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Five Flyers Prospects Headed to World Junior Championships

by Bill Meltzer / Philadelphia Flyers
The Philadelphia Flyers organization will be well-represented when the puck drops on the 2008 World Junior Championships in Pardubice and Liberec, Czech Republic on December 26.  Five prospects drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers will represent their respective countries in the tournament, and most are expected to play important roles on their teams.

The players are 2006 first-round draft choice Claude Giroux (Team Canada), 2007 first-rounder James van Riemsdyk (Team USA), 2006 fourth-round choices Joonas Lehtivuori (Team Finland) and Jakub Kovar (Team Czech Republic), and 2007 fifth-rounder Mario Kempe (Team Sweden).

Giroux and Kempe are first-time participants in the tournament, while van Riemsdyk, Lehtivuori and Kovar all appeared at last year’s tourney in Sweden.  Both van Riemsdyk and Kovar played limited roles a year ago, but gained valuable experience they can take into this year’s tournament. Lehtivuori played regularly for Finland last year and figures to log heavy ice time this year.

“We’re very excited about all of our prospects who are going,” said Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren. “It’s a short tournament and we evaluate players over the entire season, but the World Juniors tournament is definitely a measuring stick for these young men.

“We’re looking for good things from all five of our guys. They’re all good prospects from our standpoint.”

Claude Giroux (Right wing, Team Canada)

Claude Giroux
At the time the Flyers drafted Giroux with the 22nd overall pick of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, the Gatineau Olympiques winger was considered something of a Cinderella story. Unselected in the CHL draft and undersized even for a junior player, Giroux’s skill and work ethic came to the forefront when he starred for Gatineau almost immediately.

The youngster’s stock continued to rise last year. He was named to Canada’s preliminary roster for the 2007 World Juniors, but fell victim as an 18-year-old to a numbers game and the extraordinary depth of the pool of Canadian forwards.

Giroux is now regarded as one of the top prospects in the world. He has started to fill out his 5’10’’ frame to be stronger on the puck and has emerged as a complete player who can be used in all game situations.

His selection for Team Canada’s roster this year was a virtual lock on the heels of an outstanding performance at the preseason Canada-Russia Super Series and an MVP-worthy first half of the 2007-08 Quebec Major Junior Hockey league season (24 goals, 55 points, in 29 games to date). 

“Based on how Claude played against Russia and at our training camp, we expected good things from him this year. He’s been tremendous,” said Holmgren. “We’re very happy for him, and I think Canada should be happy, too.”

Early word from Team Canada camp is that Giroux could start the tournament on a line with Phoenix Coyotes prospect Kyle Turris (the third overall pick of the 2007 Entry Draft) of the University of Wisconsin and Boston Bruins’ hopeful Brad Marchand of the Val-d’Or Foreurs.

James van Riemsdyk (Left wing, Team USA)

James van Riemsdyk
The United States National Team Development Program (NTDP) has become one of the world’s top proving grounds for young talent. Now in his freshman year at the University of New Hampshire, NTDP product van Riemsdyk rose to prominence through his participation in the program.

Last year, a 17-year-old van Riemsdyk earned a spot on the bronze medal-winning Team USA’s roster for the World Juniors in Sweden – a testament to how highly regarded the youngster truly was. He dressed in all seven games, playing on the fourth line. Late in Team USA’s 6-1 victory over Slovakia, van Riemsdyk scored a goal for his only point of the tourney. Months later, he starred at the Under-18 World Championships in Finland for the silver-medalist Americans. The Flyers made him the second overall pick of the 2007 Entry Draft.

The Middletown, New Jersey native moves well for a player his size (the 18-year-old already packs 210 solid pounds on his 6’3’’ frame), but is at his most effective when he goes to work down low in the zone. He has always been considered an above-average passer and started to discover his scoring touch last year. 

Like any player making the adjustment to NCAA college hockey, van Riemsdyk has undergone a learning process as a freshman. His offensive production has been quite respectable for a first-year player (six goals, 15 points in 13 games), and should only continue to improve. Meanwhile, he is expected to play a much larger role at the World Juniors for Team USA this year.

“James won’t be in awe of the tournament, because he’s used to playing for Team USA,” said Holmgren. “We really like his makeup as a player, and he’s a guy who is just starting to tap into his potential. He’s a terrific young man, and he should do fine in the tournament.”

Joonas Lehtivuori (Defenseman, Team Finland)

Joonas Lehtivuori
Unlike the other Flyers’ prospects in the tournament, 19-year-old defenseman Joonas Lehtivuori is already playing his second season of hockey at the professional level. What’s more, he has emerged as one of the top young blueliners in the SM-Liiga (Finnish elite league) while playing for his hometown Ilves Tampere club.

“He is playing a lot of minutes, and playing very well. He moves the puck very well and he has a lot of composure,” said Flyers European scout Ilkka Sinisalo.

