Frequent Flyers: Minnesota-Duluth star, Flyers share mutual interest

Western Michigan defenseman Dan DeKeyser is this season's top undrafted free-agent recruit.
Western Michigan defenseman Dan DeKeyser is this season's top undrafted free-agent recruit. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: March 26, 2012

When Western Michigan University was knocked out of ice hockey's version of the NCAA Sweet 16 on Saturday night, a race to sign Broncos defenseman Dan DeKeyser likely began at the buzzer.

DeKeyser, a mobile 6-3 sophomore, is the top undrafted free-agent recruit this season. He is expected to generate offers from all 30 teams, including the Flyers. Tonight's opponent, Tampa Bay, is also believed to be interested.

"It's not unfathomable to think Danny DeKeyser could get an offer from every team," Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said recently. "He could be the complete package."

The Flyers have had a ton of success snaring some of the top undrafted free agents in the past, but the Red Wings are believed to have the inside track on DeKeyser. They had seven scouts watch him at different points this season, including general manager Ken Holland. DeKeyser, 22, grew up outside of Detroit and attended the Red Wings' prospect camp last year.

But with the University of Minnesota-Duluth's loss in the Northeast Regional final on Sunday night, an equally intriguing race suddenly opened for another coveted sophomore in forward J.T. Brown. And the Flyers appear to be a finalist to land him.

Brown wrapped up his sophomore season tied for 11th in the nation in scoring after helping the Bulldogs to a national title last year as a freshman. He attended the Flyers' prospect camp last summer on his own dime.

Holmgren said he thought Brown might be staying in school, but a source close to Brown told the Daily News that there is a "better chance he is out than in [school] next year" and that the Flyers are on the short list.

THE RACE FOR NO. 1

For the last 2 weeks, the chatter in the Flyers' locker room has focused on two things: shooting to knock off the Rangers for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and entering the postseason on a strong note. Last year, the Flyers fumbled to a 3-4-3 finish, struggled to dispatch the Sabres in seven games, then were swept by the Bruins.

Really, the two ideals go hand-in-hand; if you finish the season with a winning streak, you're likely to at least have a chance to catch New York.

The Flyers can control beating the two non-playoff ducks they have sitting on their schedule this week in Tampa Bay and Toronto. It is likely impossible to catch the Rangers - or even the Penguins for home-ice advantage in the first round - without winning the easier ones.

Both the Rangers and Penguins have nearly an identical strength of schedule remaining. New York is in Minnesota and at Winnipeg this week. Pittsburgh has a home-and-home with the Islanders.

If the Flyers top Tampa and Toronto and one of Ottawa or Buffalo, they likely only need to split the remaining four games on their schedule to have it all come down to April 7's finale in Pittsburgh for home-ice advantage in a series with the Penguins.

Realistically, the hill to climb is steep, and the Penguins are overwhelmingly the Flyers' most likely first-round opponent. But that hill becomes a mountain without taking the first two games to start the week.

PRONGER SIGHTING

Wearing glasses and a grizzly beard, Chris Pronger was spotted sitting next to Flyers chairman Ed Snider during Saturday night's 4-1 win over Montreal. It was Pronger's first time at the Wells Fargo Center for a game since he last played there on Nov. 17.

Don't get your hopes up, though. Pronger is definitely not nearing a surprise return for the playoffs. He hasn't laced up a single skate in months. He has been out with "postconcussion symptoms" since Nov. 19 and the Flyers ruled on Dec. 15 that he would miss the remainder of the season.

Pronger, 37, remains a longshot to ever play again, though being healthy enough to sit in a loud arena for a game has to be a step in the right direction.

PHANTOMS' FUTURE

Last Friday, Phantoms beat writer Tim McManus - a Philly native, by the way - wrote a thought-provoking column in the Glens Falls (N.Y.) Post-Star about the Flyers' failures in handling their AHL affiliate. You can read it here: http://bit.ly/GIgxC0.

McManus pointed out that no AHL team has collected fewer points than the Phantoms over the three seasons since moving from Philadelphia to Adirondack in 2009. They have never finished better than 13th in the Eastern Conference, though a late playoff push has left them just two points back of the eighth and final playoff spot. They have not won a playoff game since 2008.

While winning at the NHL level is always the top priority, the Flyers haven't stocked their farm club with the veterans necessary to produce a winning environment.

McManus wrote that it "surely isn't about money," since the Flyers could have "fielded an AHL All-Star team three times over" with what they've paid to stash Michael Leighton ($1.55 million), Matt Walker ($1.7 million) and Johan Backlund ($800,000) away from the NHL salary cap this season.

In small-town Glens Falls, word travels fast. One-by-one, the Phantoms players refused to speak to McManus this weekend as a result of his column. Somewhere along the line, his message must have been muddled, because it wasn't directed at them. The note was critical of the Flyers' front office.

Don't shoot the messenger, boys. The column was true and long overdue.

ON-ICE

STAT WATCH

5: Players in the NHL with 20 goals and 100 penalty minutes this season. The Flyers have two of them: Scott Hartnell (35, 130) and Wayne Simmonds (22, 103). The Flyers' other two 20-goal scorers, Claude Giroux and Matt Read, have a combined 39 penalty minutes.

11: Consecutive starts in which Ilya Bryzgalov has allowed two or fewer goals. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Bryzgalov is the first Flyers goaltender to do that since Bernie Parent did so in 11 straight games from Dec. 8, 1974, to Jan. 4, 1975. The Flyers won their second Stanley Cup that season.

92.3 percent: Flyers' success on the penalty kill over the last 14 games (36-for-39). They have not allowed a power-play goal against in 12 of those games. This streak follows their worst run of the season (34-for-48, 70.8 percent) from Feb. 4-25.

THE WEEK AHEAD

Monday vs. Tampa Bay

7:30 p.m., NBCS

After catching lightning in a bottle - pardon the pun - last season and climbing within one game of the Stanley Cup finals, Tampa Bay will be watching the playoffs from home this spring. That's because the Lightning has given up more goals (249) than any other team in the league, by a long shot.

Thursday at Toronto

7 p.m., CSN

About a month ago, Thursday's matchup with the Maple Leafs might have seemed like one of the toughest on the Flyers' remaining schedule - aside from their steel-cage death matches with Pittsburgh. On Feb. 23, Toronto was in eighth place with 65 points. On Sunday, they woke up in 13th place with 75 points. Yes, the Leafs are looking more like the Laughs. They've accumulated 10 points in 15 games (4-9-2). And the NHL's richest team will now make it seven straight springs without playoff hockey, more than doubling the franchise's longest previous drought.

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