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Prospect Review: European Leagues

by Al Alven / Philadelphia Flyers

The following is a review of Flyers prospects that played this season in European leagues, including those in the Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden and Russia.

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Johan Backlund, G
Timra IK (Sweden)

At 27 years of age, Johan Backlund isn't a prospect in the traditional sense. A five-year veteran of the Swedish Elite League, the 6-2, 198-pound netminder signed a one-year contract with the Flyers in late March. He is expected to push for a roster spot with the team at training camp in September.

In 49 games with Timra this season, the undrafted Backlund registered a 2.56 goals against average, .907 save percentage and four shutouts. After sharing the net with two different goaltenders over the past two seasons, Backlund earned the team's starting role in 2008-09.
Johan Backlund is a five-year veteran of the Swedish Elite League. (Getty Images)

"He's a player we've had our eyes on and who we're glad to add to the mix," said Flyers director of hockey operations, Chris Pryor. "Our scouts have followed Johan closely and really like the progression he's shown in Sweden, especially over the past two seasons. We think he has a lot of potential.

"[Signing Backlund] gives us more options this summer and in training camp. Regardless of how our goaltending situation pans out, he'll have an opportunity to show us what he can do. Whether he makes the Flyers or starts with the Phantoms, we'll have to wait and see."

Over his five seasons in the SEL with Timra and Leksands IF, Backlund has a 2.54 goals against average, .908 save percentage and 19 shutouts in 287 games.

The highlight of his career came at the 2007 World Championships in Moscow, where he represented his homeland. In six appearances, he posted a 2.01 goals against average and .907 save percentage, leading Sweden to a fourth place finish.

"Backlund has international experience, which is always a plus," noted Pryor. "You never know exactly how a goaltender from the European leagues is going to adjust to the North American game, but we really like his attitude and feel he will do well over here."

Denis Bodrov, D
Lada Togliatti/Atlant Moscow (Russia)

Among the Flyers' more intriguing prospects, Denis Bodrov endured a somewhat tumultuous campaign. The 22-year-old rearguard opened his fourth pro season with Togliatti in the new Kontinental Hockey League, recording six points (one goal, five assists) and 20 penalty minutes in 24 games.

In November, he was suddenly transferred to Atlant Moscow. Officials from Togliatti cited "bad behavior" as the reason for the dismissal, but declined to offer an official explanation. Bodrov appeared to be surprised by the move and struggled initially with his new team. Within a week or so, he settled in and would go on to enjoy a strong second half.
Chris Pryor and the Flyers staff are hopeful they can get Denis Bodrov in for training camp. (Getty Images)

In 21 games for Altlant, he put up numbers identical to his first half stint with Lada, again posting one goal and five assists; he also added 24 penalty minutes in 21 contests.

Despite the transfer and the circumstances surrounding it, Bodrov continued to show progression in his game while living up to his reputation as one of the top young defensemen in Russia. He is solid positionally, skates well, and, at 6-0, 185-pounds, plays a physical game in his own end.

"We remain very high on Denis," explained Pryor. "We really like his approach. He's competitive and more than handles himself against older, bigger players in one of the top leagues in the world.

"We've felt for a while that he's been ready to come over and play here in our organization, but it's really up to him now. The problem from our end is that players like Denis can make big money playing in the Kontinental League. There's a lot of incentive for him to stay at home."

Pryor confirmed that the Flyers will continue to pursue Bodrov, and, ideally, would like to have him in attendance at training camp in September.

Joacim Eriksson, G
Brynas Jrs. (Sweden)

When the Flyers selected Joacim Eriksson in the seventh round (198th overall) of last summer's entry draft, many observers labeled the pick a potential steal. While only time will tell to what extent this is true, the early returns have been promising.

Widely considered to be the second best goaltending prospect in Sweden behind fellow Brynas product and 2008 draftee Jacob Markstrom (Florida Panthers, 31st overall), Eriksson bolstered his standing within the Flyers organization with a terrific 2008-09 campaign.

The 19-year-old netminder led the Brynas junior team to a SuperElit championship, recording a 2.43 goals against average and .922 save percentage in seven postseason games. His numbers were even better during the regular season, as he posted a glowing 1.99 goals against average and eye-popping .930 save percentage in 33 appearances.

Eriksson boasts a solid frame at 6-2, 190-pounds. A classic butterfly goalie who catches right, he possesses outstanding reflexes and lateral movement. He anticipates well and seems to thrive in late-game pressure situations.

"Our reports on Eriksson have been nothing but good," said Pryor. "We were very happy and maybe even a little surprised to see him on the board still in the seventh round of last year's draft. We think we may have gotten lucky here and have very high hopes for him."

Eriksson is likely to move up to the pro level next season, but it won't be with Brynas in the Swedish Elite League. As his path in the organization was blocked by Markstrom, he was recently transferred to Leksand of Allsvenskan, the second-highest division of play in Sweden.