Lehtivuori’s Ilves team is a middling club in the SM-Liiga, but the young blueliner has led or been tied for the team plus-minus lead for most of the season. What’s more, he has also emerged ahead of schedule as an accomplished offensive defenseman at Finland’s top level. He ranked among the league scoring leaders at his position until recently. In 31 games so far this season, Lehtivuori has five goals, 16 points and a plus-six rating.

Team Finland did not have a particularly strong showing at last year’s World Juniors, but Lehtivuori’s steady two-way play as an 18-year-old was one of the bright spots. This year, he will move up to the Finns’ top defensive pairing and figures to log heavy ice time against other teams’ top players.

“Joonas has sky-high confidence heading into the tournament. He’s going to play a lot in all situations – power play and penalty kill as well as even strength. We have high hopes for him as a player down the road,” said Holmgren.

Before he’s NHL-ready, Lehtivuori will still need to fill out his frame and become more accustomed to the physical game. As a 2006 draftee, the Flyers would have to sign Lehtivuori to an entry-level contract by June 1 in order to retain his rights.

While the NHL’s transfer agreement with European leagues is currently in limbo, negotiations on a new agreement are set to begin in January. Holmgren indicates that, when the time comes, the Flyers will do whatever is necessary to protect the prospect’s NHL rights.

Mario Kempe (Right wing, Team Sweden)

Mario Kempe
There are few prospects in hockey more dangerous in open ice than Mario Kempe. The Flyers’ fifth-round pick (122nd overall) in the 2007 Entry Draft has the speed and puck skills to blow by defenders in one-on-one situations and the soft hands to finish his scoring chances. After a promising first season in North America last year for the St. John’s Fog Devils of the QMJHL, the Kramfors, Sweden native has averaged about a point-per-game this season (18 goals and 14 assists in 31 games).

Kempe is originally a product of the world famous Modo Hockey junior program in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden. Relatively few Swedes choose the Canadian junior leagues over the elite league track at home, but Kempe wanted to get a jump on playing the small-rink game as a way to boost his stock as an NHL prospect.  So far, the decision has worked out well.

“Based on what we’ve seen of him, it’s not just Mario’s speed that we like. It’s his competitiveness and fearlessness. He drives to the net hard and he’s not afraid to get hit in traffic to make a play,” said Holmgren.

Kempe lacks size and strength (he’s listed at 5’11’’, 179 pounds), but makes up for it with his combination of finesse and hustle. He still needs to work on making better use of his linemates when he has the puck, and can still be knocked off the puck by bigger, more experienced players. His play without the puck has improved considerably this year. A more complete hockey player than he was a year ago at this time, Kempe plays in all situations for St. John’s.

At least on paper, this year’s Team Sweden roster at the World Juniors is a little bit lacking in pure scoring punch. Kempe is one of the most naturally skilled offensive talents on the squad.

“The Swedes want to have their most talented roster out there. They might prefer to use players who have stayed in their home league, but they took Mario and a few other guys who are playing over here. We’re excited for Mario to be able to play for his country,” said Holmgren.

Jakub Kovar (Goaltender, Czech Republic)

A fourth-round pick (109th overall) in the 2006 Entry Draft, Jakub Kovar will play in his second World Junior Championship for the Czech Republic.  Last year, he served as backup to Atlanta Thrashers’ prospect Ondrej Pavelec.

Kovar (pronounced KOH-vash) got into two games for the Czechs at last year’s tournament. He mopped up for Pavelec in the Czech Republic's 6-2 preliminary round loss to Finland, playing the final 35 minutes in goal and turning back 10 of 12 shots. After the Czechs were knocked out of the medal round, Kovar got nod for the consolation game against Finland. He played an impressive game, stopping 29 of 31 shots to earn the victory for the fifth-place Czechs.

During his club-team season last year, Kovar was regarded as the top goaltender in the Czech junior leagues, posting a 2.07 goals against average and .929 goals against average for the top junior team of HC Ceske Budejovice.  This year, like most top Czech prospects, Kovar has transferred to Canadian major junior hockey after being selected in the CHL Import Draft. He’s playing in the OHL for the Oshawa Generals, the same team that features prized 2009 Entry Draft prospect John Tavares.

While offensively potent, the Generals have had some problems defensively. Kovar has given the club a chance to win in most of his 16 starts to date, and his save percentage (.903) is a better indicator of his overall play than his 3.14 goals against average. He splits time in goal with third-year OHL player Daryl Borden.

“I haven’t seen Kovar play yet this season in the Ontario League, but he’s a goaltending prospect that we like quite a bit. He has excellent fundamentals, and having some experience at the World Juniors should help him this year,” said Holmgren.

At the World Juniors, Kovar may have the inside track to open the tournament as the starting goaltender, but could also split time with Washington Capitals prospect Michal Neuvirth of the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires.

Because the Czechs will be playing on home ice and have had recent problems in international junior competitions, there will be a lot of scrutiny on the club’s performance. Holmgren says Kovar is the type of goaltender who could thrive under the pressure that will befall the Czech keepers.
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