The strength of the Philadelphia Flyers' developmental pipeline is up front, led by forwards James vanRiemsdyk and Claude Giroux. But beyond the two big names, there are a number of strong prospects with bright NHL futures.
Included in that group are a number of puck-moving defensemen. The Flyers added to that number at the 2008 Entry Draft, spending their top two selections on offensive-minded defensemen.
While the Flyers for the most part are a young team -- their nucleus includes centers Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, forwards Joffrey Lupul and Scottie Upshall and defensemen Ryan Parent, Braydon Coburn and Randy Jones, all of whom are younger than 26 -- they will need another wave of young talent to push them beyond last season's run to the Eastern Conference Finals.
"As anything else, they're kids and we have to be patient," said Chris Pryor, the Flyers' director of hockey operations. "They all have some intangibles they bring to the table. Our scouts did a very good job. I think you're going to see some nice results in a few years."
James vanRiemsdyk -- The reward for finishing with the League's worst record in 2006-07 was this 6-foot-4, 210-pound power forward. Van Riemsdyk spent last season at the University of New Hampshire, where he finished third on the team with 34 points (11 goals, 23 assists) while adjusting to playing center for the first time.
He also starred for the U.S. team at the World Junior Championships, leading the tournament with 11 points and tying for third with five goals.
"He's a big kid, he's got tremendous ability," Pryor told NHL.com. "We're happy with his progress. He's got tremendous potential."
vanRiemsdyk was given the option of playing with the Flyers' American Hockey League affiliate, the Philadelphia Phantoms, after his college season ended, but he declined and said he will spend at least one more season at UNH.
"I just want to make sure that when I do make the jump, that I'm fully ready to have an impact when I get here," vanRiemsdyk told the Flyers' Web site. "Obviously, (the Flyers) turned it around a lot this year and had a great year and have a lot of great young talent. I'm really excited, but I just want to make sure that when I do make that jump I'm ready to be a part of it and land with my feet flat on the ground."
Claude Giroux -- It's been a meteoric rise for the Hearst, Ontario, native. He went from not being selected in the OHL draft to Rookie of the Year with Gatineau in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and 2006 Philadelphia first-round draft pick. He even played in the NHL as an emergency call-up for two games when the Flyers were decimated by injuries last season.
Last season, Giroux played in the Canada-Russia Super Series, won a gold medal with Canada at the World Junior Championships, and guided Gatineau to the Memorial Cup. He finished second in the QMJHL with 68 assists and 106 points, and was tied for third with a plus-40 rating. In the QMJHL playoffs, he tallied an astounding 51 points (17 goals, 34 assists) in 19 games.
"He's got a chance, depending on how the summer goes, of coming into camp with a legitimate chance to turn some heads at camp next year," Pryor said.
At 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, Giroux still needs to get bigger and stronger, but with the departure of forward R.J. Umberger, there's an opening for a skilled forward at the NHL level.
"He's a kid that's getting bigger and stronger," Pryor said. "He's still a kid, but he's becoming a man. He's a hockey player. He can play both ends of the rink, he knows the game, he's competitive. You saw him when he came up for a couple games last year, he stepped right in and I don't think he looked out of place."
Andreas Nodl -- Back-to-back 18-goal, 40-plus point seasons at St. Cloud State University convinced the Flyers the Austrian-born Nodl was ready for the next level, and signed their 2006 second-round draft pick (No. 39 overall) to a three-year entry-level contract after his college season.
"It was time for him to move on, to learn the pro game," Pryor said. "He's another guy that has a lot of skill, can skate, good size. He's got to take it to the next level and get acclimated to the next level."
Nodl has a wealth off offensive skill, but he'll need to work on his defensive play to become an all-round player. That being said, Pryor said it's not outside the realm of possibility to see the 6-1, 195-pound right wing in the NHL next season.
"Over the course of this summer and coming into camp next year, he could be a pleasant surprise," said Pryor.
"We were happy to be able to get Patrick where we did. That said, you always want to see how a player performs at the next level. Patrick was exposed to a much higher level of play in the OHL and he came through with a big season."
-- Chris Pryor talking about Patrick Maroon
"We were happy to be able to get Patrick where we did," Pryor told the Flyers' Web site. "That said, you always want to see how a player performs at the next level. Patrick was exposed to a much higher level of play in the OHL and he came through with a big season.
"He has made some very encouraging strides, and we have high hopes for him in the future. We signed him to a contract early last season, which I'm sure was a good boost for his confidence. He could be a guy who challenges for a roster spot with the Phantoms in the fall, depending on how the summer progresses and he performs at training camp."
Zac Rinaldo -- The Flyers used their 2008 sixth-round pick (No. 178) on the Mississauga St. Michael's forward, who led all Ontario Hockey League rookies with 191 penalty minutes last season.
The 5-11, 169-pound center had seven goals and 14 points in 63 games, but the Flyers didn't draft him for his scoring potential.
"He's a high-energy guy," Pryor said. "Just by looking at his numbers, you can picture what type of player he is. He's going to finish his checks all over the ice, he's going to be an antagonistic guy to play against. Those guys are the new type of agitating guys that are playing. He can get on guys, he moves real well and he's hard to play against. He's one of those guys you want on your bench and not on the other bench. He knows what his role is and he likes doing it. Our guys are extremely excited about him. You noticed him when he's on the ice."
Michael Ratchuk -- The Flyers' second-round pick (No. 42) in 2006 fits the dimensions of a post-lockout NHL defensemen.
