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GREENBERG: Brandon Manning's unique journey

Flyers columnist looks at the incredibly long path to the NHL for the Flyers defenseman

by Jay Greenberg @NHLFlyers / http://www.philadelphiaflyers.com

It's nine hours from where Brandon Manning grew up, in Prince George, B.C. to Chilliwack, in the Vancouver suburbs, where he played major junior. Quite the distance, even before it actually took him most of a year to get there.

And still that only begins to tell the story of how far Manning has come to the National Hockey League.

"You could be somewhat hidden in northern BC." said Mark Greig, the Flyers western scout. "Most teams didn't have a scout full time covering [the Tier II British Columbia Hockey League] where Brandon was playing the first year he was NHL draft-eligible, although we and most teams do now.

"But I did see him there (with the Prince George Spruce Kings). He was competitive and had skills, enough to tweak your interest. But to try to project success at that level to the Western Hockey League is a challenge."

The game gets faster every year. But slow, steady and determined has won Manning this race. Undrafted to play in the WHL, let alone the NHL, Manning finally might have at least become somebody's fantasy pick when, with the Flyers down 2-0 to Carolina on October 22, he took Jake Voracek's pass, went to the net, deked goalie Eddie Lack and, on the backhand from behind the goalline, tucked the puck in past the stick of defenseman Ron Hainsey.

You had to see it to believe it. And even then. . . well, there were 420 players taken in the 2010 and 2011 drafts not named Brandon Manning. When he says it's all been part of a "process," then so is pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Calgary's Mark Giordano and the Rangers' Dan Girardi are two undrafted defensemen who have had stellar NHL careers. But the list of them is a lot shorter than the odds faced by Manning, who has been the Flyers' best defenseman in this early season.

He never really was slow. And, playing junior at 185, just 10 pounds below his current weight, not so small either. Manning simply wasn't very good.

"With Brandon, there has been a consistent trend upwards in all regards that is kind of unique in the ten years I have been doing this," said Greig. "He always played a gritty, competing game, but each year his skating got a little better and he took off offensively. He found real confidence in becoming a threat from the blueline.

"I remember the last report I filed on him: An AHL player who may have a chance to be a sixth, seventh or eighth guy in the NHL. He was slow cooking in (three seasons in) the AHL, too, consistently getting better each year.

"He's become a serviceable NHL player. And now who knows where this is going?"

Truth be told, Manning didn't know himself where he might wind up when he took the puck to the net against the Hurricanes. "It was just an opportunity that presented itself," he says.

One more in a long line of them that the 26-year-old has seized.

"To me, it wasn't the play itself, although it was a spectacular one," said Coach Dave Hakstol. "It was the mentality of wanting to make a momentum-changing play when our team needed it.

"I don't think he had the confidence to try that a year ago. Now he's looking and pushing to try to add a little bit more each and every day.

"He's a pretty smart player. Very competitive, two ways. Last year, he moved the puck really well and now is showing a knack and willingness to jump into the play. Plus, he has a little edge to him; when a teammate is in a bad spot and needs a bit of help on the ice, Brandon does that, which is huge for the team.

"In the American League he started as an in-and-out-of-the-lineup guy, built his game, and became an outstanding player at that level.   The process here has followed the same path."

A training camp injury foiled Manning's first chance to make Chilliwack in 2007-08, his first year of NHL draft eligibility. But he had shown enough to be put on the team's reserve list and was called back at the end of the season. The next year he played regularly, and was, in his words "nothing special."

Sleeper? Greig wasn't losing any at the thought that if the Flyers didn't take a chance on Manning in the sixth or seventh round, somebody else would. "To me, he was a guy worth a camp invite, that's all," said the scout. He says the Flyers extended that offer, but Manning doesn't remember them being on that short list. He went to the Rangers' camp in 2011 and made enough of an impression to be offered an AHL contract. On the advice of his agent, Gerry Johansson, Manning declined.

The son of a fireman, and a prospective one himself, if hockey didn't work out he knew no NHL team was breaking through his door with an ax to get to him. But he had competed well against Rangers, present and future. No one was going to put a hose to his dream.

"I had put up 54 points in the WHL as a 19-year old," recalls Manning. "I think I knew at that point that playing professional hockey was a reality.

"If I went back to junior, I would hopefully succeed and have my pick of NHL contracts rather than committing to an AHL contract and getting buried there.

All along, I felt pretty levelheaded about my chances. A one-year AHL contract wasn't going to do much for me when I might get a three-year deal and more opportunities."

He returned to Chilliwack as a 20-year-old. "He was playing with conviction and confidence, like a man among boys," recalls Grieg.  

"I've seen that with other 20-year olds in junior. They become a leader on a team because of their age, and some really take charge with that.

"Also, sometimes that invite to camp makes an impact on those kids right from the beginning of that season. Brandon was playing with so much confidence, it reached a threshold that we had better do something or someone else was going to sign him. I called Chris Pryor (the Flyers' Assistant GM/Director of Player Personnel). Ontario scout Dennis Patterson came out to watch him with me for two games and we offered him."

Dallas, Minnesota and Calgary did, too. Manning said he chose the Flyers because the Phantoms had started horribly that season (2010-11) and he thought that would mean real minutes for him, "And that's the way it worked out," he said, but not until after he missed half his first AHL season with a sports hernia.

So add injuries to all Manning has overcome with the most grounded of approaches.

"I'm the kind of person who never really worried about what is going on around me, only concerned about myself with the team I am playing for at that time," he says. "When I signed my NHL contract, I knew I want going to step in at age 21-22.

"A defenseman is going to take some time anyway. A little back and forth (between the Phantoms and Flyers), I wasn't worried about that.

He had brief NHL callups in all three of his seasons with the Phantoms. When the Flyers signed Evgeny Medvedev out of the KHL last year, paying him $3 million, there still seemed no room in the top six or Manning, but he beat the Russian out of a spot and was in the rotation throughout a spirited Flyers stretch drive to a playoff spot.

This still is his first full season as an NHL regular. Yet he is being trusted as the veteran partner for 19-year old uberprospect Ivan Provorov.

"Brandon is a little young in terms of games played but not in his approach," said Hakstol. "His game is reliable, he shows poise and consistency and his demeanor on the bench is similar.    Those are good qualities to have alongside the young guy. And I might add, the young guy has similar qualities."

Provorov was identified as an advanced prospect as early as age 14, when he left Russia to begin his North American hockey education. If GM Ron Hextall weren't completely convinced the kid can handle being in the NHL so soon without growing an unhealthy sense of entitlement, Provorov wouldn't be here.

Deep down, however, a GM who once was a sixth-round pick, who first had to earn a promotion from the International to the American Hockey League, thinks the healthiest way to make it is as Manning has done. It builds character.

"I'm very proud of the way I came up on the back road, coming from a small town, hitting every level on the way," said Manning. "It helps me appreciate every day I am here."

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