Philadelphia Flyers 2011-12: 5 Youngsters with a Chance to Crack the Lineup
Despite unprecedented roster changes this summer, the Philadelphia Flyers 25-man roster has few mysteries heading into training camp. While the team did get much younger overall, it seems most of the ice time has already been spoken for by veterans.
But in an 82 game season, there is little of more importance than depth. Given the high probability for injuries over the grueling regular season, and the doubly intense "second season," there are a few rookies with a chance to contribute at some point this year, if not straight out of camp.
These are my picks regarding who will see time with the big club at this early point in their careers.
Sean Couturier vs. Brayden Schenn
Brayden Schenn appears to have the inside track on the third-line center position as training camp begins today. Challenging the 20-year-old, who has only eight games of NHL experience, for a spot on the new-look Flyers are 38-year-old Michael Nylander, formerly of the Washington Capitals, and 2011's eighth overall draft pick, 18-year-old Sean Couturier.
The possibility remains that Nylander beats out both prospects and neither are with the big club when the regular season begins.
But considering the Flyers' commitment to youth and the high price tag paid for each, as well as the results of Bill Guerin's veteran tryout, the smart money is on Schenn or Couturier.
Schenn was the most impressive rookie amongst the youngsters at July's development camp. His limited but existent professional experience and ability to contribute on special teams gives him the early edge over Couturier.
However, a lot can transpire before the season opens on October 6th in Boston. Fans will get their first extended look at this competition on Thursday, September 15th when the Flyers host the Washington Capitals for a rookie game at the Wells Fargo Center. After that, camp and exhibition games will continue as the forum for this competition, possibly all the way up until the eve of the regular season opener.
Again, if Couturier, or Schenn for that matter, fail to make the team out of camp, they will be on the short list for call-ups if the forwards ahead of them need replacing at any point in the regular season.
At the very least, expect Couturier to get a look or two, much the way Claude Giroux was called-up as an emergency replacement when he played two games for the Flyers in 2007-08.
Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn have both stated that their goal is to play in the NHL this season, which makes the competition between the two still very green, yet highly regarded, prospects the battle to watch this preseason.
In an earlier article I predicted a return to Broad Street Bully hockey in 2011-12
To avoid an embarrassing beat-down reminiscent of the semifinal sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins last season, the Flyers need to get a whole lot tougher.
Agitator/enforcer Dan Carcillo found a new home with the Chicago Blackhawks via free agency over the summer. Jody Shelley is a strong veteran locker room presence, but at 35 years old, the Flyers will have to consider other options as Shelley's limited speed and skills continue to decline.
Theses circumstances open the door for 21-year-old winger Zac Rinaldo. A sixth round draft pick in 2008, Rinaldo earned the nickname Ogie Oglethorpe for his playoff call-ups against Buffalo and Boston last season where it became clear that his only job was to physically intimidate and punish the Sabres and Bruins.
Rinaldo played 60 games with the Adirondack Phantoms last season, where he tallied three goals, six assists and 331 penalty minutes. Rinaldo's postseason call-up garnered some controversy, as his four suspensions were greater than his goal total.
In the two seasons prior to joining Philadelphia's American Hockey League affiliate, Rinaldo held the distinction as the Ontario Hockey League's most penalized player, leading the league with 201 penalty minutes in 2008-09, then topping that total with 255 in 2009-10.
The Flyers have never shied away from players who walk (and sometimes cross) the line throughout their history, whether it be the original bully, Dave Schultz in the 70's, or more contemporary goons such as Jesse Boulerice, who was once charged with assault for two-handing an opponent in the face, or Steve Downie, who's intensity and stupidity can sometimes weave themselves into poor on-ice decisions, like slashing a referee.
Coach Peter Laviolette made a statement by sitting Carcillo for a large chunk of last season. If Rinaldo is able to play physically while maintaining discipline and goading opponents into penalties rather than taking them himself then he could play a significant role as the Flyers' primary enforcer.
And no matter how much the game changes, this town will always love an enforcer, and personally I've been looking to replace my #29 Frank Bialowas jersey for quite some time now.
Wellwood, the 21-year-old Windsor, Ontario native, finds his name on the 25-man roster as camp begins. Wellwood put up 28 points (16 goals and 12 assists) in 73 games for the Adirondack Phantoms last season.
Wellwood was a sixth round pick (172nd overall) in the 2009 entry draft, and is the younger brother of San Jose Sharks center Kyle Wellwood.
Looking to make the jump to the NHL this season, Wellwood is being compared to Andreas Nodl as a young winger looking to beat out veterans and make an impact in Philadelphia.
Wellwood played in three NHL games for the Flyers last season, tallying one point—a game-winning assist against the New York Islanders. While these numbers are far from promising in limited time, it is important to remember Andreas Nodl played 48 regular season games with the Flyers between 2008-09 and 2009-10, and registered only five points before making a splash last year with 22 points and a +14 rating in 67 games.
