The Kids Are Alright
What do the Brown University Bears, Bemidji Sate Beavers, Drummondville Voltigeurs and Adirondack Phantoms have in common? 10 of the 26 players who have suited up for the Flyers this season have been rookies who called one of these teams home the season before. The contributions of these players can easily be overlooked due to the many other story lines on the team this season, be it the emergence of Giroux to superstardom, the re-birth of Jagr or the antics and slow start of Bryzgalov; but the fact remains that without these rookies performances, the Flyers would not be at the top of the conference.
Coming into training camp, there were an unusual number of openings at forward due to the bevy of trades made by GM Paul Holmgren during the offseason. This opened the door for all sorts of players to make their mark on the team. Rookies from the US college system, Canadian Major Junior system and the minor pro system have all found their way not just onto the Flyers roster, but onto the score sheet as well.
The first pair of rookies that have made a major impact on the Flyers this season have been a product of the American college system, Brown University’s Harry Zolnierczyk and Bemijdi State’s Matt Read. Both of these players had the luxury of playing a few games in the minors last season after their college careers ended, which helped them immensely with their preparation for this season. While Read has been a much more prolific scorer in his early career, the common theme between both players is their elite speed. This plays right into Coach Peter Laviolette’s aggressive fore-checking system and allows both players to make an impact whether they are on the first or fourth lines.
While it remains to be seen if Read can keep up his scoring pace for 82 games (which is often difficult for college players due to playing usually only 40 or so games in college) his skill set makes you believe that this is not a fluke. Most scouts seem to think he can project safely to a 20 goal 40-45 player consistently in the NHL even in the most conservative estimations. Not bad for a 25 year old rookie who was never drafted. Kudos to the Flyers amateur scouts and management for taking a risk on signing Read to a 3 year one way contract, something not done for many college prospects.
Zac Rinaldo spent the entire season in Adirondack last season and by most accounts, it didn’t look lik he was going to be leaving there anytime soon. Rinaldo averaged an astounding 5.5 minutes in penalties per game and when he wasn’t suspended he ran around the ice like a madman, hitting and fighting anyone or anything that got in his way. While his 91 penalty minutes have him 2nd in the NHL at this point, the reason Rinaldo has worked so far this season for the Flyers is that over the summer he managed to learn to pick his spots. He has thrown jarring hits game in and game out, hustled on the forecheck and answered the bell when need be, not hesitating to throw with anyone, even players out of his weight class. Hopefully this can keep up, because the way the league is heading, a middle weight fighter with enough skill to get by is a great asset to have, and Rinaldo has been a pleasant surprise so far this season.
Marc-Andre Bourdon and Kevin Marshall have been assigned a tall task recently; help to fill the ice time vacated by the injured captain Chris Pronger. Bourdon has been a pleasant surprise, being a solid player in all three zones, making a quality first pass and playing with a physical edge that makes him a noticeable addition to the blue line. He was rewarded for his play with his first goal this evening vs. Washington, a well-deserved milestone for the young plyer. Marshall on the other hand has been much less noticeable. He has managed to just be invisible enough to survive, but seems to be hidden by the coaches, some games not even hitting double digits in ice time. Look for Marshall to make his way back to Adirondack as soon as Lilja is healthy, while Bourdon may get a bit of a longer look.
The real wildcard this season for the Flyers has been the #7 overall pick from the draft this summer, Sean Couturier. Not often does an 18 year old step onto an NHL team after his draft year, especially not onto a team with playoff aspirations. Couturier had all sorts of offensive upside coming out of the draft, leading the QMJHL in point per game the prior season and scoring 96 points in each of his last two years of junior. What really turned heads in training camp though was his ability without the puck. He reminded the coaches of a young Jordan Staal, a big body center who just had an innate ability to make the right play at the right time in the defensive zone. Couturier not only made the team, but he was taking key defensive zone faceoffs at the end of the game less than five games into his NHL career. It takes a lot to earn a coach’s trust in those situations and for a coach with the resume of Laviolette to trust Couturier speaks volumes not only about his game, but about his potential in the future.
The future is now for the Flyers. Claude Giroux and Chris Pronger are both out indefinitely with a pair of concussions, which opens up a lot of valuable minute to be spread around to other players. Hopefully Brayden Schenn can find his way back into the lineup and restore the faith the organization had in him before the season. Look for the rookies to be the driving force for the Flyers in the coming weeks and keep the teams winning ways going while their superstars have time to heal.