Phantoms Offer A Look To The Future

6 Jan

VOORHEES, N.J. — The Flyers are the only team in the National Hockey League without a player in the World Junior Championship. On the surface, it appears as though the Flyers may not have much to say for a farm team. But void of a big-name minor league talent, the farm system is alive and well; they just go about things a bit differently.

On draft day, the Flyers are pretty active. But they’ve been active with trades, not so much using their own draft picks. The right to draft Sean Couturier came from Columbus, so the Flyers haven’t used their own first-round pick since 2008.

Somehow, the Flyers have been able to house a farm system. They may not have a big name in the lower ranks, but those in charge of the young NHL team say that the prospects exist.

“We’ve got a player for the World Juniors on our team right now,” director of hockey operations Chris Pryor told Philly Sports Daily. “That’s Sean Couturier. The World Juniors are fine and everybody loves the teams and that’s nice, but at the end of the day everybody’s in it to have their draft picks play for your NHL club.”

If that’s the case, then the Flyers are doing quite well. With Couturier, Brayden Schenn, and Erik Gustafsson all playing NHL minutes this year, the Flyers haven’t had a whole lot of highly-touted talent for Phantoms coach Joe Paterson to work with.

But they’re making it work with a few college free agents. Gustafsson, Harry Zolnierczyk and Matt Read are the most obvious examples of the makeshift theory on how to have a farm system without drafting all that often.

“We’ve done a nice job filling in those blanks with free agents to supplement not having as many picks as some other teams,” said Pryor. “That’s the price you pay to get Chris Pronger. The guy’s a Hall of Fame defenseman. Sometimes you gotta give to get and we all understand that. We’re in it to win the Cup every year.”

So what happens below the NHL level? The Phantoms come to town for their yearly trek to Philadelphia on Friday. Per The Flyers’ new philosophy, a couple guys to watch against Hershey weren’t drafted by the Flyers.

Jason Akeson leads the Phantoms in scoring with nine goals and 15 assists in 32 games. He was signed to an entry-level contract out of the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers. The right winger played 201 games in the OHL and had 68 goals and 186 assists. In his rookie year, he’s already impressing.

“He had a really nice junior career,” said Pryor. “He’s a smart player. Skilled. Smart. He’s not overly big. He’s not overly fast. But he’s extremely smart and he’s skilled. That’s what’s gonna give him a chance to play down the road is his hands and his head.

“He’s gotta keep working it. Sometimes kids come out of juniors and it’s a big adjustment coming from junior to pro. The pace of the game, they’ve just gotta adapt. Sometimes it takes kids a while. He’s figuring it out because, like I said, he’s a smart player.”

On the defensive side, a guy to keep an eye on is another rookie. Blake Kessel is the younger brother of Toronto Maple Leaf Phil Kessel. He played at the University of New Hampshire and actually overlapped a year with James van Riemsdyk.

“Especially for the defensive side, they tend to take a little longer than the forwards just because they have a little bigger responsibility in their own end,” said Pryor. “It’s a little tougher position to play. That’s not saying the forward position’s not hard either, but you have more responsibility as a defenseman sometimes and it just takes a little time.”

It’s also been a long year for Kessel, who is tagged as being an offensive defenseman. He had 21 goals and 57 assists in 114 games for UNH and then jumped right into a season with the Phantoms.

“You gotta remember some of these guys, especially from the college side, when they’re halfway through the season in the American League, they’ve already played a year in college, so it’s a long year,” said Pryor. “Are we happy with him? Sure we are. He’s got opportunity for us down the road, but for us he’s learning his trade at the American League level. He’s doing a good job.”

Whether they’re traded for or signed or drafted, the Flyers seem to find a way to fill a lineup card with prospects. They haven’t drafted many of the Phantoms, but on Friday the philosophy of free agent signees will be showcased for all to see at Citizens Bank Park.

“I think if you go through the rosters around the league there’s a lot of college free agents that might not carry the big name but there’s a lot playing,” said Pryor. “We’ve took on with a little bit more importance because we’re trying to fill in some blanks from a prospect standpoint because of obvious reasons.

“I think we’ve done a good job.”

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