Last year, many fans - including myself - were disappointed to see the Phantoms move to upstate New York as a result of the Spectrum being closed. But it might have been better that they moved so far away after all. Away from Philadelphia - and many fans' consciousness - the Phantoms labored through a terrible season.
The Phantoms finished 32-41-3-4 (The AHL separates overtime losses  and shootout losses , still giving one point for each), good for 28th best out of the 29 teams. Basically, they were the Toronto Maple Leafs (30-38-14) of the AHL last year. It's amazing that they were able to draw people out to the rink.
So what went wrong in the AHL this year? Well, there were a couple of things. First, the veteran players brought in by the Flyers to lead the young group (Krystofer Kolanos, Jason Ward, and Lukas Kaspar) were big disappointments. Kaspar only played 8 games before bolting for Europe and Kolanos only played 27 games, largely due to injury.
The second problem is that the team didn't get the kind of production out of their home-grown veterans - Jon Matsumoto, Jared Ross, and Patrick Maroon - they were looking for. In fairness to Maroon, just when he was starting to awake from his slow start, he was knocked out of the lineup with a concussion.
But besides the big six failing to meet expectations, the real problem is that the Phantoms just don't have much talent. Now, a common excuse is that the Flyers young talent is already in the NHL and thus the organization should be given a pass. That argument makes some sense since the team has such home-grown talent as Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Claude Giroux, James van Riemsdyk, and Oskars Bartulis in the NHL, all 25 years old or younger. The problem is that both Richards and Carter were drafted in 2003 while Bartulis isn't exactly an "impact" player.
That leaves Giroux and van Riemsdyk as the two "graduated" members of the farm system, thus leaving it bare. With only two (arguably three) graduates in 5 years, I'm not convinced. Since 2005, only 8 of the Flyers 34 draft picks (between 2005 and 2009) have made it to the NHL. Both Steve Downie and Luca Sbisa have been traded away, while Andreas Nodl and Jon Kalinski have a combined 80 NHL games. Between Giroux, van Riemsdyk, Downie, Sbisa, Nodl, Kalinski, Bartulis, and Jeremy Duchesne, the Flyers don't exactly have much reason to brag about their drafting ability.
And for those who think 2005 is too recent, the 2004 draft produced David Laliberte (11 NHL games), Triston Grant (11 NHL games, now in Nashville), and goaltender Martin Houle (2 minutes of NHL action). Basically, the Flyers have two draft successes since 2004. That's unacceptable.
The good news is that the Flyers are really only looking at draft failures from 2004 through 2007 since the 2008 draft will be tested this upcoming season. So the team will look for Laliberte to carry the banner for the 2004 draft class and Bartulis for the 2005 class. But what about those still in the system?
From 2004 through 2007, the Flyers didn't draft many forwards who can help the AHL club. Getting Steve Downie, Claude Giroux, and James van Riemsdyk in the first round of 2005, 2006, and 2007, respectively, is good, but it's what NHL teams should do: get an NHL player with their first round pick. The true test is what they do with their later picks.
The only player to come out of the 2004 and 2005 drafts was Laliberte (4th round, 2004), who had a good two games in the NHL before playing at a replacement level the rest of the year. In 2006, the club drafted Nodl in the second round and Matsumoto in the third. None of the three have stuck in the NHL, and Matsumoto has already been traded while both Nodl and Laliberte are only signed through this year.
The 2007 draft saw the Flyers select Jon Kalinski (6th round) and Pat Maroon (6th round), as well as Mario Kempe (5th round). Kalinski has 22 career NHL games and projects to be, at best, a fourth-line winger. Maroon may develop into a third-line winger, but his concussion last year set him back. Both players are on the final year of their entry-level contracts. Kempe is still over in Europe and not much is known about him.
As far as this year's Phantoms team, that's it for home grown experience. Anyone wondering why the Phantoms had such a bad season last year need look no further than the Flyers draft picks since 2004. Among the many misses include: Rob Bellamy, Gino Pisselini, Ladislav Scurko, Frederik Cabana, Josh Beaulieu, Matt Clackson, Jon Rheault, and Garrett Klotz. Obviously, in hockey, a lot of draft picks are going to fail. The problem is that the Flyers frequently draft tough guys and grinders as opposed to skill players, evidenced by the two third round picks wasted on Bellamy and Klotz, neither of whom have scored more than 18 points in any season of their hockey careers.
