Organizational afterthought to playoff contributor
You certainly can't accuse Jason Akeson of coming out of nowhere.
Added to the Philadelphia Flyers organization in March of 2011, the undrafted Akeson led the team's AHL affiliate, the Adirondack Phantoms, in scoring in each of his three AHL seasons. His points per game totals in the AHL also consistently rose, peaking this past season at 0.91 and hinting that the forward was steadily developing.
Yet Akeson's rewards were limited to two NHL games (at the tail end of the 2013 and 2014 seasons, respectively), and even a brief demotion to the ECHL to play for the Trenton Titans at the start of 2013. While Akeson toiled away in the minors, he watched players like Tye McGinn, Chris VandeVelde and Kris Newbury jump him on the "most likely Flyers callups" list, despite significantly outproducing each of them in terms of points.
It seemed as though Akeson was simply not a player that the Flyers viewed as an NHL contributor.
Akeson's playoff performance
Akeson's first extended taste of NHL action had good and bad moments. He finished the series tied for second on the team (alongside Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek) with two goals. He also led the entire team in terms of puck possession statistics in the series.
But his costly high-sticking penalty directly led to Philadelphia's third period collapse in Game 1 (even if they didn't deserve to win the game anyway) and he did seem a bit turnover-prone, particularly in the neutral zone. Also, his on-ice scoring chance statistics weren't nearly as impressive as his shot attempt totals.
What does need to be taken into account, of course, is the difficulty of the assignments that Akeson received during the New York series. Long derided by scouts for a lack of commitment to the defensive side of his game, Akeson was placed on the same line as shutdown specialists Couturier and Matt Read. It was a surprising vote of confidence from Craig Berube, as many expected Akeson to more naturally slot in as a winger on the more sheltered Brayden Schenn line.
Instead, Akeson was essentially thrown to the wolves in terms of quality of competition, and the fact that he still looked like he belonged (even in a small sample) certainly bodes well for his NHL future.
Making sense of the promotion
As a player with barely any NHL experience prior to the Rangers series, it's fair to say that Jason Akeson exceeded any reasonable expectations with his overall solid play.
But the question remains - why exactly was he playing in the first place?
After all, he didn't sniff the Flyers lineup until Game 82. Sure, he led the Phantoms in points, but he had done that in his previous two seasons as well, and it had failed to impress the organization.
Playoff games are generally viewed as more important than regular season games, due to the higher level of competition, the constant threat of elimination, and of course, the prize at the end of the road. So if Akeson was deemed capable of helping the team in the postseason, why was he not called up far sooner, in order to help the team actually make the playoffs?
There are a few possible theories, some mildly disturbing and some fairly understandable.
It's possible that the Flyers were very impressed with Akeson's performance in the final game of the season, and finally decided that he was ready for NHL action. This would be a classic "good result, bad process" decision, as making an evaluation based on one game isn't exactly sound reasoning.
It also could be that Philadelphia simply wanted Akeson to receive another full season in the AHL to refine his game, and the promotion was just an acknowledgement that the young forward's work had finally paid off.
Finally, the Flyers could have just been desperate, considering Steve Downie's injury issues and Tye McGinn's overall ineffectiveness at the end of the season. Maybe they felt a roll of the dice was a better decision than uninspiring known quantities.
The best guess is that the decision was a combination of the latter two theories, with maybe a bit of the "shiny new toy" syndrome that distinguished theory number one.
What doesn't seem likely at all is that the decision to dress Akeson in the postseason now means that he has comfortably locked up a spot in the Flyers lineup for next season.
Akeson's future with Philadelphia
Jason Akeson enters the offseason as a restricted free agent, and considering his lack of NHL experience, if the Flyers want him back, re-signing him should not be an issue.
The real question lies in where he fits with the roster.
Akeson has the skillset of a scorer, and knowing how the Flyers prefer to employ their fourth line, that leaves the top three lines as the only places for Akeson to slot in.
Going into the offseason, Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Scott Hartnell, Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, Sean Couturier and Matt Read essentially have seven spots locked up. Most likely, Michael Raffl will find himself in the top-nine as well, leaving one spot for Akeson.
Right now, it would appear Akeson has a leg up on the competition. Steve Downie almost certainly will not be back. Akeson would also seem to have jumped Tye McGinn on the depth chart, especially now that he has proven that he can play on a two-way line and not look totally out of place.
There's also Vincent Lecavalier. But he spent the final month of the year primarily playing on the fourth line, and it's highly possible that he isn't even on the roster in 2014-15.
So one spot available - Jason Akeson is a Flyer next year. Right?
Well, there's also a certain early July spending spree called free agency. And there have been rumblings that Philadelphia is looking to upgrade at left wing - ostensibly Akeson's "open" spot.
The scouting report on Akeson hasn't changed. He's still an undersized scorer who depends more upon great instincts than top-tier physical ability in order to generate his chances. And that skillset isn't exactly one that is going to wow many GMs.
If the Flyers don't make any dramatic roster moves in the offseason, Akeson likely is in the lead for a spot in the opening night lineup. But one mid-tier winger signing or one major trade, and Akeson becomes Injury Callup Option #1.
Still an improvement over his role for most of this season, but far from a stone-cold lock for the NHL in 2014-15.
Unsurprisingly, we didn't have preseason expectations for Jason Akeson, as we didn't envision him as an NHL roster player entering the season.
But our best case scenario would have saw Akeson finally impressing the Flyers enough to justify an extended call-up, during which he shows promise and forces his way into the organization's future plans.
Worst case, Akeson shows no additional development in Adirondack, and becomes a likely non-tender candidate following the season, as the team tires of the one-way scorer's deficiencies.
Akeson did finally get his shot. After failing to receive a call up throughout the season, Akeson turned a solid performance in game 82 into a role on the Sean Couturier line for the Flyers' first round playoff series.
He was not dominant, but definitely held his own. Making judgments on a player after eight games may be premature, but Akeson sure looked like he belonged in the NHL. Some expressed concern about his average skating ability prior to the series, but he had no trouble keeping up with the play, and his plus hockey sense was apparent in almost every game of the series.
The real question is if Akeson has raised his stock enough in the eyes of new general manager Ron Hextall and coach Craig Berube to earn a permanent spot in the lineup. At this point, the answer is likely no, but if the Flyers have a quiet offseason, Akeson may very well inherit a spot in the Flyers' top-nine by default.
At this point, the most likely scenario is that Akeson is re-signed by Philadelphia this offseason and is given a true opportunity to make the team out of training camp. His performance in the playoffs should be enough to justify that, at the very least.
Feel free to vote in the poll below to grade Jason Akeson's season on a scale from 1 to 10. Vote based on your expectations for him coming into the season -- i.e. 1 being "he was incredibly disappointing and I want him out now", 10 being "he was outstanding even beyond my craziest expectations".