Tyler J. Altemose
Yesterday, the Philadelphia Flyers parted ways with what many believed was the organization's top goaltending prospect. Joacim Eriksson, who just recently completed his rookie season playing for Skelleftea of the Swedish Elitserien, was pegged as the "next big goalie" in Philadelphia after Sergei Bobrovsky (which is a term I'm sure you've never heard before, right?) by many who follow the organization closely.
The fact that GM Paul Holmgren would leave one of the most promising goaltenders in the team's prospect pool unsigned left many wondering how he could justify himself.
Last night I read an article from The Goalie Guild, an "all-things-goaltenders" website run by independent goaltending scout Justin Goldman. Not only did Goldman do a better job than anyone else of explaining the rationale behind the decision, he also went on to explain how teams should consider re-evaluating the way they go about the scouting process for goaltenders altogether.
I would be remiss if I didn't share, and I'll do my best along the way to explain and elaborate upon Goldman's points (although he does a fine job of explaining himself).
Rationale #1: The signing of Finnish goaltending prospect Niko Hovinen meant the end of Eriksson because of the former progressing and developing at a much more rapid pace than the latter.
Perhaps the biggest clue to why Eriksson was left unsigned was because the Flyers signed someone else. But why? Goldman explains.
"Eriksson only played in 17 games as an SEL rookie this year. Hovinen, however, quickly played his way into the starting role for Lahti in the SM-liiga and played in 49 games. With the latter prospect comes tremendous size, surging momentum and potential. With the other comes a slower skills progression, a missed chance to gain momentum and a frustrating situation of being benched for most of the season."
What we seem to have here is just an unfortunate circumstance. Eriksson only played 17 games in the SEL this season and that obviously hindered his development. But the only reason he played so few games is because he was backup to fellow countryman Andreas Hadelov. Hovinen, however, has nothing standing in his way in the SM-liiga in Finland.
Rationale #2: The Flyers prospect pool was overloaded with players. There would have been no way the team could have developed them all properly, so they just went with the prospects they expect to develop the quickest.
The Flyers have a ton of goaltending prospects. And as Goldman suggests, the Flyers management's decision to focus on a few key players is actually a good thing.
"If Eriksson was set free because the Flyers are actually committed to focusing all their efforts on Bobrovsky, Hovinen, and Riopel, then this decision is a great sign for Flyers fans. For what's the point of having eight goalies in the system if you can't even develop one or two effectively?"
Sergei Bobrovsky is obviously going to be the next big starting goaltender for the Flyers. Management has more or less said that (in both words and actions). Hovinen is quickly developing in the SM-liiga in Finland, and Nicola Riopel is quickly coming into his own as well with the Greenville Road Warriors, the ECHL affiliate of the Flyers.
The Flyers also still have Johan Backlund and Michael Leighton with the Phantoms (for what it's worth) and Jakub Kovar in the Czech Extraliga. Furthermore, they still own the rights to Brian Stewart (RFA) and Brian Boucher (UFA).
Out of that former bunch the only player you need be concerned about is Kovar. He is a work horse, starting every single regular season and playoff game with HC Ceske Budejovice of the Czech Extraliga. Furthermore, he participated in the 2011 IIHF World Championships as a member of the Czech team along with fellow countryman and Atlanta Thrashers Winnipeg starter Ondrej Pavelec.
At the end of the day the Flyers have four solid prospects in their pool to be concerned about down the road: Bobrovsky, Hovinen, Riopel, and Kovar. That essentially cuts the pool in half, but gives the team's resources a greater chance of success because there are less players to focus on.
Furthermore, there is a lesson for Holmgren and company to learn here. Goldman explains:
"For the Flyers, they need to do one of two things. Either stay away from drafting a teenage prospect that has yet to play at the highest pro level in their respective country, or show some patience by giving the Europeans another year or two to become a starter or 1-B goalie at the highest level."
Patience isn't the forte of this organization. A look at the team's farm system will show that. Goldman explains that if teams are going to look at European goaltending talent they need to consistently scout and track the player in question. If a team isn't willing (or able) to do that, it simply becomes a gamble. And that is neither fair to the talent nor the organization, let alone the fans.
It was a frustrating day for Flyers fans yesterday, myself included. But when the smoke clears and tempers cool, we should all be able to reflect back on the decisions that were made and understand that at the end of the day the team now has a set of talent that can be properly utilized--regardless of whether that was the plan or not.