(THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Power)
Last week we took a look at the Flyers defensive prospects and discussed which ones might end up wearing orange and black next season. While the situation with forwards is a little bit more clear cut, there are still several question marks.
Given that both Chris Vandevelde and Ryan White received extensions this summer, it will presumably be difficult for a prospect to crack the opening night lineup this fall. Other external factors, including the fate of Vincent Lecavalier, will help to determine the fate of certain prospects on opening night as well. Lets try to predict who will pick up NHL experience this year.
Scott Laughton is an interesting case. Laughton did get an extended look at the NHL level last year, playing 31 games before returning to finish his season in Lehigh Valley. As a 21 year old with some NHL experience, one would think that this might be his year to start on the NHL roster.
However, the acquisition of Sam Gagner and contracts for Ryan White, Chris Vandevelde and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare mean that a spot in the lineup might be tough to come by. A spot in the middle might be even tougher to come by, especially if coach Dave Hakstol opts to use Brayden Schenn as a center. While Laughton has some experience playing as a left wing, it makes sense that the Flyers would prefer to keep him in his natural position as a relatively new NHL’er.
Prediction: Unless he is extremely impressive at camp, Laughton starts the season in Lehigh Valley. It makes more sense for Laughton to play ~20 AHL minutes a night than it does for him to play 8-10 as a 4th line center or move from his natural position in Philadelphia. He is still just 21 years old. It’s not now or never yet. There’s a good chance he will be the first guy called up to Philadelphia if a forward (especially a top 9 center) goes down. At that point, his level of play will dictate how long he sticks around.
If a roster spot opens up for a young forward, Laughton’s biggest competition will probably come from 22 year old center Nick Cousins. A 2011 3rd round draft pick, Cousins is coming off a breakthrough season (54 pts, 64 GP) in the AHL. He was rewarded for his stellar play with an 11 game stint in Philadelphia to finish off the 2014-15 season. While Cousins was unable to register a point, he did look fairly comfortable during those games.
Cousins will ultimately face the same problems as Laughton when it comes to cracking the opening night lineup. Cousins has spent nearly all of his time as a center and has very little experience playing on either wing. As I noted earlier, it is highly unlikely that a prospect will impress enough to earn a top 9 center position out of camp. The 4th line seems just about set at this point as well, and I doubt the Flyers want Cousins playing less than 10 minutes a night anyway.
Prediction: Cousins starts the season as the first line center in Lehigh Valley. When a fill in is needed, Cousins and Laughton will battle it out to be the first one up. I’d expect Cousins to spend most of his time in the AHL next year, but if multiple forwards go down it is probable we will see him in Philadelphia for at least a few games at some point.
When the Flyers traded a late second round pick to move up 5 spots and Travis Konecny, they made it very clear that they were in need of a strong forward prospect. They most definitely got one, as Konecny arguably became the best forward prospect in the organization the minute he was drafted. The strong skating center from the Ottawa 67’s was labelled a steal for the Flyers by many draft experts.
There are many reasons to bet against Travis Konecny seeing NHL ice this season, though. Konecny is still just 18 years old and is fairly undersized (5’10”, 175). The Flyers will have the option of letting his recently signed entry level contract slide, whereas almost every other top forward prospect in the organization will already be playing professional hockey in Lehigh Valley next season.
Prediction: In a pretty open and shut decision, Konecny will be returned to the Ottawa 67’s for another year in the OHL. Konecny will use the year to polish his game and put on a few pounds in hope of receiving serious consideration for the 2016-17 Flyers roster. With limited space at the NHL level and several other older options who are already burning their ELCs, it simply would not make sense to keep Konecny in Philadelphia this year.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one recently… a speedy yet undersized player who went undrafted and was signed after an impressive overage season in juniors. That is what the Flyers have in Danick Martel. The quick skating 5′ 8” forward who put up 102 points in 64 games in the QMJHL this season. Martel is a versatile and offensively gifted player who was able to pick up his first 5 games as a Phantom after signing with the organization last spring.
It is also important, however, to exercise caution when projecting Martel’s future as an NHL’er. Standing at 5′ 8” and just 162 lbs, size will always be a concern with him. He failed to score in excess of a point per game in the Q until last season, and overage seasons should always be taken with a grain of salt. The opening night group of forwards is already pretty solidified, and any spot that opens for a young forward will probably be taken by either Laughton or Cousins.
Prediction: Martel will start the season with Lehigh Valley, playing a significant role both offensively and on the penalty kill unit. Martel is my darkhorse to get a brief call-up to Philadelphia at some point this season. It probably won’t happen early in the year and it probably won’t be permanent, but I think he will impress enough to get a couple games if a middle 6 winger goes down. Either way, spending most of the season in the AHL will be productive for both the Phantoms and for Martel’s development.
There are certainly other forward prospects who will be in the mix. Petr Straka did play 3 fairly impressive games at the NHL level last year. Taylor Leier made some solid progress as the season went on as well. At 26, Aaron Pulushaj might not be considered a prospect anymore, but he does have 68 NHL games played and could definitely see a game if management wants to fill a quick need without unseating one of the younger prospects.
Ultimately I’d expect that Ron Hextall will turn to Laughton, Cousins or Martel if he needs a call-up this year. With the NHL forward corps as solidified as it is, the organization’s younger forwards will probably spend most of their time in the AHL or juniors. It could end up being an exciting year in Lehigh Valley. More on that next week.