At 5-11 and 175 pounds, Ratchuk needs to get stronger and more efficient in his own zone, but his offensive upside is just what the club needs.
"He's one of those new, dynamic, offensive-type defensemen," said Pryor.
Ratchuk had 12 points in 40 games as a freshman on Michigan State's national championship team, and had 25 points in 42 games with the Spartans last season. He added a goal and two assists in three games after signing a rookie contract with the Phantoms.
2007-08 SEASON STATS
(6th east/11th NHL)
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(8th east/17th NHL)
(4th West/7th NHL)
"What's most impressive about Kevin is his level of maturity, on and off the ice," Pryor said. "He handles himself extremely well and is a born leader. He's the guy that everyone on his team looks up to, even at age 18. He has that presence about him and he's just all business."
Oskars Bartulis -- The Flyers' third-round pick in 2005 (No. 91), Bartulis had a strong rookie season with the Philadelphia Phantoms, finishing with one goal, 20 assists and a plus-10 rating (third among team defensemen) in 57 games. He missed the last two months of the season, including the Calder Cup playoffs, due to an upper-body injury, but he's expected to be fully healed by training camp.
"Physically he's still growing," Pryor said of the 6-2, 201-pound native of Latvia. "He's a well-rounded two-way defenseman, good head, good stick, got some offense to his game."
Bartulis will have the opportunity to compete for an NHL job at training camp, but Pryor believes it's more likely Bartulis will open the season in the AHL.
Joonas Lehtivuori -- Taken in the fourth round of the 2006 draft (No. 101), Lehtivuori made major strides in his second season with Tampere in the Finnish Elite League. After going scoreless in 40 games as a rookie, the 19-year-old defenseman had eight goals and 21 points -- second among the team's defensemen -- in 48 games.
At 5-11 and 167 pounds, Lehtivuori doesn't play a physical game, but he's skilled, strong and difficult to knock off the puck.
"Lehtivuori isn't a big guy and he's not going to suddenly develop into a huge physical presence or anything," Pryor said. "But we like what he brings to the table in the skill department. He is very talented with the puck and brings that skating element that is becoming so important to develop for your defense.
"He's still growing, and that will take some more time. As he continues to get stronger, though, Joonas will gain a better understanding of the things he does best. He already has a good idea, because he's a very smart player."
Luca Sbisa -- The Flyers dealt forward Umberger to Columbus for the right to move up to No. 19 in the first round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, where they selected the Italian-born, Swiss-trained Sbisa, who played last season with the Western Hockey League's Lethbridge Hurricanes.
After a strong debut season that saw him tally 27 assists and 33 points in 62 games, the 6-1, 176-pound defenseman led all WHL defensemen with three goals and 15 points in 19 playoff games.
"He's a well-rounded, two-way player," said Pryor. "He moves good, competitive, smart, good stick. There aren't a lot of weaknesses in his game. He's going to be a good player and he's getting better as time goes on."
Marc-Andre Bourdon -- The other part of the Umberger deal allowed Philadelphia to select Bourdon in the third round (No. 67).
The 6-foot, 206-pounder got off to a slow start last season with Rouyn-Noranda of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, but he ended the season third in the league in scoring among defensemen with 59 points, including 12 goals. He also finished with a plus-39 rating, second among the league's blueliners, and he was honored with the QMJHL defenseman of the year award.
Michael-Lee Teslak -- An undrafted free agent, Teslak signed with the organization after three years at Michigan Tech. In 25 games last season, he went 8-11-4, but had a 2.20 GAA and .918 save percentage. He played five AHL games with the Phantoms at the end of the season, going 2-2 with a 2.84 GAA and .897 save percentage.
He got into one playoff game, allowing three goals on 10 shots during the East Division final against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
"(Teslak) is a guy who we think of very highly," said Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren. "He's a big, tall and very athletic kid. He has some excellent potential."
Jeremy Duchesne -- The Flyers' fourth-round pick in 2005 (No. 119) started his professional career with the Dayton Bombers of the ECHL last season, where he went 13-13-5 with a 2.97 GAA, 10th among the league's rookies, in 31 games.
He made two late appearances for the Phantoms, winning his only start.
At 6-foot and 201 pounds, Duchesne has good size but needs to work on his positioning and efficiency of movement. As one of the few goaltending prospects in the club's pipeline, he'll likely get a shot at winning a full-time spot in the AHL next season.
Jakub Kovar -- The Flyers' 2006 fourth-round pick (No. 109) had an adventurous first season in North America.
Kovar left the Czech Republic for the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League last season, but midway through the campaign he was traded to the Windsor Spitfires. He finished second among OHL rookies with 26 wins, plus a 3.30 GAA and .897 save percentage.
"This was his first season in North America, playing at the major-junior level, and we like what we've seen so far," said Pryor. "It's not easy to make that transition from the European rinks, but he did a fine job. He made some good strides and also handled that midseason trade very well. That says a lot about his character."
Jacob DeSerres -- One of the glaring holes in the Flyers' developmental system is a lack of goaltending prospects. They certainly addressed that need in selecting DeSerres from Seattle of the Western Hockey League with their second third-round pick (No. 84) in the 2008 Draft, which they acquired from Washington along with defenseman Steve Eminger for the No. 27 overall choice.
DeSerres tied for the WHL lead with a .922 save percentage last season. The 6-2, 195-pounder went 20-11 with a 2.28 goals-against average and three shutouts in 34 games.
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com.