numerous obstacles on his way to cracking the Flyers lineup. Don’t expect it to happen this season. The organization would rather see Pletka continue to make overall improvements to his game than have him worry about jumping prematurely to the NHL. Pletka was not particularly impressive during the Calder Cup playoffs last season (only four points in 10 games), so he still has to prove that he can play effectively during important games.
This could be a pivotal season for Pletka. If he can significantly improve upon last season’s performance, he may really catch the Flyers attention. The organization has tremendous depth at the NHL level, but it does not possess a plethora of high-quality scoring wingers on the prospect depth chart. A big season this year may get him a serious look at training camp next season.