Several weeks ago, while the Flyers' contingent of playoff Black Aces were working out at the Skate Zone in Voorhees, player development coach Derian Hatcher said via text that he's seen marked improvement in many of the young defensemen in the system from the start of training camp to the end of the season.
At the head of the class this year were Marc-Andre Bourdon, Erik Gustafsson and Brandon Manning, with Oliver Lauridsen close behind.
This time a year ago, it was starting to look like Bourdon might not make it to the NHL. He had yet to figure out what his niche would be at the pro level. Was he an offensive-minded defenseman? Was he a defensive-minded physical presence? A puck mover? He showed flashes of potential, but his game seemed stuck somewhere in the middle and he wasn't doing well enough in any of those areas to make progress toward the NHL.
That changed this past season. Bourdon showed much more decisiveness and gained confidence in his all-around game. He turned a mid-season callup into a lengthy stint with the big club. Unfortunately, concussion issues derailed him about three-quarters of the way through the season.
It took him awhile to come back and regain his effectiveness, whereupon he got reinjured in his first NHL playoff game. A restricted free agent this summer, Bourdon is currently slated to compete with Gustafsson and others for the Flyers' sixth defense spot in training camp next year. Bourdon finished his NHL rookie year with 4 goals, 52 penalty minutes and a plus-four rating in 45 games.
Gustafsson's puck-moving ability and flashes of two-way potential got him into 30 NHL regular season games (5 points, +12) and 7 playoff tilts. At times, his lack of size and muscle got exposed in the defensive zone and he looked like a minor leaguer who was in over his head. Other times, he looked like a bona fide NHL defenseman.
The 23-year-old Swede played the game of his life in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal clincher against Pittsburgh. A couple of times, he found himself out on the ice against Evgeni Malkin, and he didn't give an inch no matter how much Malkin tried to twist, turn and spin around him. Later in the game, he scored a crucial goal (albeit one which Marc-Andre Fleury should have stopped) that gave the Flyers a commanding lead and put them in full control of the game.
As the playoff rolled along, however, Gustafsson was one of many Flyers players who struggled mightily in the New Jersey series. He still finished the postseason with a plus-four (tops among the team's defensemen, second overall to Max Talbot).
Midseason wrist surgery set Gustafsson back for several months. Until his playoff surge, he was not as effective upon his return to the lineup as he had been in the games leading up to the injury.
Manning, who was injured early in the season, showed rapid improvement as the year progressed. He has both an offensive side and a touch of a mean streak to his game, but still needs further work in his defensive coverages and decision-making with the puck. Nevertheless, the soon-to-be 22-year-old defenseman appears poised to challenge for a full-time NHL roster spot in the near future.
The emergence of Bourdon, Gustafsson and Manning pushed once well-regarded Oskars Bartulis down on the depth chart and hastened the trade of former second-round pick Kevin Marshall (who was unimpressive during a brief NHL callup this year).
Come next season, Oliver Lauridsen could also earn his first NHL callup at some point. The question with the hulking (6-foot-6) 23-year-old is whether he will improve as much over the next year as he did this past one. Will he be the Danish version of David Printz? Or does he have the chance to have a lengthy North American pro career like that of Kjell Samuelsson?
Lauridsen was a frequent healthy scratch in Adirondack early this past season. By the end of the year, he was considered an important shutdown defenseman and penalty killer for the AHL club. He is still pretty raw at times but the presence of Samuelsson and Hatcher in the organization give him two pretty good role models upon whom to pattern his game.
Beyond these four players, the Flyers also have Blake Kessel in their AHL system. Veteran Matt Walker is likely to once again be waived and spend the 2012-13 season with Adirondack.
Today would have been Pelle Lindbergh's 53rd birthday. It has become a tradition in recent years for a group of former Hammarby Hockey supporters to join with friends and members of Pelle's family for a small graveside vigil at Pelle's final resting place in Stockholm's Skogkyrkogården.
Sadly, the only remaining living member of Pelle's immediate family is his sister, Ann-Louise. Pelle's mom, Anna-Lisa, passed away a few months ago.
As I typically do on the anniversary of Lindbergh's birth and death, I am posting an unpublished excerpt from the original manuscript of Behind the White Mask
Stories abound of Pelle’s obsession with sports cars and his love of driving at tremendous rates of speed. Virtually everyone who spent significant time with him has at least one tale of a close call he had while behind the wheel.
“I wasn’t scared being in the car with him,” Kerstin says. “Pelle knew how to drive. But of course he drove too fast, and I was worried about him getting in an accident for that reason. I would bring it up and he’d just laugh and say not to worry.”
While driving one of his sports cars, he often exceeds 120 miles per hour on the open road. But whether he’s behind the wheel of his car, his boat or even pedaling a bicycle, Pelle inevitably tries to test the vehicle’s top speed, and makes light of warnings to slow down.
“Anna Lisa, Sigge and, later, Kerstin, all talked to Pelle about the risks,” says Björn Neckman. “But Pelle felt he was in control, and he loved the feeling he got from driving fast. So he kept increasing the horsepower.”
The boat Lindbergh takes his friends around in during the summer of 1985 is an American-made 30-footer manufactured by Century. It has a double V8 engine and can reach speeds of 40 knots.
Several days after purchasing the boat, he docks near a crew of Russian sailors and promptly makes the acquaintance of one who speaks cursory English.
"Do you want to come on my boat?" Pelle asks.
"It's not allowed."
"Hmmm, OK," Pelle replies.
Lindbergh speeds off toward the beach. Twenty five minutes later, he returns. Pelle and Björn Neckman have convinced about two dozen bikini-clad and topless young women who had been sunbathing on the beach to go for a ride on the boat. Pelle slows down as he passes by the Russians, waving to the crew. He then returns his passengers to the shore.
"There were a lot of stares from the Russians, but not all of them very happy," Neckman says.
Apart from Pelle Lindbergh being born on this date in 1959, a host of significant events in Flyers history have taken place on May 24:
* May 24, 1972: Flyers sign rookie forward Rick MacLeish to a three year, $125,000 contract (no, that wasn't the yearly salary -- that was the total value).
* May 24, 1974: Flyers trade Al MacAdam, Larry Wright and a 1974 1st-round draft pick (Ron Chipperfield) to the California Seals for Reggie Leach.
* May 24, 1980: Game 6 of Stanley Cup Finals vs. Islanders. The Flyers take an early lead but a controversial Denis Potvin high-stick goal and even more controversial blown offside call by Leon Stickle led to a Duane Sutter goal in the first period. Philly rallied from a 4-2 deficit but lost the game and series in OT.
* May 24, 1984: The Flyers name Mike Keenan as their new head coach.
* May 24, 1987. The Oilers beat the Flyers 4-1 in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final to take a 3-1 lead in the series. Philly would rally to win the next two games and force a Game 7.
* May 24, 1995: The Flyers beat the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, 5-2, to take a 3-0 lead over the defending Stanley Cup champions. Philly would go on to complete the sweep in the next game.
* May 24, 2000: Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final vs New Jersey. The game is scoreless through two periods (Eric Lindros had a goal disallowed because it came about 3/10th of a second after the clock hit 0.0 in the second period). New Jersey scores two goals in the latter half of the third period. Lindros scores his final goal as a Flyer with 29 seconds left in the game.
* May 24, 2010: Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final vs. Montreal. The Flyers down the Habs, 4-2, to advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1997.
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