Philadelphia Flyers: 4 Players Benefiting from Time in the AHL
While the NHL lockout has been dominating the headlines for the last two months, it is still possible to see NHL players playing professional hockey in North America. Certain players on each team's roster were eligible to play minor league hockey at the beginning of the season, so an influx of young NHLers to AHL rosters has kept a few of them active within the organization.
The most talented, well-rounded young players would seem to get no benefit from playing a level below their capabilities; if there were something to be gained from a stint in the AHL, they probably would have spent time in the minors already.
But for other players, the lockout presents them with a low-pressure shot at development, where they can sharpen their skills and work on aspects of their games that have been lost at the NHL level.
The Philadelphia Flyers have six players on the Adirondack Phantoms roster who likely would be playing in Philly without the lockout.
Here are the four players who stand to gain the most from time spent in the AHL.
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If the NHL season were underway, Eric Wellwood would likely find himself as a bottom-six winger on the Flyers' starting roster.
His role would focus primarily on shutting down the opposing offense and opportunistically creating chances on the forecheck. Wellwood's speed is well-documented and serves as the strong suit in his repertoire of abilities; however, he often lacked consistency as a member of the 2011-12 Flyers.
In 10 games with the Phantoms, Wellwood has only two points, but is an even zero in plus-minus for the season. Considering that the team features only four players who have a "plus" for the stat, Wellwood's defensive performance seems to be improving.
Much like his projected role for the Flyers, Wellwood is not being used as a scoring forward in Adirondack. The team is focused on Wellwood becoming a reliable two-way forward, and as long as the lockout drags on, it appears Wellwood can still get the practice he needs to gain a permanent spot on the Flyers' roster.
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Erik Gustafsson has 33 career regular-season NHL games under his belt, putting him right on the cusp of being a full-on starter at hockey's highest level. He likely would have begun the 2012-13 season on the Flyers' roster, though he may have been serving as a healthy scratch as the seventh defenseman.
There is no doubt that the Flyers considered it important to keep Gustafsson in the system to develop while the NHL and NHLPA attempt to sort out their differences. The Flyers see him as the heir to Kimmo Timonen's throne: an undersized, puck-moving defenseman who can put up big numbers in the "assist" column while being responsible in his own zone.
His time with the Phantoms has worked wonders already. Gustafsson has four points in 11 games, nearly matching his totals from 30 games with the Flyers last season. More importantly, Gustafsson is contributing on offense. He is tied for ninth on the team in total shots, averaging about 1.5 shots per game.
Gustafsson has not been shy about controlling the puck, and the Flyers want to see him become more and more confident breaking out of the zone and controlling the offense from the point. He might not be ready to step right into Timonen's skates when the lockout ends, but his time in Adirondack is helping him makes strides to being an everyday starter in the NHL.
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Brayden Schenn got off to a rough start in Philadelphia, battling injuries and scoring droughts that took him right through New Year's Day. Then, at the Winter Classic, Schenn finally found the back of the net, and the floodgates opened.
Schenn started to become more physical with his body and more prolific with the puck. He finished the season with 12 goals and would go on to score nine points in 11 playoff games.
Like Gustafsson, the Flyers believe Schenn will benefit by remaining under the watchful eyes of the organization. He has huge potential and could make or break the Flyers' second line this season in terms of scoring ability. Schenn needs to be heavy on the forecheck, liberal with his shooting and confident in his puck-handling skills.
Right now, Schenn has 11 points in 11 games with the Phantoms, including a powerplay and shorthanded goal. He leads the team in shooting by 11 shots and has been a scoring force for an otherwise anemic offensive team.
Schenn appears to be bursting at the seams with potential, and the time spent in the AHL is very good for keeping that momentum going. However, at some point Schenn will simply become too good to benefit from the minors any longer, and the Flyers hope the lockout is over before Schenn's growth is stunted.
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Few hockey fans would argue that Sean Couturier needs any time in the minors whatsoever, so how could he possibly benefit from his obligatory time with the Phantoms while this lockout drags on? The teenager showed his stuff by matching up with Hart Trophy-winner Evgeni Malkin in the first round of the playoffs, and essentially shut Malkin down for long stretches during the series.
To top it all off, Couturier's first career playoff goal was followed by his second and third as his hat trick helped the Flyers win Game 2 of that series. Not too shabby for a defense-first center. So, what good does time with the Phantoms do Couturier?
Simply put, because Couturier is playing below his level, he has a chance to showcase and develop his offensive talent. Couturier scored opportunistically as a member of the Flyers, but usually focused on a backchecking role and spent little time on the powerplay.
In Adirondack, Couturier is a jack-of-all-trades. He has two goals and ten points on the year, with both goals coming on special teams (one powerplay, one shorthanded). He and Schenn easily lead the Phantoms in points; their combined 21 points make up one-third of the team's scoring this season.
Should Couturier continue his near-PPG pace until the lockout ends, the Flyers may have no choice but to consider Couturier's third line a legitimate scoring line as well. This could mean a bigger two-way role for the pending sophomore and perhaps some extra scoring help on the wings.
When the Flyers went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2010, they did so behind three high-scoring centermen on each of the top three lines (Mike Richards/Jeff Carter, Daniel Briere and Claude Giroux). Couturier's performance in Adirondack might be enough to motivate Peter Laviolette to recreate that three-way scoring machine behind Claude Giroux's top line, Briere and Schenn's second unit and a Couturier line that could feature Matt Read, Wayne Simmonds or Ruslan Fedotenko.