Avon and Tuomaala Hitting Their Strides

Bill Meltzer – Philadelphia Flyers

November 14, 2023

Heading into the first season of his professional career, the last thing Flyers prospect JR Avon wanted to do was miss all of Rookie Camp and NHL training camp, as well as the start of the 2023-24 regular season in the American Hockey League. Unfortunately, that’s how it played out, as the 20-year-old forward suffered a posterior cruciate ligament tear shortly before camp.

Avon began the campaign on Season-Opening Injured Reserve (SOIR). When he was medically cleared to play, the Flyers assigned Avon to the Phantoms on October 18. Understandably, it took the former Peterborough Petes forward several games to regain his form after making his Phantoms debut on Oct. 22 against the Springfield Thunderbirds.

More recently, Avon has begun to show the combination of speed, anticipation and underrated hands that made him a standout in Peterborough the previous two seasons. He has tallied goals in three of the Phantoms’ last five games, including a slam dunk from a Cooper Marody feed early in the third period of the Phantoms’ 4-1 road win over the Hershey Bears on Nov. 12.

In the meantime, 20-year-old Finnish winger Samu Tuomaala has shown rapid improvement in his return to North America. Not only has he become relatively fluent in speaking English — to the point that he’s now comfortable doing solo interviews without the aid of a translator to assist on more in-depth questions — he’s also making an impact on the ice.

Through his first 13 games of the 2023-24 season, Tuomaala has posted eight points (2g, 6a). He’s coming off a relatively quiet offensive weekend in a home-and-home set against Hershey (although he did have three shots on goal and a good scoring opportunity in a home 2-0 shutout loss on Saturday) but his overall play this month has been encouraging.

One week prior to the Phantoms 4-2 road loss to Springfield in a Wednesday morning game on Nov. 8 and the weekend split with Hershey, Tuomaala put together the best back-to-back games of his young career to date.

On Nov. 3, Tuomaala led the way offensively for the Phantoms in a 5-4 overtime home victory against the Hartford Wolf Pack. After recording back-to-back primary assists on goals from the slot by Olle Lycksell (PPG) and Avon (5-on-5), Tuomaala subsequently netted the winning goal at 1:09 of sudden death overtime.

In overtime, Tuomaala drove to the net and received a tape-to-tape feed from Desnoyers to quickly re-direct into the back of the net to end the game.

One day later, in a 3-2 overtime loss in Springfield, Tuomaala used his speed very effectively. He did not score in this game but he had three shots on goal. The Finn also played a big part on the game’s first goal, making a tape-to-tape pass to Elliot Desnoyers to start a sequence that ended with veteran captain Garrett Wilson stashing home the puck from near the net.

Phantoms notebookFollowing the split with Hershey, the Phantoms enter the week with a 5-6-2 record. The Bears remain in first place in the Atlantic Division with a 9-4-0 record and owns a 3-1-0 head-to-head record with the Phantoms….Phantoms forward Elliot Denoyers had to leave Saturday’s game against Hershey in the second period due to a questionable high hit by huge-framed Dmitry Osipov.  Lehigh Valley defenseman Ronnie Attard immediately dropped the gloves in defense of Desnoyers. Second-year pro Desnoyers did not return to the game and was unavailable on Sunday, as well…  Apart from losing Desnoyers, who led the Phantoms in scoring as a rookie last season, the Phantoms are starting to get back some healthy players. Emil Andrae (upper-body) and Attard (illness) missed three games apiece but returned this past week. Wade Allison (illness) missed one game…. Allison bagged his first goal of the 2023-24 season in Wednesday morning’s loss in Springfield. For the season, he has just three points in 12 games but his game has improved over the last two weeks, despite being under the weather and missing the Nov. 4 game… Through the season’s first 13 games, Olle Lycksell (8g, 2a) and Cooper Marody (4g, 6a) share the team’s points lead with 10 apiece… Nineteen-year-old Phantoms forward Alexis Gendron has been eased into the lineup so far this season. He scored goals in each of his first two games in the AHL but has struggled of late. Overall, he’s appeared in seven games. Gendron will turn 20 on December 30…Acquired in the three-team trade that sent Ivan Provorov to Columbus and Sean Walker and goalie Cal Petersen to Philadelphia, defenseman Helge Grans has had some consistency issues with the Phantoms. However, he has also made some very nice plays on both sides of the puck in his 13 games with Lehigh Valley…. Late this week, the Phantoms will embark on a three-game road trip to Canada, playing the Laval Rocket (Nov. 17), Belleville Senators (Nov. 18) and Toronto Marlies (Nov. 21).