If Wellwood is able to progress along the same lines as Nodl, he could find himself playing an important role as a fourth-liner on this deep club. If Wellwood is not on the roster come October 6th, he very well could be at any point afterwards, especially if he shows some of the progress his older brother, Kyle, was able to demonstrate last season when he transformed himself from a journeyman center before catching on as a role player with San Jose.
The Flyers are deep at wing, and Wellwood could compete with fellow forwards Nodl, Max Talbot and Jody Shelley for time with the big club. The expectation for Wellwood is to continue to progress and see sometime with the Flyers as he continues to develop. But given the Flyers injury and suspension history, the best laid plans could be put aside quickly, and Wellwood could see substantial time if any forward ahead of him goes down.
The Flyers blue-line is stacked with savvy veterans with guaranteed roster spots. But Erik Gustafsson is a 22-year-old Swede with a ton of upside. In college, Gustafsson was twice named the CCHA top offensive defenseman as a member of the Northern Michigan Wildcats (2008-09, 2009-10).
In 77 games over the past two seasons with the Adirondack Phantoms, Gustafsson has recorded 56 points and is looking to challenge for the sixth defensive spot on the Flyers roster this season. While 36-year-old veteran Andreas Lilja appears to have the inside track on the job after signing with the Flyers as a free agent in July, Gustafsson and Oskars Bartulis won't concede the position.
The role will be the one played by Sean O'Donnell last season—killing penalties and spelling the top four or five guys. But as was evident last year, veterans wear down and injuries to players seeing 20-30 minutes of ice time per night are inevitable.
Making the competition more interesting is the injury to Chris Pronger. While GM Paul Holmgren said today that the assumed captain is "right on track" for opening night, it still seems likely the 36-year-old will miss time in his 18th NHL season.
Gustafsson is the puck moving defenseman the Flyers have coveted in years past, and his offensive abilities could make a difference on the power play if Pronger, Kimmo Timonen or any of the top five d-men are forced to miss time.
By comparison, the 6'3", 220 pound Lilja has only recorded 81 career points in over 530 NHL games.
Gustafsson stands at 5'10" and weighs in at 180 pounds, easily making him the smallest defenseman on the Flyers roster. But after making last season's AHL All-Rookie Team, his skills could offset his size and land him, at the very least, a mid-season call-up. And if he is able to hold his own on the defensive end, he could stay around and be a solid contributor on the power play and hopefully improve the non-existent breakout that plagued the Flyers against Boston in the playoffs.
Tom Sestito is another young tough guy who finds his name on the NHL roster one day into training camp. Sestito spent most of 2010-11 with the Columbus Blue Jackets' AHL affiliate, the Springfield Falcons, before being traded to the Flyers' organization in February.
The soon-to-be 24-year-old is a hulking mass at 6'5" and 230 pounds. He has only 13 games of NHL experience over two seasons with Columbus, but he has registered 64 penalty minutes in those games. His minor league totals are equally impressive, posting 1,144 minutes in the box in over 363 games in both the AHL and OHL.
Again, if the Flyers are looking to get younger and tougher, Jody Shelley could be a healthy scratch or be without a job. Sestito could fill the void of traditional enforcer seamlessly, judging by his record on hockeyfights.com.
Much like Rinaldo, Sestito will have to prove that he can be a smart fighter and disciplined energy player when dropping the gloves is not called for.
The departures of Darroll Powe and Dan Carcillo open up room for high-intensity role players, and the fact that the Flyers thought enough of Sestito to trade for him and put his name on the 25-man roster bodes well for his chances to make the roster, or at least get a long look from the coaching staff.
Looking Ahead: Thursday's Rookie Game
Beyond those five guys, there is plenty of intrigue among the youngsters in the Flyers' organization. With Thursday's rookie game looming there are several other players worthy of the fans' attention.
24-year-old winger Jon Kalinski has been called up in each of the last two seasons with the Flyers. In 22 total NHL games, the former sixth-round pick has recorded five points. Kalinski signed a one-year contract extension in July, and is looking to earn some attention from the NHL club (and others) after spending parts of the last four seasons in the minors.
Not quite as young, but still interesting, is Johan Backlund. With Sergei Bobrovsky relegated to backing up star goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, one must continue to wonder if the 23-year-old Russian with No. 1 potential could be moved at some point before or during the season. If that turns out to be the case, and Michael Leighton is not in the mix, then the 30-year-old Swedish net-minder could finally get his NHL shot.
24-year-old winger Mike Testwuide and 22-year-old defenseman Kevin Marshall are two more Phantoms to watch for as camp continues and the preseason begins. The final spots are far from sewn up, and underdog stories are kind of "our thing" in this city.
Do I expect any huge surprises in regards to the roster before the season opens in October? No. But then again, I did not see Mike Richards departing or Jaromir Jagr signing, so this team has my full attention as the roster takes shape.
After Thursday's rookie game there should be a few more answers, but Opening Night is still almost a month away, and the 82 game regular season won't wrap up until April. A lot can happen between now and then.
This is a transition season for the Flyers, but that does not mean that it is a step backwards. The best players will play each night, something Peter Laviolette has proven over his tenure here. If nothing else, it's going to be an interesting season.