"He's certainly ready to move up and it will be interesting to see how he progresses," added Pryor. "Our scouts have been very impressed with his poise and technical ability, and think he will only continue to get better."

Mario Kempe, LW
Rogle BK/Mora IK (Sweden)

At just 20 years old, Mario Kempe's career has already taken him from Sweden to Canada, back to Sweden, and then to Philadelphia. It is the latter destination where the talented forward hopes to permanently hang his skates.

Originally a product of the MoDo system in his homeland, Kempe opted to play hockey at the major junior level in North America, suiting up for the St. John's Fog Devils of the QMJHL for two seasons (2006-08). Prior to this past season, he decided to head back to Sweden to begin his pro career, signing with Rogle of the Swedish Elite League.
Mario Kempe has spent time playing in North America as well as Europe. (Getty Images)

Kempe performed well, despite enduring the frustrations of a limited role. In 30 games for Rogle, he notched 10 points (two goals, eight assists).

With veteran players earning more significant ice time as the season progressed, Rogle transferred Kempe to Mora IK of Allsvenkan late in the season. Kempe immediately settled into a prime role with his new team, recording 12 points (nine goals, three assists) and a plus-5 rating in 17 games.

After Mora's season ended, Kempe again crossed the pond, signing an ATO with the Phantoms. He appeared in five regular season games with the Flyers' AHL affiliate, but did not register a point.

"Mario is a very determined young man and he is carving out his own career path," said Pryor. "He's not a big guy, but he plays a big man's game. He's very competitive and in-your-face. While he has a lot of skill and can do some things with the puck, we view him as more of a role player.

"For Mario right now, it's all about patience. We'd like to see him get a little bigger and gain more muscle. He loves and thrives in the North American style of play and has a great work ethic."

Kempe will be in training camp in September. While he will have a chance to impress the Flyers brass, he is a more likely candidate to play for the Phantoms in 2009-10.

Jakub Kovar, G
Ceske Budejovice (Czech Rep.)

Like Kempe, Jakub Kovar is a prospect who came over to play at the major junior level in Canada before returning to Europe to make his pro debut. The 20-year-old split the 2007-08 season with the Oshawa Generals and Windsor Spitfires of the OHL. He signed with Ceske Budejovice of the Extraliga in his native Czech Republic last summer.
Jakub Kovar acted as a backup to former NHL player Roman Turek this past season. (Photo courtesy Windsor Spitfires)

Overall, the lanky, 6-0, 185-pound netminder made a solid transition to the next level. While he struggled with inconsistency and focus at times, he performed well in recording a 2.69 goals against average and .916 save percentage in 23 games as a backup to former NHLer Roman Turek.

"Our scouts who followed Kovar closely this season were very happy with the way he played," said Pryor. "He's a guy who plays that typically unorthodox Czech style. He's very athletic and has quick reflexes. For him, it's really a matter of continuing to gain experience and developing mentally in the position.

"We don't have any time table for Kovar or Eriksson at this point, though we'd obviously like to see them both come over and compete [in training camp] in the near future. But, they're both very young and we're really happy with the way they've been coming along, so far."

Kovar will suit up for Ceske again next season, barring an unexpected offseason transfer. As long as he shows he is capable, he should see an increase in workload as an Extraliga sophomore.

Joonas Lehtivuori, D
Ilves Tampere (Finland)

A smooth-skating if undersized (5-11, 167-pound) defender with deft puckhandling skills and strong hockey sense, Joonas Lehtivuori continued to show promising signs of development in 2008-09.

The 20-year-old rearguard's numbers actually went down noticeably during his third full season of play for Tampere in Finland's SM-Liiga. He notched 12 points (four goals, eights assists), an even rating, and 16 penalty minutes in 44 games this year after posting 21 points (eight goals, 13 assists) a plus-nine rating, and 10 penalty minutes in 48 games the previous season.

The numbers dip was likely more indicative of Ilves' overall struggles this season than it was of Lehtivuori's play. The team finished in the middle of the league's pack with a mediocre record of 22-27-9.  
Joonas Lehtivuori will get a look in training camp next year, according to Pryor. (Getty Images)

For his part, Lehtivuori has developed into one of his program's more reliable defensemen. He was very steady in his own end this season and proved to be effective in moving the puck up ice quickly, both in skating it out of the zone himself or by connecting with a crisp, accurate first pass.

Also, again, despite his stats, Lehtivuori has displayed an increased level of awareness on offense, which has resulted in him seeing increased power play responsibilities.

Like Kempe, Lehtivuori came over to Philadelphia after signing an ATO with the Phantoms in late March. He did not manage to get into a game, however, largely due to the AHL team's numbers crunch.

"Lehtivuori is another player we hope to take a good, long look at in training camp, and who we have high expectations for," said Pryor. "He has a smaller frame and will definitely need to build up his strength to play [in the NHL], but he can really skate and move the puck. He brings a lot of skill to the table.

"We'll have to see what happens for next season, but we have options. If he isn't ready to play here, he can always go back to Finland and play another season or maybe two."
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