Bill Meltzer: Flyers vs. Capitals Rookies Game, Camp Updates, Forsberg Night, and More

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ROOKIES GAME: FLYERS VS. CAPITALS

The annual Rookies Game pitting the prospects of the Philadelphia Flyers against the Washington Capitals is the culmination of the September rookie camps that proceed the official start of the training camp for the NHL teams. Due to the lockout-forced cancellation of the 2012 event, today’s game marks the first time in three years that the Flyers have been the event’s host team.

The event will be held at Skate Zone in Voorhees, NJ at 3 p.m. EDT. The game is free to attend. If you cannot make it in person, the match will be streamed lived on CSNPhilly.com with no play-by-play or color commentary.

This year’s Flyers participants include first-round picks Scott Laughton (2012), Samuel Morin (2013) and Travis Sanheim (2014), second-round picks Anthony Stolarz (2012), Robert Hägg (2013) and Nicolas Aube-Kubel (2014). Additionally, there will be several recently contracted draftees from later rounds who are slated to play their rookie professional seasons in the American Hockey League this year, including defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere (third round pick in 2012), winger Taylor Leier (fourth round pick in 2012) and defenseman Jesper “Pitbull” Pettersson (seventh round pick in 2014).

Stolarz is expected to start in goal today for the Flyers. He will be relieved mid-game by former University of Maine goaltender Martin Ouellete, who was signed this summer to a minor league contract. The other goalie in camp, 24-year-old former Buffalo Sabres goaltender Connor Knapp, is not slated to play.

On the Washington side, participating players include first-round picks Andre Burakovsky and Jakub Vrana. Other players of note include the likes of offensive defenseman Madison Bowey and Brynäs (Swedish Hockey League) defenseman Christian Djoos.

Lehigh Valley Phantoms head coach Terry Murray will be behind the bench for the Philadelphia rookies in today’s game. According to Flyers general manager Ron Hextall, the Flyers lineup (which is subject to change) will be as follows:

51 Petr Straka – 52 Nick Cousins – 64 Brandon Alderson

58 Taylor Leier – 49 Scott Laughton – 73 Nicolas Aube-Kubel

79 Louick Marcotte – 75 Radel Fazleev – 80 Nikita Jevpalovs

77 Austin Fyten – 63 Kevin Goumas – 68 Matt Hatch

50 Samuel Morin – 53 Shayne Gostisbehere

54 Robert Hägg – 59 Jesper Pettersson

71 Travis Sanheim – 60 Maxim Lamarche

65 Anthony Stolarz / 70 Martin Ouellete

Previous participants in the Rookie Game on the Flyers side who have gone on to become NHL regulars include the likes of Claude Giroux (2007 game), James van Riemdsyk (2009), Brayden Schenn (2011) and Sean Couturier (2011). The best individual performance by a member of either team was JVR’s four-goal outburst in the 2009 game.

Here is a year-by-year rundown of the Rookie Game results and venues:

2007: Flyers 5 – Capitals 3 (Skate Zone, Voorhees, NJ)

2008: Capitals 7 – Flyers 0 (Kettler Iceplex, Arlington, VA)

2009: Flyers 7 – Capitals 3 (Skate Zone)

2010: Capitals 4 – Flyers 3 (Kettler Iceplex)

2011: Flyers 3 -Capitals 2 (Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia)

2012: Game canceled

2013: Flyers 1 – Capitals 0 (Kettler Iceplex)

************ FLYERS ROOKIE AND VETERAN CAMP UPDATES

* Flyers head coach Craig Berube indicated yesterday that Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who can comfortably play any forward position, will start out at center as camp opens on Friday. However, the player will be evaluated both at center and wing over the course of camp and the preseason.

* Bellemare indicated yesterday that the Flyers were one of two interested NHL teams that he had to decide between signing with this past summer. The other was the Montreal Canadiens. Ultimately, the player said, he felt the Flyers were the better mutual fit.

