Meltzer's Musings: Forward prospects
It is no secret around the hockey world that the Flyers are thin on legitimate NHL prospects as a result of trading away too many top-end picks. But the cupboard is not entirely bare.
Today's blog will look at some of the forward prospects in the system: Matt Read, Tye McGinn, Eric Wellwood, Mike Testwuide, Zac Rinaldo and Ben Holmstrom.
The Flyers signed 24-year-old Matt Read to an entry level contract in March of this year. It's a three-year deal worth $2.7 million overall and $900K on the salary cap (actual dollars are $800,000 in 2011-12, $900,000 in 2012-13, and an even $1 million in 2013-14) if he earns a spot with the big club. A production of Ontario Junior A and USHL hockey, Read played four years of collegiate hockey for obscure Bemidji State (Minn.) before signing his first contract.
Read was very impressive in his brief stint with the Phantoms late this past season, tallying 7 goals and 13 points in 11 games. He is adept both at shooting and passing the puck and has NHL-caliber skating ability. The biggest knock on him is his lack of size (listed at 5-10 but likely smaller), although his PIM totals over his pre-pro career suggest that he's not intimidated by bigger foes.
At his age, Read is not really a candidate for development. In the near future, he's either going to be a top-nine NHL player or simply a very good minor league player -- think Mark Greig, Mike Maneluk or Russ Romaniuk-- who can be a serviceable fill-in at the NHL level for a few games here and there.
Players with Read's pro-professional background and stats typically wind up falling into the second category as pros. However, every player is unique and there are examples of guys who were simply late bloomers as pro prospects who go on to have very solid NHL careers. In Reid's case, I think he's got a good chance to become similar to former Flyers' second-round pick Greg Johnson, who had a solid post-collegiate NHL career in Detroit and Nashville (among other stops).
For instance, Dave Poulin took a circuitous route to earning his first NHL contract at age 24, which included four years of collegiate hockey, a stint in the Swedish minor leagues and 16 games in the AHL. These stories don't happen regularly, but they can and do happen. Read certainly looked like the real deal during his brief stint in the AHL last season.
It will be interesting to see how Read fares at camp and during the preseason. If the organization does not re-sign Ville Leino, there could be a job to be won at some point next season. Read may start next season with the Phantoms, but if he plays at a similar level to his late-season performance in 2011-12, it is not out of the question that he eventually could earn a look on one of the club's top three lines.
Last September when the Flyers opened their training camp, all eyes were on rookie goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Very little was said about the promise that left winger Tye McGinn showed, especially in the early days of camp before the veterans were officially compelled to report.
Three things about McGinn jumped out immediately: 1) He likes to go to the net; 2) He's got soft hands in close and an above-average ability to deflect pucks; 3) His skating style looks a bit awkward and he's not going to win a lot of footraces against NHL players but he does not look like a lost cause in that area, either.
The Flyers drafted McGinn, who will turn 21 this July, in the fourth round (119th overall) of last summer's draft. A bit of a late bloomer at the junior level, McGinn performed very well this past season as an overager (player who is age-eligible for AHL hockey but playing in junior hockey) for the QMJHL's Gatineau Olympiques. Despite missing four weeks of action due to a late-season injury, McGinn managed to score 31 goals and 64 points in 42 regular season games. In the playoffs, he added 5 goals and 13 points in 14 games.
At 6-foot-3, 207 pounds, McGinn has a power forward's size. He is not afraid to mix it up physically, but has never exceeded 50 penalty minutes in a season. Overager stats need to be taken with several grains of salt -- especially for big guys like McGinn -- because they are physically men playing among teenage boys.
Moving ahead, there is still work to be done on various aspects of his game. McGinn is the type of player who likely needs some time in the AHL. But in an organization that has a need for more big wingers with good hands, a player like McGinn could work his way into the picture if he works on his skating and rounds out his game at the professional level.
This past season, the Phantoms' Luke Pither learned some hard lessons about just how big of a jump it is to dominate junior competition as an overager and then to take your game to the American Hockey League level. That will be a hurdle that McGinn will also have to clear before realistic talk of the NHL can begin.
Eric Wellwood had some impressive moments during his first pro season. The Flyers' 6th round pick (172nd overall) of the 2009 Entry Draft, displayed good wheels and hustle during training camp and did not look out of place in his three regular season games with the big club in 2010-11.
Wellwood registered his first NHL point on Nov. 6 when he assisted on Andreas Nodl's game-winning goal in a 2-1 win over the New York Islanders. Later, Wellwood was among the "Black Aces" called up to round out the Flyers' playoff roster, but he did not get into a postseason game.
At the AHL level, the first-year pro tallied a respectable 16 goals and 28 points. His modest assist totals would likely have been higher if there were a little more talent around him.
The 21-year-old Wellwood lacks size (5-11, 179) and he does not have as much natural offensive ability as older brother Kyle. However, he has the better work ethic of the two brothers.
Over the long haul, it is not hard to envision Wellwood as an effective NHL role player who can move around the lineup as needed. He will be in the mix to earn a job in training camp and/or be near the front of the line for callups if he gets sent back to the Phantoms.
Mike Testwuide entered his first training camp last year as a bit of an overhyped prospect. Like Read, he was a late bloomer who played four seasons of collegiate hockey, and for whom the Flyers had to outbid other NHL suitors to sign as a rookie free agent. The Flyers were high enough on him to also sign his brother, defenseman J.P. Testwuide, to a minor league contract.
