Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Fantasy Flyers Lineup: Prospect Edition

by Rob Riches
Phanatic Hockey Writer
Twitter: @Riches61
The current incarnation of the Philadelphia Flyers can be quite a fun -- albeit frustrating at times -- team to watch. 

Whether you're choosing to focus on the positives: the leadership and skills that Claude Giroux displays on a nightly basis, Jakub Voracek's point streak which rocketed him to the league lead or the glimpses of right-handed robbery Steve Mason displays, or the negatives: rampant injuries to a depleted defensive corps, Nicklas Grossmann's molasses-in-January skating style and Sean Couturier's offense-killing defensive-zone starts, the franchise cannot be accused of being boring. 

But as any front office worth its salt knows, the good players of today aren’t always the Stanley Cup winners of tomorrow. Subsequently, a pool of young, talented prospects is always necessary for teams to continue to compete. Sure, young players don’t always pan out (see also: Maroon, Patrick; Sittler, Ryan and Daigle, Alexandre), but that’s a story for another day.

The Orange and Black haven’t always maintained a strong pipeline of talent, in favor of an aggressive, win-now mindset in pursuit of a third Stanley Cup. But they’ve got a talented stockpile thanks to branching out beyond Canadian juniors and using Europe and American collegiate hockey as resources, and will continue to do so under Ron Hextall’s philosophy of building a contender through the draft. 

If a starting lineup could be comprised of Flyers prospects, here’s what it might look like:
LW - Taylor Leier
In 13 games with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms so far, Leier has three goals and six points. The 20-year-old Saskatchewan native, a 2012 fourth-round (117th overall) selection, signed his entry-level deal in Sept. 2013, and captained the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks to a 54-13-2-3 (fourth column representing shootout losses) record. The ‘Hawks ultimately fell in seven games to the Edmonton Oil Kings in the WHL championship. Additonally, Leier was a key contributor on Portland’s 2013 run to the Memorial Cup Finals with 26 points in 21 playoff games, but the Winterhawks fell to the Nathan MacKinnon- and Jonathan Drouin-led Halifax Mooseheads.

C - Scott Laughton
The fact that Laughton’s not on the Flyers’ roster yet may perplex some fans, but that’s due to a seemingly perpetual logjam at center for the parent club. His 40 goals and 87 points in 54 games played last year for the Ontario Hockey League’s Oshawa Generals were incredible, but that can also be attributed to Laughton’s older age (19) compared to most junior players. Laughton, the 20th-overall pick in 2012, has six goals and 11 points so far in Allentown, and already earned an AHL Player of the Week honor after his torrid opening salvo this year. 

Similar to Leier, Laughton has experience as a captain, but for Team Canada in last year’s World Juniors tournament. It’s hard to picture a player of Laughton’s caliber permanently removed from the Flyers' roster, but with big contracts to Giroux and Vincent Lecavalier, and the payday that Couturier is likely to receive next offseason, it looks like fans will have to wait a little longer for Laughton to regularly suit up for the Orange and Black.

RW - Petr Straka
Straka, born and raised in the Czech Republic but trained in Canada, has totaled three goals and seven points in 11 games so far during his second season in the AHL. Straka, a former second-rounder, joined the Flyers in April 2013 after failing to sign an entry-level deal with Columbus -- who drafted him in 2010. Coincidentally, Straka and then-rookie Samuel Morin were teammates with the Océanic for a season in 2011-12, before Straka was traded to Baie-Comeau the following season. Additionally, Straka has represented his homeland in two World Juniors tournaments, scoring four points in 12 games. Does a Czech right-winger in the Orange and Black, with ties to the Blue Jackets organization, ring a bell to you?

D - Robert Hagg
Robert Hagg is arguably the second-most pro-ready of the Flyers’ gaggle of defensive prospects, thanks to his two seasons and 77 games with the Swedish League’s Modo Hockey -- a program that has produced dynamic NHL talent such as Victor Hedman, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Markus Naslund and Peter Forsberg. So far, Hagg -- a second-rounder in 2013 -- has a goal and seven points in 13 games with a plus-1 rating, in his first full season with the Phantoms. At 19 years old, Hagg still hasn’t hit his ceiling, and if injuries continue to take their toll on the Flyers’ blue line, fans could see Hagg in Philly before too long.

D - Travis Sanheim
The most recent first-rounder taken by the Flyers, Sanheim is enjoying the fruits of seven goals and 14 points in 19 games with a plus-5 rating for the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen. While it’s only his second season in Calgary, the 18-year-old left-handed shooter is expected to log big defensive minutes, on a team that’s looking to advance further than the first round of the WHL playoffs. In his career, Sanheim has never finished a season as a minus player, and finished with an impressive plus-25 rating last year. Fans also had a brief opportunity to see Sanheim during the team’s training camp this fall, during which he signed a three-year entry-level contract on Sept. 25.

G - Anthony Stolarz
With no other options, Stolarz is entrenched as Philly's best goaltending prospect, and is spending his first season with the Phantoms as a backup to Rob Zepp. The gangly Central Jersey native has gone winless in three appearances (all on the road) so far, with a 3.05 GAA and a .909 save percentage. He played just one game for Team USA in last year’s World Juniors tournament, and hadn’t allowed a goal. Additionally, he backstopped the OHL’s London Knights in two Memorial Cup appearances -- one as the OHL champions (2013), and one by virtue of the Knights hosting the tournament last spring. He's finding out that giving up four on a team that scores six was a luxury.

Injured Reserve - Shayne Gostisbehere, Samuel Morin
Hulking defenseman Samuel Morin is expected to return to action for Rimouski next weekend, having almost reached the timetable for recovery from suffering a broken jaw after taking a slapshot square in the face last month. Shayne Gostisbehere is also expected to be sidelined only until March or April, after undergoing successful surgery this weekend for a torn anterior cruciate ligament that Hextall believes won't kill the rest of his season due to rehabilitation.

"Ghost" appeared in two games for the big club this season in the midst of presiding over a battered Phantoms team -- where he posted five assists in five games before suffering his injury while attempting to escape a hit. Morin, on the other hand, impressed in camp but was shipped back north to complete the season with his junior club, where the 6-foot-7 blueliner picked up three points in five games along with a minus-2 rating.

Reading Royals -- Maxim Lamarche, Matt Hatch

When Paul Holmgren lured Michael Raffl away from Leksands IF in the second-tier Swedish League with an entry-level contract on May 31, 2013, they signed Maxim Lamarche to an entry-level deal as well. Lamarche and Straka were teammates on Baie-Comeau, and the Montreal-area native enters his first season as a Royal. In seven games so far, the 22-year-old pointman has recorded one assist, 11 PIM and a plus-2 rating. He’s also seen time in Allentown as an injury call-up.

Another Royal that Philly-area fans may be familiar with is Matt Hatch, who is currently on reserve with the team. Hatch, 24, was a member of the 2014 Union College squad (along with Gostisbehere) that won the NCAA Division I championship over Minnesota at Wells Fargo Center. The Flyers signed him on June 3, but as his contract is an AHL deal, he can’t suit up for the Flyers this season. In four games with the Royals so far, Hatch has failed to notch a point with seven penalty minutes, and he’s played two games with the Phantoms as well.

With faith in Hextall's vision and patience in examining the performances of those chosen to stock the Phantoms, Royals and in the junior ranks, it's not unreasonable to think the Flyers will be an exciting team to watch in coming years as well.
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