Here’s a look at the progress of twelve prospects in the Philadelphia Flyers system through the first quarter of the season. A full system report with more in-depth reviews will be forthcoming at the midpoint of the season.
Bruno St. Jacques : The rookie is making a strong case for a full-time job in the NHL. After an eye-opening training camp with the Flyers and a solid beginning to the American Hockey League season, Bruno has gotten a pair of callups to the big team. He has made the most of his time with the Flyers. St. Jacques’ combination of poise, physical play, and mobility has translated well to the NHL game. With Luke Richardson out for an extended period of time with a broken foot, St. Jacques will have time to further solidify his NHL roster spot.
Colin Shields : If the Scottish winger was adversely affected by being disqualified from playing last season by the NCAA, he hasn’t shown it. The Maine forward has emerged as one of the top snipers in Hockey East. In 12 games to date, he has 11 goals. He also has a 3 assist game to his credit this season.
Antero Niittymäki : The 1999-2000 Finnish league rookie of the year has put his uneven sophomore season behind him and re-established himself as one of the top young goaltenders in Europe. Ranking at or near the top of several key SM-Liiga goaltending categories, Niittymäki has a dazzling .952 save percentage and a 1.49 goals against average in 11 games. Of late, veteran TPS goalie Fredrik Norrena has been hot and has gotten four starts in a row. That does diminish Niittymäki’s turnaround over the first quarter of the season.
Vaclav Pletka : The Czech sniper started off the season on a tear for the Phantoms, scoring 6 goals in the first 4 games. He’s cooled off since then but that is in part due to callups and injuries to his centermen. Pletka continues to be the Phantoms most dangerous young player from the blueline in. He currently has 10 goals and 16 points in 19 games. Pletka, who looked good in a one game callup to the big club, has also developed into a grittier player than Philadelphia expected him to be. There is probably a place for him in the NHL, but the question is whether it will be on the Flyers.
Pavel Kasparik : The big Czech pivot still lacks consistency and is prone to the occasional boneheaded mistake but, for stretches at a time, he shows that he starting to learn how to use his size, strength and soft hands to his advantage. Starting the year on the 4th line for Sparta Prague, he scored his way onto the top lines. Kasparik seems to get hot for 3 or 4 games at a time and then slump for several games. However, he is to be commended for having already established new season highs for goals (10) and points (12 in 25 games). He’s still a work in progress, but Kasparik is undoubtedly a better player now than he was at the end of last season.
Tomas Divisek : After a good start, Divisek’s point totals with the Phantoms have not been eye-catching (for one thing, he’s gone over 10 games without a goal), but he seems to be in about the same position that Ruslan Fedotenko was last year; meaning that he’s ready for the NHL if there’s a spot for him. Divisek is a good two way player– perhaps a stride too slow to be a big offensive contributor, but he’s a quick learner and fundamentally sound across the board. Divisek played well in a 3 game callup to the Flyers. Unlike last season when he looked overmatched at wing in his two game NHL stint, Divisek played his natural center position with the Flyers this time. He looked much more comfortable and effective.
Jeff Woywitka : Game in and game out, Woywitka gets the job done for Red Deer. He contributes in every area of the game and, most importantly, knows how to put a mistake behind him and not compound the problem. While the 18 year old’s point production (16 points in 25 games) and physical play (39 PIM) get him on the scoresheet on a reasonably regular basis, Woywitka’s value is really in the ability to do the things that do not get a defenseman noticed—being in the right place on the ice and showing a willingness to stand his ground under pressure, rather than making panicky decisions.
Maxime Ouellet : Nobody, least of all Max himself, was worried when the highly-touted rookie goaltender got off to a slow start in his first American Hockey League season. His biggest challenge has been not going into the butterfly too quickly. In recent weeks, Ouellet has been very strong. With the hamstring injury to Brian Boucher and the callup of Neil Little to backup Roman Cechmanek, Ouellet is getting extended minutes right now. Goaltenders and defensemen are best brought along slowly. Ouellet should not be rushed to the National Hockey League. He’s right where he should be.
Roman Malek : Malek hasn’t skipped a beat since returning from a broken jaw suffered in the season’s fourth game. The 24 year old Slavia Prague goaltender has immediately re-established himself as one of the top goalies in the Czech Republic. He’s been strong in all four starts since returning and currently sports a 1.98 goals against average and .938 save percentage.
Dennis Seidenberg: The smooth skating, intelligent Seidenberg plays with the type of poise that you would expect of a veteran defenseman, not a player with barely over a year of pro experience. The German defender is quietly shaping up to be an astute mid-round selection.
Pavel Brendl : After a strong training camp that earned him a spot with the big team, Brendl suffered a badly sprained ankle on opening night. Very little has gone right since his return. Brendl has looked very slow on his skates, horrendous defensively, and often downright invisible offensively. An experiment with playing him at center was quickly aborted after disastrous early returns. Brendl ended up a healthy scratch for the Flyers. Although Flyers coach Bill Barber was impressed by the fact that Brendl approached him and asked what areas he needs to improve to get back into the Flyers lineup, the forward still found himself being demoted to the Philadelphia Phantoms. Brendl’s lone NHL point came on a fluky goal he scored on a flip shot from center ice that found its way past Olaf Kolzig as Brendl headed to the bench for a line change. Brendl is still looking for his first goal with the Phantoms, although he does have a pair of helpers in five games. It’s still far too soon to write off Brendl but, by the same token, he hasn’t done very much since the season started that would make his many critics change their minds about him.
Jim Vandermeer : Statistics aren’t everything and the organization remains excited about his long-term upside, but the truth of the matter is that Jim Vandermeer has experienced his share of growing pains in his first American Hockey League season. The problem is not that he has one point and a team low minus-seven rating for the Phantoms. The real problem has been that he sometimes seems to be trying to do too much and finds himself getting caught in between trying to be aggressive and trying to play the percentages. This is only to be expected for a rookie but, although no one is saying so, but Vandermeer came into this season hyped as being a mature prospect who benefited from his breakthrough season as an “overage” player in the Western Hockey League last year. While some may be disappointed with his start, his early ups and downs are not really surprising. There is a huge gulf between the caliber of play in junior hockey and the American League. Very few players can step right in and excel and to expect Vandermeer to be the exception is unfair. A more reasonable measuring stick will be to look at where he stands at the end of his rookie season and compare it to his starting point at the beginning.