Flyers' Read part of college trend

STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Flyers celebrate Scott Hartnell goal in first period of OT win over Blackhawks.
STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Flyers celebrate Scott Hartnell goal in first period of OT win over Blackhawks.
Posted: March 20, 2014

HIGH ON THE LIST of reasons why the Chicago Blackhawks are Stanley Cup champions and are in position to repeat that feat is their depth. They roll one quality line after another at you, building pressure until you buckle.

Depth is also high on the list of reasons the Philadelphia Flyers have resurrected from their early grave to become one of those teams even the elite hate to play. Claude Giroux's heroic goal with 4.2 seconds left in overtime punctuated a game in which the Flyers, not the champs, rolled out the relentless pressure, outshooting Chicago, 37-25, and rallying from two early soft goals allowed by a clearly rusty Ray Emery.

With the 3-2 victory, the Flyers have grabbed six points in three games against the two teams most often mentioned as Cup finalists. Which is a nifty trick given some of the names they have traded away or lost to injury since the Flyers met the Blackhawks in that memorable 2010 Cup final. Names like Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, James van Riemsdyk and, of course, Chris Pronger.

In the stands that spring, though, was a college kid who, along with some of the names received in those trades, has become a big part of that nifty trick, and one of the big reasons why pro teams like the Flyers are beefing up their scouting of college programs in recent years.

Matt Read was Bugs Bunny last night as he is on most nights, digging out a puck behind the net that led to the tying goal late in the first period, neutralizing Chicago's dynamic first line at times and its power play, operating as part of the power play other times.

Years ago, professional teams glanced quickly at the college-hockey landscape if they even glanced at all. No more. An NCAA rules change more than 2 decades ago that forced established smaller schools to choose between Division I play and Division III play triggered dozens of schools to up the ante, creating a demand for players that was eventually met by the increase of elite youth programs in areas like the Delaware Valley. Smaller schools like Quinnipiac, Union, Mercyhurst, UMass-Lowell and Merrimack have produced free-agent NHL players in recent years, not to mention a few dozen more.

The increased opportunity eventually also triggered a migration of players from Canada and from overseas. Flyers defenseman Erik Gustafsson, for example, found his way to Northern Michigan University from Kvissleby, Sweden.

Read is from Ilderton, Ontario, a town of a few hundred outside of London. He is listed as 5-10, but like Gustafsson's identical listing, it seems generous by at least an inch. Boston's Torey Krug, last year's NHL rookie of the year, is another player who apparently received inches as part of the free-agent contract he signed after playing four seasons at Michigan State.

"There was a guy who wasn't drafted because he was a small guy," Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said of Krug. "Same with Gustafsson. But good hockey players are good hockey players. Do you want a bunch of guys who are 5-8 or 5-9? Probably not. But you can probably get away with a couple."

That's another sea change that should be prominently mentioned in this. The NHL is all about speed and playmaking these days, creating rules or enforcing existing ones that have curtailed much of the mucky and murky play of the last decade and beyond. Quick, smart smallish guys quickly dismissed under the old system are now given second looks, especially if they grow a few inches or add a few pounds while playing in college - sometimes, as in the case of Read, until they get a degree.

He is 27, and until just a few years ago he figured his future was as a physical trainer. That's why he majored in kinesiology at Bemidji State. "No one was telling me to give up hockey," he has said. "But I went to school thinking if I played any pro hockey it would be in the East Coast Hockey League or one of the minor leagues and wouldn't have too much of an opportunity. So I went to school thinking I was preparing for my future working a 40-hour-a-week job."

Unintentionally, Holmgren and his scouts have discovered, Read was improving his resume in doing so. While professional coaches in sports like basketball and football rue the early dismissal of athletes and the sometimes arduous path to maturity that entails, NHL executives get unexpected benefits from signing these late-bloomers well into their 20s.

Read was 24 when the Flyers signed him as a free agent.

"We actually look at guys now we're thinking about drafting who have already committed to a school," Holmgren said. "Because that in turn gives you 2 extra years. You take a guy in the sixth round and you know he's going to Penn State or Northeastern or one of these schools, you don't have to make a decision on him in 1 year or 2 years. You may get 4. College allows maybe smaller and some bigger guys go to school and develop."

This season, the Flyers added a second college scout. "There's just too many good college programs now for one guy to cover it," Holmgren said. "Too many guys to see."

Five years ago, during Bemidji's rags-to-riches run to the Frozen Four, Read was one of those guys. Now he's one of the guys who make the Flyers the kind of team Stanley Cup champs hate to play against.


Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: ph.ly/Donnellon

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