It did not help Testwuide's cause that it was said before camp started that both he and Ben Holmstrom had a chance of competing for an NHL job during the preseason. When he struggled to get his bearings and got off to a slow start during the AHL season, some people jumped to the knee-jerk conclusion that he was going to be a bust. It also severely worked to Testwuide's disadvantage that the Phantoms team as a whole got off to a catastrophically awful start that had the team hopelessly out of playoff contention long before Christmas.
Eventually, however, the 24-year-old Testwuide got settled in and went on to have a respectable first pro season, tallying 18 goals and 39 points in 76 games. On a team in which most players finished with double-digit minus ratings, Testwuide was a plus-12.
At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Testwuide has power forward size. But he also has a good head on his shoulders (his maturity and smarts were obvious, even in a brief conversation I had with him during camp last year) and plays a pretty well-rounded game.
Testwuide is not necessarily a natural goal-scorer, and I think that's where some of the misconception lies. Even in his breakout senior collegiate season at Colorado College, he had 21 goals and averaged a shade under a point-per-game, which rarely translates to be an impact offensive player at the NHL level. As I noted with Read, however, there are NHL success stories among mid-20s prospects who are simply late bloomers. I do not expect Testwuide to be the next Mike Knuble -- the hockey pedigree isn't the same -- but I wouldn't totally rule it out, either.
Testwuide did not get into an NHL game this past season. He was among the "Black Aces" in the playoffs but did not appear in a game. He will enter training camp in competition with the other players mentioned in this blog. This time around, there were be a little less overt pressure on him to stand out immediately.
Zac Rinaldo has never been one to subscribe to the belief that young players should be seen but not heard. He has a degree of self-confidence that borders on outright cockiness, and he's not afraid to be brash on or off the ice.
It has been said that if you take Steve Downie, make him even a little crazier and swifter on his skates but take away his scoring touch, you get Rinaldo. I think that's as apt a description as you'll find. Unlike Downie, however, Rinaldo does not dread having microphones and cameras in his face after games.
The 21-year-old Rinaldo, who was drafted by the Flyers in the 6th round (178th overall) of the 2008 Entry Draft, arrived at rookie camp last year sporting a faux-hawk haircut (which he maintained) and proclaiming that he finds regular season hockey "boring" and that he considers himself "a playoff player." Pretty bold words for a player who never scored more than 10 goals in a major junior season and only played 16 playoff games in his junior career (tallying 3 goals and 1 assist to go along with 46 PIMs).
However, Rinaldo is a rare NHL prospect in that he performed the same type of role at the junior level -- instant energy, agitation, fighting and forechecking -- that he projected to play in the pros. The majority of NHL players, regardless of their role at the top level, were scoring line guys at the lower levels. The strangest of all is that Rinaldo actually does have pretty decent hockey skills. He has very good wheels, he wins a lot of battles on the boards against bigger players, and he has better puck-handling skills and ability to get to the net than his statistics would suggest. I have little doubt that he could have been more of a scoring-line guy in junior hockey if that's where his ambitions took him.
In his first pro season with the Phantoms, Rinaldo quickly put a target on his back among referees and the league office. Much like Dan Carcillo, Rinaldo got the benefit of very few doubts on penalty calls (and that reputation also cost him an undeserved minor penalty in the offensive zone during the Stanley Cup playoffs). But he has only himself to blame in that regard, because he still has a lot to learn about playing under control and not yapping at officials.
Let's put it this way: When you rack up 331 penalty minutes as an AHL rookie and compile more suspensions (four) than goals (three), chances are there are some legitimate reasons why the refs have your number.
Rinaldo is a smaller than average player (5-foot-11, 180 pounds). He plays bigger than that, though. As a fighter, he's strictly a middle weight, ala P.J. Stock, but he is not afraid of fighting bigger opponents. He's stronger than he looks and is tough pound-for-pound. He can drive opponents to distraction, and opponents had better have their heads up when he's on the ice.
If Rinaldo can learn to play even a little more under control -- and, at times, he does -- he can be a highly effective role player. He brings a lot of tenacity to the forecheck in particular.
That is why Rinaldo found himself dressed for two games in the Stanley Cup playoffs this year after spending the entire regular season in the minors. Peter Laviolette was looking for any kind of energy he could get, and Rinaldo has that in spades.
If the Flyers do no resign Carcillo this offseason, there is a job to be won for the soon to be 21-year-old Rinaldo. I don't think he'll ever reach double-digit goals in an NHL season, as the 26-year-old Carcillo has already done twice. However, in all other aspects, I think Rinaldo is capable of replacing Carcillo in the near future.
Ben Holmstrom isn't the type of prospect that fans gets excited about. The 24-year-old has modest scoring upside and, if he has a full-time role in his NHL future, it's likely to be in a fourth-line capacity. Even so, he has the ability to be the type of foot soldier that teams need to be successful.
In his first full AHL season last year, the 6-foot-1, 200 pound Holmstrom finished with 16 goals and 38 points. He does a little bit of everything, most notably playing physical hockey and working hard in the unglamorous areas of the ice. There is still some work to be done in his defensive coverages, however, before he'd be ready for a straight-up checking role.
Holmstrom got into two games with the big club this season. He was fortunate to escape suspension for an overzealous high hit in his NHL debut. He was a Black Ace during the playoffs but did not dress in a game.
The former UMass-Lowell captain will be in the mix at training camp this year. It is pretty safe to say that if he stays healthy, he'll see time with the big club again in 2011-12. Whether or not he can stake down a regular roster spot remains to be seen.