By Murray Pam
The Philadelphia Flyers did not start the season the way they expected to. So GM Paul Holmgren chose to shake the tree this week by trading under-achieving defenseman Steve Eminger and problem-child right winger Steve Downie to the Lightning for defenseman Matt Carle.
Eminger was acquired over the summer for a first-rounder. He turned out to be an early disappointment for the Flyers, while Carle was the key acquisition in the Lightning-Shark deal that sent Dan Boyle to San Jose.
However, one youngster who will not be going anywhere in the near future is Philadelphia’s surprise of the season, 18-year-old defenseman Luca Sbisa. The 2008 NHL Entry Draft yielded a great crop of top d-men: the Kings’ Drew Doughty, the Blues’ Alex Pietrangelo and the Maple Leafs’ Luke Schenn. Sbisa, the 19th overall pick from the Lethbridge Hurricanes, has quietly made an impression.
“He was a stand-out,” said Flyers goalie Martin Biron, who had the opportunity to play with Sbisa during training camp scrimmages. “In the pre-season he was one of the better players. At first I didn’t know who he was – he played like a veteran.”
Sbisa has six assists in his first 13 games and is tied for first with six points amongst rookie defensemen with the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Alex Goligoski. Sbisa is also second in points among all 18-year-olds, trailing Coyotes left winger Mikkel Boedker by just one point.
What makes Sbisa’s ascent even more impressive is his background. He grew up in Olzeri, Italy and moved to Switzerland as a youngster. He is the first Italian-born defenseman to play in the NHL and the youngest player to make his NHL debut while playing most of his minor hockey career in the Swiss system.
Despite having only one season in the Western League under his belt, Sbisa made scouts take notice with his 15-point, plus-8 playoff performance, leading Lethbridge to the WHL final.
Coming into his first NHL camp, Sbisa was impressed and encouraged by Flyers head coach John Stevens, who told players that everyone had a chance to make the team, no matter their age.
“I came with a mindset to make the team, but I knew that it was still a long shot,” said Sbisa.
Philadelphia’s original plan was to play Sbisa in a few early season games and then return him to Lethbridge. However, long-term injuries to defensemen Ryan Parent and Randy Jones gave Sbisa an opportunity for more ice time. It soon became apparent the Flyers had no choice but to keep him up with the big club.
“Sbisa is playing way ahead of most players his age,” said Flyers center Daniel Briere. “What impresses us the most is his composure and poise. He doesn’t throw away the puck like many young defensemen are prone to do.”
Sbisa’s slick passing and skating earned him a spot on the power play as the assists started piling up.
“I just went out and played my game and the points came,” he said. “My goal is to establish myself and make a difference – it doesn’t matter if I get points or not.”
Biron’s and Briere’s faces both light up when discussing Sbisa’s play.
“He skates like a young Paul Coffey; he probably doesn’t even remember Coffey,” Biron joked.
Briere has high hopes as well for the young rookie.
“He can be so good for many years,” Briere said. “He has the chance to be impressive.”
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By Murray Pam