While the Flyers are first in the NHL's points race, their top minor-league affiliate, Adirondack, is at the bottom of the AHL.
But the Phantoms aren't as awful as their 6-23-2 record suggests, said John Paddock, one of the Flyers' two assistant general managers.
Paddock recently spent 18 games as the Phantoms' interim coach. He relinquished those duties and returned to the Flyers on Monday, when Joe Paterson was hired as Adirondack's head coach.
The Phantoms went just 4-13-1 under Paddock, but he said the team's struggles stemmed from inexperience, not a lack of talent.
"They have nine or 10 rookies, and three or four second-year guys," said Paddock, the onetime head coach of the Ottawa Senators and Winnipeg Jets. "You're not going to be as successful as you'd like with that [youth], but I like the high character of the young players. There are a handful of players there that are going to be in the NHL."
The top young prospects are defenseman Erik Gustafsson, right winger Ben Holmstrom, and left winger Eric Wellwood, said Paddock, who is also high on center Zac Rinaldo and right winger Mike Testwuide.
With Chris Pronger expected to miss four to six weeks with a broken foot, the Flyers don't have as much defensive depth at the moment. They have just six defensemen on their roster.
If the Flyers had to go to the Phantoms for a defenseman, it would be a "toss-up" between Gustafsson and Danny Syvret, Paddock said.
Syvret, 25, played in 21 games with the Flyers last season. He signed as a free agent with Anaheim in the off-season but was reacquired last month in a four-player deal that sent David Laliberte and Patrick Maroon to the Ducks. Syvret has produced 11 points in 12 games with the Phantoms.
Gustafsson, an undrafted free agent out of Northern Michigan University who was signed in March, has made great strides in his first full season in the AHL.
"He's good defensively, and he's smart, has good hands and can move the puck as good as anyone," Paddock said. "He's very competitive, and he takes losses hard."
There was admiration in his voice.
Gustafsson, a 22-year-old Sweden native, has 25 points (four goals, 21 assists), tops on a team that has managed just 67 goals.
Wellwood (seven goals in 27 games) was drafted in the sixth round in 2009 and displayed excellent speed and hockey sense in a three-game stint with the Flyers earlier this season.
"There's not much doubt he'll play in the NHL at some point," Paddock said.
As for Holmstrom, an undrafted free agent who was signed in March, he is a physical player who has developed into an excellent face-off performer.
Paddock also likes the potential of Testwuide, who was signed in March after a solid career at Colorado College.
"He has good moments and bad moments - learning moments, I'd call them," he said.
Goaltending has been one of the Phantoms' weaknesses. Promising Johan Backlund had off-season hip surgery that contributed to his poor start: a 3.85 goals against average and an .876 save percentage in 16 games. He then suffered an ankle sprain that has kept him sidelined since Nov. 27, though he is close to returning to the team.
If the Flyers dealt Michael Leighton or Brian Boucher, Backlund, 29, would become a key player in the system - provided he regained his health and his effectiveness. He was highly regarded in the Swedish Elite League, and he would have been a candidate to make the Flyers' roster this season if he wasn't slowed by the hip surgery.
The Flyers head into the holiday break with a 22-8-5 record. You have to go back to 1986 for the last time they had more wins at Christmas (25-8-2). . . . Claude Giroux leads the Flyers with six power-play goals. . . . The Flyers play in Vancouver on Tuesday, starting a five-game road trip; they have a league-best 10-2-3 road record. . . . The Flyers have had sellouts in 14 of their 20 home games, including the last eight.