Prior to June 23rd, 2011, the Flyers future on the prospect front looked bleak. Their 2010-11 season ended prematurely at the hands of the eventual Stanley Cup Champions, the Boston Bruins, in a 4-game sweep. Goaltending was immediately called into question. Luckily for them Philadelphia had not only a top young NHL goalie in Sergei Bobrovsky, but also a possible future number 1 goalie playing for Skelleftea by the name of Joacim Eriksson…or so they thought. In early June, Eriksson was unable to come to a contract agreement with the Flyers resulting in the releasing of his rights as Flyers property. The Flyers arguably had what looked like the worst group of prospects in the NHL. And then June 23rd happened…
The biggest overhaul of any NHL team in recent history left Flyers fans and hockey analysts utterly speechless. The rumors of Jeff Carter being traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets finally became a reality. In addition, Paul Holmgren dug deep into his bag of tricks to shock the entire Philly fan base by trading Mike Richards, a fan-favorite, to the Los Angeles Kings.
In a span of just an hour, Philadelphia traded their two most prominent pieces in exchange for wingers Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds, as well as a possible center replacement in Brayden Schenn. The Flyers also received the 8th overall pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. Even with the departure of the dynamic duo of Richards and Carter, Philadelphia are still contenders in the Eastern Conference, especially with the signing of Ilya Bryzgalov. However, with these transactions their prospect depth has been dramatically revamped.
5. Matt Read – NCAA – Bemidji State University – C
After coming off an impressive four years at Bemidji State, Matt Read signed a one-way deal with the Philadelphia Flyers shortly after his senior year was in the books. A player who scored over a point-per-game throughout college, Read was sent to Adirondack to play on the top line with the Flyers AHL affiliate. Getting some much needed pro experience and being surrounded by quality players, Read posted 13 points in 11 games. Read may not have the size up the middle like Richards and Carter possessed, but he does bring a complimentary all-around game to the table. His physical presence and defensive play is nothing to scoff at either. Of late, the Flyers have been amorous about signing undrafted college players to contracts hoping their decisions will pay off. The Flyers have been without legitimate 3rd line center for quite some time and the team feels Matt Read will balance the bottom six forward ranks quite nicely.
4. Erik Gustafsson – AHL – Adirondack Phantoms – D
With his small stature, Erik Gustafsson‘s quickness and speed is usually what people notice first. Although being speedy, Gustafsson is still a fantastic two-way defenseman with a knack for finding the open player. His 49 points last season attest to his offensive ability and he plays a very disciplined game. Gustafsson finds himself in a great situation in Philadelphia and will likely see a considerable increase in NHL playing time as a 6th or 7th defenseman. With the departure of Sean O’Donnell, if Gustafsson is able to play well on a consistent basis then he will be able to stay up with the big club for most of the season.
3. Brendan Ranford – WHL – Kamloops Blazers – LW
Each team in the NHL takes a flyer (no pun intended) on some prospect in the later rounds with hopes that they have a prayer of making it to the NHL. There are also a few who answer those prayers. Brendan Ranford is well on his way to becoming part of that list. Having exploded onto the scene with 33 goals and becoming the leading scorer for Kamloops by a whopping 36 points, the 7th round pick is certainly getting discussed as one of the best players in the system. He isn’t the tallest player on the ice, but you wouldn’t know it by watching him play. Not one to shy away from the puck, Ranford enjoys playing in the dirty areas in front of the net as well as in the corners. He is shaping up to be a solid winger for the Flyers, but likely won’t see any NHL time this season. Nonetheless, if he pulls off another stellar year, he may be fighting for a spot on the Flyers as early as next season. Pretty good for a player who was taken 2nd to last in the draft.
2. Sean Couturier – QMJHL – Drummondville Voltigeurs – LW/C
Sean Couturier came into the 2010-11 season in Drummondville with his name solidified as the frontrunner for the 1st overall pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. However, that was before players like Nugent-Hopkins, Huberdeau and Strome burst onto the scene. Couturier heard 7 players called ahead of him before he was selected by Philadelphia 8th overall. At 8th overall, the Flyers acquired an absolute potential steal of a player. Couturier had the best point-per-game average of any forward in the draft and secured a spot on Team Canada’s World Junior Championship team. Not only one of the best offensive prospects, Couturier’s defensive game may be his biggest strength. A phenomenal two-way forward, it is no wonder Couturier has been compared to the likes of Datsyuk, Kesler or the aforementioned, Richards. In a few years, Couturier will likley make up for the losses the Flyers may suffer on offense and defense with the departure of Richards and Carter. In the future, he may even move to play on the wing with the number 1 prospect in the Flyers system.
1. Brayden Schenn – WHL – Saskatoon Blades – C
This was a no-brainer. Brayden Schenn is clearly the best prospect who is not playing in the NHL. A dynamic offensive weapon, Schenn led all scorers in the World Junior Championship with 18 points in 7 games. With fans looking to him to step in and contribute immediately, Schenn has a heavy burden on his shoulders this season. The youngest Schenn has impressive stickhandling and even better vision. His playmaking is second to none and that may just make the transition to the NHL that much easier. Having attended the World Junior Championship in Buffalo, I came away very impressed with Schenn’s overall game and physical play. A gem down the middle, Schenn is looking to jump into the lineup immediately and show why he is regarded as the best prospect in the NHL.
Honorable Mentions: Eric Wellwood, Mike Testwuide, Ben Holmstrom, Tom Sestito, Nick Cousins
Follow Shawn Reznik on Twitter: @ShawnReznikTHW