Flyers Improving Depth of Defense Prospect Pool
Over the last two NHL Drafts, the Philadelphia Flyers have selected eight defensemen. Although the jury will be out on these picks for three to five years to come, the early indications are that there is decent quality as well as quantity. During that span, the organization has also acquired Mark Alt (Carolina's 2nd round pick in 2010) via trade and signed a couple rookie free agent defensemen to entry level contracts. In the meantime, the likes of Erik Gustafsson, Marc-Andre Bourdon and Oliver Lauridsen have been brought along slowly by the organization. When healthy, these players have shown some ability to compete for top six spots in the NHL in the immediate or near future.
On the Draft and development front, the organization has added defensemen of a variety of different styles, sizes and projected roles in they reach the NHL. There are some big, physical types, some puck movers and a couple of potential future power play types. It may not pay NHL dividends in the next year or two but, down the line a few years, the Flyers may have both enviable depth and youth on defense even if there is not a future franchise defenseman in the system.
When all of these factors are weighed, a case can be made that the Flyers organization is starting to turn a corner in its much-maligned track record of drafting and developing defensemen. In my July 8 blog
, I discussed this topic at length.
Over the next two days, I am going to focus strictly on two less frequently mentioned defense prospects in the Philadelphia system: Cornell University blueliner Reece Willcox and Spartak Moscow (KHL) defenseman Valeri Vasiliev. While neither of these selections from the 2012 Draft are slam dunks to play in the NHL some day, there are positive early signs in their development. If these trends continue -- even at a slow but steady pace -- they could end up being high value picks for where they were selected in the Draft.
Today, I will discuss Willcox's development. Tomorrow, I will look at Vasiliev.
The Flyers selected Willcox from the BCHL's Merritt Centennials in the fifth round (141st overall) of the 2012 Draft. Originally drafted by the WHL's Portland Winterhawks, Willcox was not ready for major junior hockey at age 16. By the time he was suitably advanced to compete for WHL playing time, he opted instead to spend an additional season at the Junior A level in order to play U.S. collegiate hockey starting last year. He accepted an athletic scholarship to Cornell University.
Willcox was a true freshman last season. By that, I mean he was 18 years old and not a player in his early 20s, as is fairly common in NCAA hockey. For true freshmen, especially ones who are not highly touted offensive dynamos, it can often be tough to earn significant playing time. The reason why I'm optimistic that the Flyers may have something in Willcox is that he immediately stepped into the lineup for the Big Red and played a lot of minutes as a freshman.
Willcox did not post gaudy statistics in his first collegiate year (zero goals, five assists in 34 games). He was not especially offensive minded even at the BCHL level and is unlikely to put up big point totals at any level. That does not mean, however, that he lacks puck skills. On the contrary, Willcox consistently makes a good first pass and is a solid puckhandler. He also has above-average mobility, especially for a player with a 6-foot-4 frame.
The thing I like the best about Willcox is his poise. In limited viewings -- Flyers Development Camp, the end-of-camp scrimmages in 2012, two games broadcast on television last season -- the quality that jumped out the most was that he seems to know when to hang onto the puck and when to get rid of it. He didn't panic under pressure.
Willcox also seems to make good defensive reads, has stick and body in the right position and plays with discipline. On the flip side, he can stand to be more physical, and I don't think he's ever going to play a "mean" game or rattle the boards with a lot of punishing bodychecks.
The Flyers have up to three more collegiate seasons to evaluate the player and decide whether to sign him to an entry level deal. If he had been drafted out of major junior hockey -- which only affords a two-year signing window -- he probably would NOT be on track right now to get a pro contract. Conversely, as a collegiate player with a lengthier evaluation/signing window, Willcox is right about where he should be at this point.
"Based on what our guys have seen last year with regards to his overall game I would think its fair to say he is on the 'upward curve' in relation to his development," said Chris Pryor, the Flyers' director of scouting. "He played considerable minutes for a young guy and it reflected in his progress."
Good News on Laperriere
After a scare this past week with recurrent post-concussion symptoms, Ian Laperriere is a go to compete in a fundraising triatholon today. Lappy has raised nearly $14,500 for a variety of charitable causes through his participation in the Mont-Tremblant Ironman. Laperriere reports feeling much better in the last couple days after he experienced a wave of concussion-like symptoms following a fall off his bike in training.
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