* I had the pleasure of talking at length to Bellemare after practice yesterday. He Bellemare is a delightful guy — highly intelligent, articulate and enthusiastic. During the interview, he discussed everything from his hockey development to the recent surprise success of Team France in international hockey (defeating Russia in a game at the 2013 IIHF World Championships and beating Canada en route to a spot in the medal round at the 2014 Worlds). We also talked about the adjustments he had to make moving from France to Sweden. I will be writing a feature-length article on him on the weeks to come.

* Speaking of delightful people, it is virtually impossible not to take an instant liking to Flyers 2014 fifth-round pick Radel Fazleev. He is very personable, effusive and very obviously hungry to make himself into the best hockey player he can possibly become. He’s also a fast learner. Fazleev arrived in North America last summer to play junior hockey for the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen. He could barely speak any English at the time. One year later, he is extremely fluent.

* Fazleev called today’s rookie game the most important game in his life thus far. He said it was a dream come true to put on the uniform of an NHL team. He also realizes that he needs more junior seasoning. A skilled playmaker who largely has played a defense-first role until this season, Fazleev has set some ambitious goals for himself this season: He wants to represent Russia in the annual Subway Series against teams representing each of the three CHL leagues (WHL, OHL, QMJHL). He wants to become a player who can be used in all game situations. He wants to be able to be deployed at any position or at any role, even joking that he’d gladly learn to play goalie if that’s what the Flyers and his coaches wanted.

* The Calgary Hitmen share their home arena with the NHL’s Calgary Flames. Both Fazleev and Calgary teammate Travis Sanheim said that they would take the opportunity whenever possible to watch NHL teams practice, studying what the pros did and what they could adapt to their own preparations. Fazleev idolizes Pavel Datsyuk while defenseman Sanheim said he is perhaps most drawn to Chicago Blackhawks superstar Duncan Keith.

* After the Flyers rookies and veterans were done for the day yesterday, Flyers assistant coach Joe Mullen worked out on the ice with his son, Patrick. The younger Mullen, a defenseman, is a member of the AHL’s Binghamton Senators.

* Coming up in tomorrow’s blog will be preseason perspectives from Braydon Coburn, Steve Mason, Luke Schenn and others.

********* FLYERS TO HONOR FORSBERG

The Flyers announced yesterday that they will have a special ceremony honoring Peter Forsberg for his upcoming induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame. The event will be held on December 16 before the Flyers play the Tampa Bay Lightning at the Wells Fargo Center.

Along with Forsberg, the Hall of Fame class of 2014 includes Dominik Hasek, Mike Modano, Rob Blake, the late Pat Burns and longtime referee Bill McCreary. Congratulations also go out to Foppa and Nicole Nordin on the recent birth of their second child. Nicole gave birth to a daughter named Lily on Sept. 10. The couple also has a two-year old son named Lennox.

Despite the brief time he spent in a Flyers uniform, the mutual histories of the Philadelphia organization and Forsberg’s career are inextricably entwined. He was part of two franchise-shaping trades and also represents the organization’s biggest Draft day steal after Bobby Clarke.

The names of Peter Forsberg and Eric Lindros seem forever tied to one another in any discussion of Flyers and NHL history. They are the same age and were both drafted in the 1991 NHL Draft. They were traded for one another a year later in a blockbuster deal. Later, both men played for the Flyers and spent stints as the team’s captain. Both also had injury-plagued careers.

Yesterday, Peter Forsberg was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Lindros was snubbed for the third straight year. I feel that both retired players are deserving of the honor despite all the games they missed. In Lindros’ case, concussion issues curtailed his career. In Forsberg’s case, foot problems and ancillary injuries related to his foot condition plagued him in his latter career.

Revisionist history has it that the Flyers “didn’t know what they were trading” when they included Forsberg in the massive trade package it took to acquire Lindros’ rights from Quebec one year after the ultra-hyped center refused to sign with the team that took him first overall in the 1991 Draft.

