Highly touted winger Claude Giroux, who the Flyers had hoped would be one of their key forwards this season, faces an uphill battle to earn a roster spot and, based on comments made by coach John Stevens yesterday, seems destined to start the year with the AHL Phantoms.

"I think Claude has done just OK, to be honest with you," Stevens said after yesterday's practice at the Skate Zone in Voorhees. "I think there was a lot of pressure on this kid coming in."

Expectations were high after Giroux scored an astounding 51 points - 17 goals, 34 assists - in 19 playoff games with his Quebec Junior League team last season.

A couple weeks ago, just before the start of the veterans' training camp on Sept. 20, Giroux had four impacted wisdom teeth extracted, and it kept him out of rookie camp for three days.

"I just ate ice cream, watched TV and got a lot of rest," Giroux said of his recovery from the surgery.

During the preseason, he has not scored in four games and is a minus-three in the plus-minus ratings.

"I thought his worst game was probably his first game, and his best game was probably his last game," Stevens said. "As the pace went up today, I thought he was one of the young guys who elevated his game a little bit. That's the normal process a lot of these young guys go through. They come in and they're under the gun to make a big impression to make the team. I think he's gotten better as we've moved along, which is what we want to see."

Giroux, 20, who nearly made the team at last year's camp, still has a chance to make an impression. The Flyers play three exhibition games over the next four nights, including tonight's contest against Washington at the Wachovia Center.

The Flyers have been going with center Mike Richards flanked by wingers Simon Gagne and Danny Briere on their first line, and Jeff Carter and wingers Scottie Upshall and Mike Knuble on the second line.

Based on camp, it appears the third line will be composed of center Glen Metropolit with wingers Joffrey Lupul and Scott Hartnell. Steve Downie, who appears to have made the team with a solid camp, will likely center the fourth line between Riley Cote and Arron Asham.

That seems to leave Giroux headed to the Phantoms for more seasoning.

"He's still being evaluated as we move along," Stevens said. "But either way, I think he's going to play some games. Whether he starts here or goes to the Phantoms and comes back, I don't know.

"If he does start the year down there, it just means we're deep enough here. If you look at our three lines, left and right side, Claude can play either side. We're pretty strong over the first three lines on the wings."

Giroux, the Flyers' No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft, doesn't seem suited as a fourth-line winger.

"The fourth line at times becomes real defined roles, with guys that either kill penalties or provide a physical presence for the hockey team," Stevens said. "Ordinarily, they don't play a whole lot, either, in terms of big minutes, but they're still important to your team. So with a kid like Claude, we see him as a top-three forward on the top three-lines - not top-three [player] on the team but top-three lines."

Giroux said he would be "a little disappointed" if he didn't earn a roster spot, but acknowledged he could benefit from ice time with the Phantoms.

"I'm just trying to control things I can do and play my game," Giroux said.

Breakaways. Backup goalie Antero Niittymaki, recovering from hip surgery, practiced for 30 minutes and said he's hoping to be ready when the season opens. "I wouldn't say I'm 100 percent, but I'm close," he said. . . . The Flyers assigned 13 players to the Phantoms, including impressive forwards Patrick Maroon and Matt Clackson. . . . Upshall, Steve Eminger and Randy Jones are nursing minor hip injuries.

Read Sam Carchidi's Broad Street Bull blog on the Flyers at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/inqflyersreport/