Top Shelf Prospects: Philadelphia Flyers
Welcome to today’s edition of “Top Shelf Prospects” – a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. Today, as I continue my alphabetical journey through the NHL I bring you a look at the Ottawa Senators. As always you can find a complete listing of my previous articles here. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in the 2012 draft, as there have been no games since then, and my reports on them will not have changed. What I will be doing is linking you to those articles, as well as taking a look at prospects that were acquired before this year’s draft; their progress, and their chances of making the 2012-13 roster of the NHL team in question. I will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later, or was an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as my darkhorse to make the NHL. For those wondering, the cut-off for what is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 45-50 NHL games played or being 25 years old. These are not hard or fast rules though, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
2012 Draft Prospects Reviewed:
Top Prospect: Erik Gustafsson, Defence
Born Dec 15 1988 — Kvissleby, Sweden
Height 5.10 — Weight 180 — Shoots Left
Signed as a Free Agent in March 2010
There is often a lot of hype every spring about College Free Agent Signings. The reality though is that for every undrafted NCAA player who comes to the NHL and succeeds, ala a Dustin Penner, or Tyler Bozak, there are about 9 who are signed and fail. Over the last couple of seasons the Flyers have been active in the College Free Agent game, and it would appear that they’ve gotten at least two recent successes. Matt Read was a revelation for the Flyers this season. Erik Gustafsson, signed out of Northern Michigan University hopes to be the same. Due to injuries on the Flyer Blueline, the young Swedish Blueliner has already played 36 regular season games and 7 playoff games for the Flyers and has not looked out of place.
Gustafsson is blessed with good skating ability and excellent mobility. His top end speed is good, and his first step quickness and acceleration are excellent. He is also a quick backwards skater. His edgework and agility is for the most part good as well. This skating ability helps to make Gustafsson a solid two way defender as he is abile to adept to all situations.
Offensively Gustafsson is very calm and poised with the puck. He makes a good first pass out of his own zone and will help start the Flyers transition offence going forward. He has also been known to lead the rush at times in the AHL or to join in as a tralier. He is also a smart and patient playmaker from the blueline in the offensive zone. Gustafsson lacks a huge point shot and this is what will keep him from being a first unit powerplay guy, but he will likely fill a role on the second wave.
Defensively Gustafsson uses his skating and mobility to keep the play in front of him. Gustafsson reads the play well and is a good stick checker, able to poke pucks away in order to protect his end of the ice. Despite being a little undersized, Gustafsson is a tenacious, hard working player who will fight for loose pucks in the corners, and will try to take the body at times. Unfortunately there really is no getting around the size issue and he can be pushed around at times.
Erik Gustafsson should take over a role as a bottom pairing defenceman with the Flyers next season. He is mature and NHL ready. The Flyers also have plenty of openings on their blue line with the injuries to Pronger, Meszaros, and Lilja as well as Carle leaving as a UFA. There are plenty of minutes that need to be filled, and Gustafsson should be in a strong position to take the opportunity. Long term the upside here is limited into a bottom pairing defender who can play some secondary minutes on the powerplay.
#2 Prospect, Eric Wellwood, Centre/Left Wing
Born Mar 6 1990 — Windsor, ONT
Height 5.11 — Weight 179 — Shoots Left
Selected by the Philadelphia Flyers in round 6, #172 overall at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft
Eric Wellwood is the younger brother of Winnipeg Jets forward Kyle Wellwood. The versatile forward was able to play both Centre and Wing during his time in the OHL with the Windsor Spitfires. At Windsor, Wellwood was part of back to back OHL and Memorial Cup Championship squads. Since turning pro, Wellwood has spent most of the last two seasons playing Adirondack in the AHL. He did get some callups, playing 3 games for the Flyers in 2010-11, and 24 regular season games for the squad this past season. Over those two stints Wellwood managed 5 goals and 10 points. He even played in 7 playoff games for the Flyers last season, but did not record a point.