That is categorically false. The Flyers knew full well that in 1992 Forsberg could become a special NHL player in the years to come. However, they also knew they would have to wait at least one more year (two as it turned out) for Forsberg to leave Sweden to play in the NHL.

Very reluctantly, they included Forsberg’s rights in the final trade package with Quebec. The Flyers had no choice but to include Forsberg because general manager Russ Farwell made both Mark Recchi and Rod Brind’Amour untouchable in any trade package discussion.

Now let’s go back to the weeks leading up to the 1991 NHL Draft. The Hockey News, which bases its Draft Preview Rankings on discussions with a cross-section of scouts from around the NHL, had Forsberg rated 25th overall. Yes, THN had 24 players rated ahead of Foppa, including the “legendary” likes of Mike Pomichter.

TNH described Forsberg as “solid second rounder who could sneak into the first round.” A scout said, “I’d compare him to Tomas Steen in terms of style, though I don’t think he’ll be as good as Steen.”

As a matter of fact, the Flyers were roundly criticized for “reaching” to take Forsberg at #6 overall in a deep Draft. They did so at the strong recommendation of the club’s chief European scout Inge Hammarström, who may have been the first person to see Forsberg as a future NHL superstar. TSN’s Bob McKenzie had a tip that Forsberg was the Flyers’ top choice, but few others believed Philly would actually take the player that early.

Over the next two years, the player exploded in his development and also added considerable muscle. He tore apart the 1992-93 World Junior Championship to a staggering extent (in seven games, Forsberg compiled a record 31 points that may never be broken) and then led the Swedes to a gold medal at the 1994 Olympics. By the point, pretty much everyone in hockey knew Forsberg was going to be a dominant NHL player when he finally came over to North America.

Forsberg’s combination of finesse, physicality, wolf-like killer instinct and supreme playmaking ability made him a can’t miss NHL star within a few years of being drafted. But few NHL teams saw that sort of upside back in 1991. Everyone knew that about Lindros, even years prior to the 1991 Draft.

Some of the same pundits who pilloried Philly for drafting Forsberg so early in 1991 were hypocritically among the Greek chorus that later taunted the Flyers for dealing Forsberg’s rights to Quebec. Of course, they did not have the guts to do so during the years while Lindros won a Hart Trophy, was a Hart finalist the next year and then led the Flyers to the 1997 Stanley Cup Finals. Their crowing in 20/20 hindsight only came later after the Lindros family had a falling out with Flyers management and the concussions piled up.

The fact that Forsberg was part of two Stanley Cup winning teams in Colorado — built largely but far from entirely because of the return from the Lindros trade — was a reflection of the fact that Colorado had superior goaltending and a better blueline than the Flyers. They also had another bonafide franchise forward in Joe Sakic to form the centerpiece of their attack, along with Forsberg. The likes of Brind’Amour and John LeClair were excellent players in their own right, but Lindros did not have a teammate of the same once-in-a-generation caliber as himself, Sakic or Forsberg.

By the time Forsberg finally got to Philadelphia, signing as an unrestricted free agent after the canceled 2004-05 lockout season, he was still a special player but his own injuries were starting to take a toll on him.

People forget that Forsberg led the NHL in scoring at Thanksgiving of 2005, which was when he suffered the first of several groin pulls (later revealed to be related to his foot issues) that forced him out of action for several weeks. Over the rest of the season, he was in and out of the Flyers lineup, but played through the discomfort for Sweden en route to a gold medal at the 2006 Olympics.

Forsberg was the fulcrum of a formidable top line for the Flyers, flanked by Simon Gagne and Mike Knuble. The Swedish superstar was limited to just 60 games during the 2005-06 regular season, but racked up 75 points (19 goals, 56 assists) along the way. Had he played a full season — something he only managed once in his NHL career — Forsberg’s prorated production of 1.25 points per game would have come out to about 103 points.

When the 2006 playoffs rolled around, Forsberg played through the groin and foot issues to elevate his game to a staggering level. Plain and simple, he was almost the singlehanded reason why the Flyers even took the Buffalo Sabres six games.

