The Flyers are buoyant about Egor Zamula.
They've said it and showed it. After all, amateur scout Mark Greig and company took stock in the burgeoning defenseman when the skinny 18-year-old was undrafted and looking for a camp. Staying on the Zamula trail has fruited into the club having a top-50 NHL prospect climbing its organizational ladder.
"Make no mistake about it," Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said in July, "this kid is a top prospect and is going to have a very good career for us."
The Flyers showed their excitement in Zamula's upside by putting the 20-year-old with no pro games under his belt on their 31-man roster for the NHL's return-to-play 24-team tournament. Yeah, they like him. It worked out well as Zamula was in the Philadelphia area for back surgery during late January and the ensuing rehab process. The Flyers believed the experience of Zamula's participation in the club's two-week training camp and being around the team in the playoffs would be beneficial for his first season of pro hockey in 2020-21.
With Niskanen's retirement, the window of opportunity cracks open some more for Zamula. The Flyers will not rush Zamula as he's set to open 2020-21 with AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley. However, he has turned into a quick riser. Head coach Alain Vigneault liked what he saw from Zamula after one exhibition contest prior to the 2019-20 season. Zamula then had 28 points (seven goals, 21 assists) and a plus-19 rating in 28 games with the WHL's Calgary Hitmen before his final junior hockey campaign was cut short because of the back injury.
The Flyers have exhibited a willingness to give their prospects a shot. They played 11 rookies in 2019-20. Six made their NHL debuts. Fletcher has often said performance will dictate a prospect's timeline. Vigneault has often said he wants younger players to make the coaches' decisions for them.
The Flyers gave Zamula the nod for an exhibition game against the Penguins during July before the start of the tournament. The club's situation on defense for next season is far from sacrosanct. It's only October and the NHL has targeted Jan. 1 for the 2020-21 start date. Right now, it looks like Ivan Provorov, Justin Braun, Erik Gustafsson, Travis Sanheim, Philippe Myers, Shayne Gostisbehere and Robert Hagg will make up the Flyers' defensive group, with Mark Friedman and Derrick Pouliot waiting in the wings.
During a season, anything can happen — injuries, moves, etc. — making depth crucial on the back end. Zamula, a willowy defenseman with all sorts of puck-moving traits, will have to improve his strength and decision-making in the defensive zone. Look at the signs, though, and there are plenty that point to a fast climber and soon-to-be fit for the Flyers.
"Defensemen take time to develop," Fletcher said Oct. 5. "Players like Provorov are pretty rare. You look at top kids like Sanheim and Myers and Robert Hagg, players like that, kids that are high picks or top prospects, they often need a couple years in the American League. Whether Egor needs a couple years, I don’t know. But he will need some development time and I think we need to make sure we’re doing the right thing for him. He still needs to get stronger and put on some weight. I think his puck game, his poise and his hockey sense are probably NHL-ready. But sometimes you do a disservice to these young players by rushing them. We’ll let his play dictate that. Typically, young defensemen take a little bit of time."
Flyers assistant coach Mike Yeo, who oversees the team's defensemen and penalty kill, was asked back in July what he liked about Zamula.
Yeo laughed and smiled before answering.
"There’s a lot to like about him," he said. "If you like really big defensemen who are smart, can skate and can move the puck, then you're probably going to enjoy watching him play.
"First of all, he’s a great kid. He’s got great energy every time he comes to the rink. I’m a big stickler in details. If a defenseman is going back to retrieve a puck in practice, even though you have no pressure, you have to do things in practice the way that you're going to expect to do them in a game. You have to have little details, like shoulder check, you have to have the right habits in the neutral zone, even though you might be doing a drill 5-on-0, so that when you get into the game, you don’t have time to think, you can react and you can do things properly. His habits are outstanding. His practice habits are outstanding and that shows me that he’s a very coachable kid.
"With that, he’s got natural ability. His skating for a big man, he makes it look easy. Probably more than anything, what has really impressed me is his poise with the puck. Under pressure, the subtle plays that he makes, how he doesn’t panic. Obviously we know the importance of if you can play this game with the puck on your stick, if you can have an exit out of your zone with control, allowing you to develop speed through the neutral zone, you have a better chance of gaining the offensive zone with control. He’s the type of player that’s going to help you get to that game."