Looking forward to next year, the Phantoms should have 2008 draft pick Zac Rinaldo (6th round) join the fold. After watching Rinaldo at Prospect Camp, it's pretty clear he's a high-energy agitator - just the kind of guy the Flyers draft. Now, he actually has some skill, but even he never scored more than 17 points a single season in Major Juniors. Another low-ceiling player, but he could become an effective third-line player if he can harness his energy.
The last forward likely to make the Phantoms who was drafted by the Flyers is Eric Wellwood. A 6th round pick in 2009, Wellwood had a breakout year in the OHL this past year, going over the point-per-game mark for the first time. He was pretty impressive in prospect camp this year, but it's still too soon to see what his potential is. He is on the first year of his three-year entry level deal.
Stefan Legein was a former second round pick for the Blue Jackets, acquired for Mike Ratchuk, himself a former second round pick. He's a goal scorer who had a decent year in Adirondack, and could become a second-line winger in the NHL if he learns to develop his game more.
Outside of that, all the other forwards that are expected to battle for a spot on the roster were free agent signings. Shane Harper, Mike Testwuide, Luke Pither, Ben Holmstrom, and Andrew Rowe were all signed early this year. In camp, Testwuide looks like he'll be a strong power forward, Pither looks like a playmaker, and Rowe looks like a mini-Mark Recchi.
In all, the Phantoms don't appear bad up front for next year, but the problem is that everything is dependent on the undrafted players stepping up and carrying the load. The team will be very young, with only three players who have appeared in the orange and black, none of whom are natural goal scorers. Most troubling is that the organization seems to value undrafted players more than second round picks since the Flyers will only have had a second round selection twice between 1999 and 2012. Twice.
On defense, the Flyers have two top-notch prospects in Kevin Marshall and Marc-Andre Bourdon. Outside of them, they have promising young puck movers in Erik Gustafsson and Joonas Lehtivuori. How many make it to the NHL could vary from 0 to 4, though. Both Marshall and Bourdon will likely battle for a roster spot in 2011-12 (well, except for the fact that the team has 7 NHL defensemen signed for that year) with Lehtivuori on the outside looking in.
Despite Lehtivuori being arguably the best defenseman in Adirondack last year, he doesn't get much respect. He's small (5'11" 180 lbs) but is the oft-coveted right handed shot on the blueline. Hopefully management doesn't ignore him like most Flyers writers and fans do.
Gustafsson was another undrafted free agent, but he was very impressive in camp. He's confident, steady, and versatile. What's most impressive though, is his ability to defend odd-man rushes using either his stick or his body. With him in the mix, the Phantoms defense should be very interesting.
Now, none of this is to say that the Flyers drafted defensemen well, but they're notoriously a lot harder to select than forwards. Does anybody remember Andy Delmore, Mark Eaton, Dennis Seidenberg, Bruno St. Jacques, Joni Pitkanen, Alexandre Picard, Jussi Timonen, and Jeff Woywitka? Yeah, four of them are still in the NHL, but most of them were highly touted or flash in the pan players who didn't live up to expectations.
But R.J. Anderson, Mike Ratchuk, and Denis Bodrov, were all selected in the top 3 rounds. One is in Columbus, another in Russia, and R.J. who? Umberger?
In general, the team hasn't needed to draft defensemen well in the later rounds because they had Bourdon and Marshall. With Lehtivuori drafted the year before, three straight years of solid picks tends to gloss over the late-round misses. That's not to say Oliver Lauridsen (7th round, 2009) is a miss. He's huge (6'6" 220) and only 21 years old. He may go back to college for his Junior season, but he was impressive at prospect camp as well. He could challenge for the 6th spot in Adirondack in training camp (behind Dan Jancevski, veteran AHLer signed this off-season).
Last year, the defense was a pleasant surprise for the Phantoms. Having Lehtivuori step up and get mentioned alongside Marshall and Bourdon was a big part of that. With Gustafsson entering the fold this year and Jancevski becoming the veteran presence, the defense should be very good in Adirondack this year.
In what might confuse Flyers fans, the best part of the system right now is their goalies. Yes, we've heard this before with names such as Jean-Marc Pelletier and Maxime Ouellet, but there are currently three goalies who could be NHL backups down the road fighting to make the Phantoms. And that doesn't even include perhaps the best goalie prospect, who will stay in Europe.
First, the Flyers have begun drafting many, many goalies in recent years. Since 2004, the Flyers have drafted Martin Houle, Jeremy Duchesne, Jakub Kovar, Michael Dupont, Brad Phillips, Jacob DeSerres, Joacim Eriksson, Adam Morrison, and Nicola Riopel. At one point, the Flyers used 4 out of 6 picks on goalies. Between the 3rd round of 2008 and the 5th round of 2009, the Flyers selected DeSerres, Eriksson, Morrison, and Riopel around Rinaldo and Simon Bertilsson.
