EVERY YEAR scouts from around the world compile a list of the best young prospects in hockey. Their evaluations are based on what they see and what they believe is possible.
They write it all up and send it to their employers, and frequently they are dead-on.
Some players make it easy for them. Sidney Crosby is an obvious example.
Other times they are just dead wrong. Does the name Alexandre Daigle ring any bells?
That's not necessarily the fault of the scouts. They are all career hockey people, most are former players, and they can see a player when they look at one.
The problem is the hidden intangibles. Things like heart and drive and toughness and maturity and the ability to see the game at a different speed can't always be accurately judged.
James van Riemsdyk was the Flyers' first-round pick in a year when they earned the second overall pick by finishing last but then coming up short in the lottery.
It wasn't supposed to matter in 2007. The draft class wasn't supposed to be as talent-laden as the one before. In 2006 the top five were Erik Johnson, Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom, and Phil Kessel. And they are all legit NHL players and stars.
Few people thought the draft class of 2007 was going to immediately step into the league the next year. But Patrick Kane and Sam Gagner did, and Kyle Turris and Karl Alzner saw some NHL time and then came in this year.
Van Riemsdyk went to the University of New Hampshire and then declined a suggestion by the Flyers to start his pro career last fall.
The second overall pick wanted to stay in school and play in the World Junior Championships, and, frankly, it's going to be a while before it is known if the scouts were right and if he will be an impact player.
He was not always impressive in the World Juniors. He did score one hell of a goal against the Czech Republic (see YouTube for highlights), but there were more shifts when he seemed, well, disinterested.
Neither did he blow off the doors of the NCAA ranks. But he's in the fold now, signed to a 3-year, entry-level deal and playing for the Phantoms on a tryout contract. We soon will see if he is the front-of-the-net power forward, John LeClair-like player he has been touted to be.
Which brings about the point of all this.
When Claude Giroux was draft eligible for the Ontario Hockey League, he was passed over by everyone. Too small, not talented enough; who knows what they were thinking in the ranks of that junior league.
So Giroux went to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League on a free-agent tryout with the Gatineau Olympiques. His first year he scored 39 goals and had 103 points in 69 games.
Which got the attention of the scouts in the NHL and earned him the 22nd overall pick by the Flyers in that 2006 draft class.
He lit up the world of junior hockey again last year and seemed a sure bet to make the Flyers out of camp, but he didn't. For whatever reason, he couldn't find his game and was sent to the Phantoms to adjust to the pro level, which he did.
And right now he looks like an absolute star in the making. He is a smaller forward who plays big, initiates hits without the puck, makes breathtaking, between his own legs moves and can see the game at what looks like superstar speed.
There have been a couple of comparisons to Peter Forsberg. And having seen the passes he makes and the way he can get them through the skates and sticks of opposing players, they are not far-fetched comparisons. Flyers fans are watching the emergence of one very special young hockey player.
Van Riemsdyk may be that as well, with his own skill set, but it's going to be a while before the scouts are proven right or wrong.
That was the view from the coach yesterday.
After two losses, a lot of criticism from inside and outside the Flyers' offices all week, John Stevens thinks his team is going into the playoffs "as good as anyone in the conference." Despite the fact that the Flyers still haven't clinched and are tied for fourth with Carolina, which has locked up a playoff spot, Stevens believes his team is in a far better position going into the postseason than last year when they went to the conference final.
His reasoning is they have had the kind of year where they are dictating their own fate and only have to take care of themselves, unlike some of the teams still struggling and wondering if they will play beyond Easter.
"Everybody is scoreboard watching," Stevens said. "We don't have to do that. All we have to do is take care of ourselves. Other teams have to scoreboard watch."
The question is, are the Flyers back-peddling their way into the playoffs instead of going in playing skilled hockey, something they have said they want to do.
It's hard to say that they are coming in looking like a fearsome bunch, given the fact that they lost to a bad Toronto team and lost a point and missed a chance to lock up their spot in the playoffs in the shootout loss to a bad Ottawa team Saturday night.
The Flyers have four games, beginning with playoff-chaser Florida tomorrow night, to earn one point; it would take a collapse of historic proportions for that not to happen. But it would be a lot more convincing if they could win three of those four.
Stevens said last week he was looking at the last seven games as a seven-game series.
If that's the case they trail in the series 2-1.
The free-agent goalie season doesn't start any sooner than the rest of the league's free-agent period, but the market level may have been set this weekend by the Boston Bruins.
Like the Flyers, Boston had two free agent-to-be goalies. And, like the Flyers, they were only going to keep one. Tim
Thomas would have been among the most sought-after free-agent goalies, but Boston signed him to a 4-year deal reportedly worth $20 million.
He is probably the best goalie in the league right now and it would be hard for any other goalie to argue that they are worth more than that. *
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