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A mantra that will be repeated frequently before and throughout the Philadelphia Flyers’ upcoming Development Camp is that the July camp is intended solely to assist young players in a variety of ways – not just with honing on-ice puck and skating skills and building off current baselines for agility, strength and stamina but also with such vital off-ice areas as tailoring dietary and conditioning regimens.
It is not designed for player evaluations. No will be offered an entry-level contract based on Development Camp nor are NHL jobs on the line for more advanced prospects.
Nevertheless, the arrival of Development Camp each year is a good time to take stock of how the prospect pipeline has progressed over the past 12 months and has been supplemented.
Entering the 2016 NHL Draft, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall set a goal of adding skill and size – preferably in combination – to the organizational depth pool. Some drafts do not fall according to teams’ pre-draft strategy, and organizations have to adjust their approach on the fly while on the time clock to make their selections.
In the Flyers’ case, the organization has now had multiple consecutive drafts where it has walked away feeling like it was able to select not only players on whom its scouting staff felt they had a good grasp on projecting for the long-term but also selecting them within a specific range within the Draft.
“Only time will tell, and that’s always the case, but we feel good about our draft,” said Chris Pryor, the Flyers Director of Scouting. “We feel like we did what we set out to do.”
With three of their first four picks in the Draft, the Flyers selected forwards: Russian center German Rubtsov (22nd overall), Quebecois center/winger Pascal Laberge (36th overall, with a pick acquired from the Winnipeg Jets to swap the 18th overall selection for the 22nd) and USHL power forward Wade Allison (52nd overall).
Rubstov will not be available to attend Development Camp due to contractual commitments to his KHL team, Vityaz Chekhov. This was already anticipated. With KHL-affiliated prospects, there can be a lot of red tape to cut through to bring them to an NHL July camp because there are team and government clearances to obtain and considerable paperwork involved.
For recent draftees throughout the NHL, there’s typically insufficient lead times between the Draft and the Development Camp to ensure their presence. It has nothing to do with a player’s interest level in participating.
The Flyers currently have three KHL-affiliated players in the prospect chain. In addition to Rubtsov, there is center Mikhail Vorobyov and goaltender Ivan Fedotov, both 2015 draftees. Vorobyov is also unable to attend the 2016 Development Camp but Fedotov is on the roster as a first-time attendee.
In the long-term, the Flyers believe that Rubtsov will be a fine NHL player both with and without the puck on his stick. The organization’s Russia-based scout, Ken Hoodikoff, did the primary scouting of Rubtsov in the MHL (Russia’s KHL-feeding junior league for players under the age of 20) and in various international tournaments.
Despite the disqualification of the MHL-based Russian national Under-18 team squad from the 2016 IIHF Under-18 World Championships in Grand Forks, Pryor noted that there were still ample cross-over scouting opportunities for the Flyers scouting staff at large to view Rubtsov. When the time came to compare notes, there was a strong consensus about the player’s two-way potential.
“We all felt comfortable about German,” Pryor said. “He’s a smart and competitive kid, and he wants to become an NHL player. Yes, there’s been a lot of talk about his play away from the puck, because it’s real good for a player his age. But he’s good with the puck, too. He can make plays. He is a good all-around young player.”
Scouts are not looking at stats. They are looking at an array of other factors – size, skating, hockey sense, strength and character – and projecting how those may develop over time.
However, most fans love to look at stats. As such, context is needed.
Statistically speaking, the MHL is a lower-scoring league than the Canadian Hockey League circuits. Rubtsov’s average of nearly a point per game in the MHL is comparable to an OHL, WHL or QMJHL prospect averaging comfortably more than point-per-game at age 17 or 18.
By way of league-to-league reference point and not as a player-to-player comparison, St. Louis Blues superstar forward Vladimir Tarasenko averaged about 0.5 points per game in the KHL and posted 15 points in 21 career Russian junior-level games (over parts of three seasons).
While the Flyers, and Rubstov himself would have ideally preferred if he could come to North America next season to play in the Quebec Major Hockey League, they are also comfortable with him fulfilling his two-season commitment to Vityaz and plays against professional players, including many former NHL players.
“Either way, we are excited about German. We think he’s only going to continue to get better. We’re excited we were able to pick him,” