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MELTZER: Flahr on the Farm, Part 3

Flyers contributor and AGM conclude their evaluation of the Flyers prospects around the globe

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer

The Flyers currently hold the rights to seven players who are plying their trade this season in Europe. Five are in Sweden (four at the elite level, one in the minors), one is a Swede now playing in Finland and the other is a Russian goaltender in the KHL.

Flyers assistant general manager Brent Flahr recently offered his insights on the progress and short-term possibilities for each of the players.

 

SWEDEN (SHL)

In general, Flahr is a big fan of how Swedish teams develop young players at both the club team and national team levels. That does not mean he would not, under the right circumstances, consider trying to bring a prospect over to North America a little bit early. In most cases, though, he is comfortable that young players in Swedish league will be properly handled in their formative years.

LINUS HOGBERG
Among the Flyers prospects in Europe, 21-year-old Växjö Lakers defenseman Högberg is one of two for whom an imminent decision looms on whether to sign him to an entry-level deal. Selected in the fifth round (139th overall) of the 2016 NHL Draft, the blueliner is now four years removed from his draft year (in which he was the youngest players in the first-time Draft eligible crop). 

The Växjö team, which was a dominant force a couple years ago in winning the 2017-18 SHL championship, is no longer of the same caliber. To his credit, Högberg's game has remained steady even as the team's fortunes dipped and his role expanded in the lineup. 

"He has good self-awareness as a player. He knows what works for him, and his game doesn't change much from night to night. He skates well, moves the puck and keeps things fairly simple out there. One thing that we've been looking for from Högberg is for him to add strength, which has taken awhile, to be equipped to handle the physical game he'd be up against over here. He has some skill but he's not very aggressive in his approach. But he's been a pretty consistently responsible player, works hard and he is an established young pro over there at this point," Flahr said.

Högberg's rate of progress over the four seasons since he was drafted has been notable more for his cumulative subtle improvements rather than a quantum leap he took in one particular season. For that reason, he may not jump out as much as other prospects in small sample size viewings but his game grows on observers over time.

ADAM GINNING
Some Flyers scouts -- as well as ones from other teams -- have likened Ginning to current Flyers defenseman Robert Hägg in terms of general playing style. 

The two second-round picks (Hägg in 2013 and Ginning in 2018) are similarly at their best when they bring a physical element to the game and can use their respective size effectively. Both were regulars on Swedish national teams in various age groups up to the Under-20 level.

Before simplifying his game in North America, Hägg was more offensive-minded in his early years than Ginning has been (although Ginning periodically surprises with displays of puck skill). Ginning is a bit faster on his skates in a straight line and is two inches taller. Nevertheless, there are generic similarities in their approaches.

Hägg first came over to North America at age 19, playing three full seasons in the AHL (the first of which was slide-rule exempt and which saw him play in his third and final World Junior Championships at midseason). There is a chance that Ginning, who turned 20 on Jan. 13, could follow a similar early-arrival path to North America once his current contract expires with Linköpings HC.

"That's a decision that has yet to be made," Flahr said. "He could end up playing one more season in Sweden, whether for another team or not. Or he could come over here to continue to develop [in the AHL]. Again, I'm usually inclined to let players develop in Sweden until they're ready, because they do a good job over there with young players. But it's always a case-by-case thing."

Ginning captained the Swedish team at the WJC and had a good tournament playing a shutdown D role while also contributing three assists (including an important one in the bronze medal game win over Finland). Overall, however, the 2019-20 season has not gone his way so far.

After being a regular SHL starter for Linköping for the majority of two-plus seasons, Ginning found himself on the outside of the lineup rotation for much of the first half of the season. He was loaned to a minor league (Allsvenskan) team for a 17-game stretch and also dressed in a half dozen junior league games for the Linköpong J20 team before landing back on Linköping's SHL roster.

"Linköping changed head coaches after last season [from Tommy Jonsson to Bert Robertsson]. The team has struggled in the standings and Adam didn't have his best start. So there hasn't been as much confidence in him, which is nothing unusual," Flahr said.

Ginning has been suspended twice this season at the SHL level: two games for a fighting major (in which neither Ginning nor his opponent dropped the gloves but was nevertheless deemed a full-blown fight) and, more recently, got a four-game ban for kneeing. 

It has all added up thus far to a season that has fallen short of the expectations that Ginning sets for himself. Long-term, Flahr sees this year's campaign as one from which Ginning will learn and grow.

"It's been a frustrating year for Ginning but there's a lot we like about his makeup and character. He has been a leader on their national teams and he got to the SHL at a very young age. It's not always to be forward steps when a player is developing. There's a process involved, and he's a self-aware player who knows where his game needs to be at to be successful. He gets himself ready to play at a pro's level. Adam is also a very competitive player on the ice. He will battle you for space and, if you beat him this time, he'll come back even harder at you the next," Flahr said. 

While it remains to be determined whether Ginning will spend the 2020-21 season competing in the American Hockey League or Swedish Hockey League, Flahr anticipates that Ginning will make the jump to North America by the 2021-22 eason. 

OLLE LYCKSELL
Ginning's Linköping teammate, whom the Flyers selected in the sixth round (168th overall) of the 2017 Draft, has been an SHL lineup regular for roughly the last two-and-a-half seasons but has seen his ice time expand and lineup placement move up this year. 

Early in the season, Lycksell was one of the few offensive bright spots for his team and he led the club in scoring over the first couple weeks of the season. Since that time, Lycksell's pace has slowed significantly in terms of production -- three goals since mid-October -- but he recently scored his sixth goal of the season. Beyond the numbers, the Flyers are encouraged by many of the things they've seen from the now 20-year-old forward over the past year.

"He's made big strides physically. He'll never be the biggest guy on the ice, but he's made progress in adding strength. He's figuring himself out more as a player -- getting more ice time has helped, obviously -- and he has good speed and some natural skill," Flahr said.

Lycksell can play any forward position. Long-term, if he plays in the NHL, Lycksell will more likely play a wing rather than center. He's seen a lot of time on left wing this season.

According to Flahr, Lycksell will remain in Sweden for the 2020-21 season. Thereafter, the organization will assess his readiness to come over to North America. 

SAMUEL ERSSON
A revelation last season, Ersson starred in goal for Team Sweden at the 2018-19 World Junior Championships. At the club team level, he moved up from the junior ranks with the Brynäs J20 team to thrive during a season-long loan to Västerås, a minor league (Allsvenskan) team. Ersson swept all of the league's major awards for which he was eligible, winning league MVP, Goaltender of the Year and Rookie of the Year honors.

This season, Ersson in back with Brynäs but now at the SHL level. He has shared time in net with veteran Joacim Eriksson (himself a former Flyers draftee). Both goaltenders have posted sub-90 percent save percentages for a team mired in 11th place in the 14-team league, but Ersson has seen his playing time increase as the season has moved along. 

"He's had some ups and downs, but nothing out of the ordinary for a young goalie moving up a level of competition and playing on a struggling team. He's a really good spot for his development, between his coaches over there and Brady working with him. In Sweden, they do a great job with goalies in particular," Flahr said.

"Ersson is very acrobatic and ultra-competitive. He never gives up on save. There are some mechanical adjustments he's been working on. His style isn't as technical as [Felix] Sandström, who has different adjustments to make over here [in the ECHL] in terms of handling plays where he has to come out of his structure."

Ersson will turn 21 on Oct. 20. He'll spend the 2020-21 season in Sweden, according to Flahr. Longer-term, the organization views the goalie as a strong candidate for an eventual North American pro career; likely starting out at the minor league level and working his way up from there.

SWEDEN (ALLSVENSKAN)

MARCUS WESTFALT
The Flyers' seventh-round selection (205th overall) in the 2018 NHL Draft spent portions of the previous two seasons at the SHL with Brynäs, although he was eventually loaned to Allsvenskan club Karlskrona HK last season. So far in 2010-20, the 19-year-old forward has been on loan to another Allsvenskan club, Västerviks IK.

"He is a big kid, and plays a straightforward kind of game. He'll battle for pucks and compete," Flahr said.

The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Westfält is more physically mature than most players in his age group. He'll turn 20 on March 12. A north-south type of player, Westfält is not a pretty skater and can use more explosiveness but takes intelligent routes to pursue the puck. Primarily a center, he can also play left wing.

Westfält is strong along the boards and works hard to be defensively responsible. At junior levels, he showed acumen for getting the net and scoring greasy goals from close range. Some have said he has nascent netfront potential on power plays. However, at the pro level -- Allsvenskan as well as SHL -- he has almost exclusively been used as a fourth-line checking role player and is not looked to much for offense. Through 40 games this season for Västervik, he had three goals and six points.

FINLAND (LIIGA)

DAVID BERNHARDT
The 22-year-old Swede is now in his draft-plus-four season since the Flyers selected the defenseman in the seventh round (199th overall) of the 2016 NHL Draft. His NHL rights will be held by the Flyers until June 1, 2020, whereupon he would become a free agent if unsigned. 

Bernhardt was originally an extremely offensive-minded defenseman. However, once he reached the pro level for Djurgården and also attained a spot on Team Sweden at the 2016-17 World Junior Championships, Bernhardt had begun to overhaul his game in the interest of becoming a more well-rounded player. 

Bernhardt has good size (6-foot-3, 203 pounds), and above-average strength, although he's not a particularly physical defenseman in the style of someone such as Ginning, Hägg or former Flyers blueliner Nicklas Grossmann. Somewhat deficient in the skating department, Bernhardt has worked hard to improve both his footwork and ability to close on attackers. He'll never be the classic mobile Swedish defenseman -- which is a big part of why he had to tone down his offensive forrays -- but still has heavy shot in his arsenal. 

During the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons, Bernhardt worked his way into becoming an SHL lineup regular first for Djurgården then as a teammate of Högberg's wih Växjö. This season, however, Bernhardt was a frequent healthy scratch for Växjö at the start of the season and played sparingly in the nine games he dressed. 

On Nov. 4, Bernhardt transferred teams and leagues, going to SaiPa Lappeenranta in Finland's top league (Liiga, formerly known as SM-Liiga). He has appeared in 20 games to date. 

RUSSIA (KHL)

IVAN FEDOTOV
The NHL has complicated rules about the duration of years in which teams hold the rights to drafted players. With players drafted from European leagues, it depends on whether the player's national hockey federation has a formal transfer agreement with the NHL, as well as the player's age at the time he was drafted. If there's a transfer agreement and the player was of traditional draft age, it's a four-year window. 

In the case of Russian leagues, however, NHL teams have an indefinite hold. For this reason, although Fedotov was drafted by the Flyers back in 2015 (7th round, 188th overall), the club still holds the NHL signing rights to the now 23-year-old goaltender. In past years, Fedotov even attended the Flyers' Development Camp in July along with other young hopefuls.

Back when the Flyers initially selected Fedotov, then-GM Ron Hextall admitted the selection was a "shot in the dark" based on the organization's Russia-based scout, Ken Hoodikoff, talking about the very raw athleticism and massive frame (6-foot-8) of a junior league goalie he'd seen. 

Fedotov's learning curve has been a protracted one. It was not until this season that he has finally graduated to being a regular starter in the KHL after gradually working his way up from the junior league (MHL) to backup and then starter status in top minor league (VHL). The hard work has paid off this season, as Fedotov has been the most effective netminder on KHL team Traktor Chelyabinsk. 

Through his first 26 games, Fedotov has posted a 2.28 goals against average and .926 save percentage. The team has used four different goalies this season. The KHL is generally a low-scoring league, so most goaltenders have impressive-looking stats if taken solely at face value, but Fedotov has genuinely played well this season. 

Despite coming into his own in Russia this season, Fedotov is realistically still in the longshot category in terms of being an NHL prospect. He's never been a starter in a major international tournament, He's still inexperienced even at the KHL level. 

Lastly, he would still face all of the usual adjustments to the small-rink game and culture shifts, which some goalies handle better than others. That said, he's still only 23 and there have been later-blooming goalies who've had eventual success.

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