Wellwood is a good skating forward. He has good top end speed and acceleration which helps him to be one of the first guys in on the forecheck. He also has decent agility and edgework. Wellwood’s game is based around hard work as he digs hard in the corners and in front of the net. However his ability to win puck battles is somewhat limited by his size. In terms of putting up points, his biggest asset is his soft hands, and he’s able to make nice moves and can score some goals in tight. His wrist shot is merely average, as is his playmaking ability and for these reasons its hard to project him as anything more than a bottom 6 forward.
Wellwood is defensively responsible. Playing on the star studded Windsor Spitfires team, he had to learn to check opposing forwards and to play the penalty kill in order to get adequate ice time. He does both well for a young player, and a defensive role will be where his future lies at the NHL level.
Wellwood certainly has a shot to make the Flyers out of camp in a 3rd/4th line role. It won’t be easy but Wellwood is the type of player who has overachieved at nearly every stage of his development. Fans should not look at his brother’s statistics, or at his 10 points in 27 games though, and project a player who will grow into a top 6 role, as this is unlikely.
Sleeper Pick: Jason Akeson, Right Wing/Centre
Born Jun 3 1990 — Orleans, ONT
Height 5.10 — Weight 190 — Shoots Right
Signed as a Free Agent, March 2011
Akeson went undrafted out of the OHL. In his original draft year, he was under the radar, playing mostly junior A hockey. He would eventually get signed by the Rangers, but recieved little playing time as a 17 year old. However Akeson’s role would grow over the next three years scoring 64 points, 80 points, and followed that up with an impressive 108 points in his overage season, tying Tyler Toffoli for the league lead in points, but losing the scoring crown on the goals scored tiebreaker. This would prompt the Flyers to give him a shot with an Entry Level Contract. Akeson would put up impressive rookie numbers with 55 points in 76 games in Adirondack.
Akeson is a small player but he has tremendous balance and strength on his skates. He is at his best working the puck down low, and playing the cycle game. He has a low centre of gravity and good puck protection skills, which makes him very difficult to knock of the puck. Akeson has good vision, and good hockey sense which helps him to find open teammates. While his shot is decent, and his hands are soft, he’s much more a playmaker than a goal scorer. Added upper body strength would help him win board battles for loose pucks.
Akeson’s defensive game is a work in progress. While he is very good playing a cycle game in the offensive zone, his limited size hurts him when asked to help defend the cycle in the defensive end. He again needs to add some more upper body strength. His positioning is decent, and he does seem to be conscientious about backchecking, so these do seem like areas that can be improved.
Akeson is still a project who will need more time at the AHL level. However if he can continue down the road he has started, he’s a darkhorse pick to make it to the NHL in a 2nd line scoring role.
Its telling that all three prospects in this report could fit into my sleeper criteria. For years the Flyers have been trading away picks and prospects, and largely ignoring the high rounds of the NHL draft. When they do make selections, they are generally very good, however since drafting James Van Riemsdyk in 2007 (now in Toronto), the Flyers did the following. Drafted Luca Sbisa and then traded him to the Ducks less than one year later in the Chris Pronger deal. Traded 2009 and 2010 1st rounders in the same Pronger deal. Moved the 2011 first round pick in acquiring Kris Versteeg, and made a number of other moves that have either moved out prospects or picks. They recouped young assets in the Mike Richards/Jeff Carter moves last summer, and those assets are very good. They were immediately needed on the NHL club, and as such there is little depth in the Flyers minor league system. Even our top two prospects (not counting 2012 draftees) project as a bottom pairing defenceman and a a bottom 6 forward respectively. Luckily the Flyers do have a young superstar in Claude Giroux, and young talent in Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, and Matt Read. However the defence should be a cause for concern. Acquiring Luke Schenn helps, and Erik Gustafsson should give them a second young defender, but after these two the pipeline is very bare. While defence is the biggest problem area, the overall depth is low. The Flyers have had to make a lot of free agent signings just to fill Adirondack’s roster and get some players in the pipeline. Sure there are some success stories out of that, and I’m not saying that teams should not explore this route, however the Flyers will need to do more in the coming years to continue building internally.
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