Barkey and Bonk Surging in November

The Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights have been a very strong month of November to date, posting a 5-1-0 record for the month to date (12-5-1 overall for the season). Flyers 2023 draftees* Oliver Bonk* and Denver Barkey have both been key contributors during the surge, which was on display in a wild 10-7 road victory over the Windsor Spitfires on Nov. 9 and a 4-0 shutout victory against the Guelph Storm this past Saturday (Nov. 11).

Defenseman Bonk, drafted by the Flyers with the 22nd overall pick of the first round in the 2023 Entry Draft, has played a very steady brand of two-way hockey for the Knights. He’s defended well during the season.  With the puck on his stick, he continues to emerge as a reliable puck-mover and much improved passer.

Although he scored 10 goals last season for the Knights, Bonk is not a natural goal scorer from the back end. Stretching from last February, the 2023 OHL playoffs and the start of the 2023-24 OHL regular season, he went 58 games without a goal. That drought finally ended on Nov. 9, when he scored a power play goal near the net to forge a 6-6 tie in the Knights’ eventual 10-7 win against Windsor.

The biggest area of improvement in Bonk’s game offensively has been his ability to make accurate breakout passes and distribute the puck from the point. Among Bonk’s 15 points in 18 games to date, 14 have been via collecting assists.

In the meantime, Barkey has taken a big leap in his development since last season. The 2023 OHL playoffs were a springboard for Barkey as an all-situations player in head coach Dale Hunter’s lineup, and he’s kept running with the ball ever since.

During training camp, 2023 third-round pick (95th overall) Barkey was one of the Flyers standouts in the two-game Rookie Series against the New York Rangers’ prospects. He was ultimately rewarded with the opportunity to dress for the Flyers early in the NHL preseason. Since being assigned to London for the 2023-24 season, Barkey has been a force for the Knights.

Although Barkey is undersized (5-foot-9 with a still-slight frame), he is a bundle of energy on the ice. He has well above-average speed, a quick finishing touch and a knack for getting under opponents’ skin. Barkey has only served four minutes worth of penalties in the first 18 games of the season, but he’s no slouch at getting opponents off their game. Barkey can play any forward position at the junior level, but will exclusively play wing as he moves up the ladder.

Offensively, Barkey leads all Knights players to date with 26 points — 11 goals, 15 assists — and has made for a dynamic duo with Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Easton Cowan. Barkey has also emerged as one of the OHL’s most dangerous shorthanded scoring threats, with three shorthanded goals to his credit. On the power play, Barkey has posted six points (one PPG, five assists).

Barkey is currently riding a seven-game point streak. Over that span, he’s racked up four goals, seven assists and 11 points. The Knights return to action on Wednesday when they rematch with the Storm. This time, the scene will shift from London to Guelph.

CHL Notebook:  Over in the Western Hockey League (WHL), Portland Winterhawks defenseman Carter Sotheran is another one of the Flyers’ 2023 Entry Draft picks who is off to a strong start in his draft-plus-one season. Sotheran closed out October with a rough outing in a 7-4 road loss to the Calgary Hitmen, but he’s strung together five solid games since then. For the season, the tall (6-foot-4) and mobile right-handed defenseman has posted nine points (3g, 6a) and a plus-8 rating in 15 games played. Portland leads the U.S. Division with 25 points. The Flyers selected Manitoba native Sotheran in the fifth round (139th overall) of the 2023 Draft…. While Sotheran’s Winterhawks are in first place in their division, goalie prospect Carson Bjarnason plays for the last-place team in the East Division, the Brandon Wheat Kings. This past week didn’t go particularly well for the Wheaties or for Bjarnason. He helped Brandon come away with one point from a 4-3 overtime loss to Moose Jaw, but allowed two goals he might have wanted back, including an overtime winner from deep the deep center slot. On Saturday, though, the Wheaties captured a 7-5 win at home against Regina. For the season, Bjarnason has posted a 6-4-4 record, 3.23 goals against average and .904 save percentage. By comparison, fellow Brandon goalie Ethan Eskit is 2-4-0 with a 4.83 GAA and .848 save percentage.