Now, Houle, Duchesne, and Dupont are failures. DeSerres was left unsigned and is now a free agent. Kovar just recovered from an injury and is trying to unseat former-NHLer Roman Turek in Russia. Phillips is battling two other goalies for playing time at Notre Dame. And Morrison is trying to rebound from a pretty bad year in Saskatoon.
That leaves Eriksson and Riopel with two free agents signed. Riopel is still without a contract, but according to Assistant GM John Paddock, he's Flyers property. Of the remaining four goalies, he seems to be the least talented but the most prepared. He makes up for his average athleticism and height with a great work ethic and a positionally technical game. With more coaching, he could become a very solid NHL goalie, eventually having a ceiling as a 1B goalie. If you aren't sure what a 1B goalie is, think Martin Biron. Not quite a starter - he needs competition and someone to share the load - but can start 30-50 games while playing above average.
Eriksson could be the best goalie in the system, and this year should provide some answers. He'll be making the jump to the Swedish Elite League this year at the age of 20 and could spend another 2 years over there before coming to North America. Reports say he's got both size and athleticism, so a year in Sweden's best league will begin to tell the story.
The other two goalies were both free agent signings - Johan Backlund and Sergei Bobrovsky. Backlund had a 40 minute injury shortened stint in the NHL last year and will be challenging for an NHL job in camp this year. By all accounts, he was the Phantoms' MVP last year. Signed to a two-year contract, if he doesn't make the team this year, he'll likely be penciled in as the backup in 2011-12.
Lastly, Bobrovsky will be the true wild card. He played for a miserable team in the KHL the past two years, so his numbers aren't very impressive. The difference is that his save percentage was pretty solid, so the Flyers took a chance on him. He'll be 22 at the start of the season, and he signed a lucrative 3-year, $5.25 million contract. There shouldn't be high expectations for him this year because of the transition to the North American game, but if he can duplicate Backlund's transition, he'll likely be in the NHL conversation next year. After a rocky introduction at prospect camp, Bobrovsky showed flashes of great athletic ability.
It appears that the Flyers strategy of taking a lot of goalies in the draft and hoping one of them works out is beginning to show signs of working. After plenty of misses, the team seems to have two solid players in Eriksson and Riopel. Going the free agent route, they may have a temporary fix in Backlund and a long-term fix in Bobrovsky. Yes, we've heard it all before, but there are three goalies in the system worth keeping an eye on and imagining that they will hold down the fort for the better part of this decade. Hey, we can dream right?
When the Flyers actually hold their second round pick, they've had mixed results. Since 1999, they only had a 2nd round pick in 2006 and 2007, but they had four of them. With those picks, they selected Andreas Nodl, Mike Ratchuk, Denis Bodrov, and Kevin Marshall. Nodl has been a disappointment, but might still become an NHL player; Ratchuk was the odd-man out but was swapped for Legein; Bodrov has only played 17 games in North America and then bolted back to Russia; and Kevin Marshall had a good year in Adirondack.
But in 15 drafts, there will be 13 years where the Flyers do not have a 2nd round pick. That's just completely unfathomable. Those picks are by no means a guarantee to succeed, but at the very least, they should be solid AHL players. The Flyers haven't had those.
While the team has generally gotten between one and three solid players from each draft, they've only gotten 3 NHL players since 2004. That's not good enough. It doesn't help that the Flyers will be without a second round pick in the next two drafts, as well.
The team is banking on undrafted players to make up for their lack of picks and their mistakes. It's a dangerous bet, but at least the team is going out and signing skilled players as opposed to fighters and grinders. It might not work, but it's the only way the team can rebuild their farm system if they keep trading draft picks.
It will be interesting to watch the Phantoms this upcoming season, but not because they're going to be good. Instead, the team will be worth watching to see if there are any redeeming qualities from the Flyers last 6 drafts and if the undrafted free agents can prove that the Flyers should continue getting skilled players. If the team succeeds, I can only hope the days of drafting a Rob Bellamy, Matt Clackson, and Garrett Klotz are long gone.
Oh, and probably the most interesting thing about the Phantoms this year will be Zac Rinaldo. At any moment, Rinaldo could just explode and do something crazy. Hopefully, that doesn't happen. But it will be interesting watching him walk that line between "agitator" and "unbalanced lunatic" all season.