In Game One, Forsberg spearheaded a Philadelphia comeback while goaltender Robert Esche stood on his head in turned out to be a double-overtime loss. In Game Three and Four in Philadelphia, Forsberg took over the game to heights that even Lindros in his prime touched only sporadically.

Most memorably, in Game Four, Forsberg authored one of the greatest single-shift display of individual skill ever seen in Flyers history. Dangling with the puck around all five Buffalo Sabres on the ice, Forsberg circled all the way around the offensive zone until he found a passing lane. He then feathered a beautiful pass to a wide-open Eric Desjardins, who hammered home a shot from center point.

During the 2006 off-season, Forsberg was initially slated to have reconstructive surgery on both feet to cure a problem with his ankles that made it increasingly tough to keep his foot properly in a skate and made him prone to a variety of groin and sports hernia issues. He was slated to have the right foot (the worse of the two) done first, followed by the left.

The initial timetable was for Forsberg to be out until Christmas 2006. Instead, the player opted to only have the operation on the right foot and decided to postpone the procedure on the other foot. The timetable was moved up first to mid-November and then got moved up even further to allow Forsberg to attend training camp and start the regular season with the club. He was named the Flyers new captain.

In retrospect, Forsberg’s greatly expedited return from the right-foot surgery and decision not to have the surgery on both feet in 2006 may have contributed to how the rest of his career played out. He was forced out of the Philadelphia lineup for long stretches. When he did play, Forsberg was still a bonafide first-line center (posting 40 points in 40 games) but did not play up to his own lofty standards.

Forsberg’s frequent absences and ongoing uncertainty over his contract — he was slated to become an unrestricted free agent again in the summer of 2007 and, due to his iffy health, refused to consider a contract extension of even one year — were frustrating both to the player himself and to the team. In the meantime, the Flyers as a whole were surrounded by turmoil in what proved to be the worst season in franchise history.

With Forsberg unable to commit to an extension and the team in need of restocking its depth, the Flyers traded Forsberg to the Nashville Predators near the 2007 trade deadline. As it would turn out, Forsberg would only dress in 28 more NHL games over the remainder of his career.

In exchange for allowing Nashville to rent Forsberg for the stretch drive and playoffs, the Flyers received speedy winger Scottie Upshall, defense prospect Ryan Parent and a 2007 first-round pick. The final component proved to be the most important, because the pick was flipped back to the Predators shortly after the season in exchange for defenseman Kimmo Timonen and left winger Scott Hartnell. The Flyers immediately announced the signings of Timonen and Hartnell, both impending free agents, to six-year contracts on the same day as the trade.

Forsberg posted 15 points in 17 regular season games for the Preds and then chipped in four points in five playoff games. An unrestricted free agent, Forsberg then underwent another foot surgery and sat out much of the 2007-08 season. There were rampant rumors that he would rejoin either the Flyers or Avalanche, ultimately signing with the Avs. Forsberg dressed in nine regular season games (posting 13 assists and 14 points) and seven playoff games (five points).

In the years that followed, Forsberg made three more comeback attempts in Sweden and the NHL after undergoing additional foot surgeries, physical therapy regimens and scores of customized skate designs and inserts. Each comeback ended abruptly, but Forsberg did manage to play a limited role for Sweden at the 2010 Olympics.

Late in the 2009-10 season, with the Flyers in danger of missing the playoffs, the team offered Forsberg (who would not have been eligible for the playoffs) a contract for the rest of the regular season. He appreciated the offer but declined.

Forsberg made one final comeback attempt with Colorado during the 2010-11 season. It ended after two pointless games in which the former Hart Trophy winner was a minus-four. He realized he could no longer be anything close to the player he used to be and that he had exhausted all options for physically being able to play pro hockey anymore.

He retired again after the two-game stint with the Avs. This time, it was permanent.

This post originally appeared on www.hockeybuzz.com and we thank them for permission to rebroadcast it here.

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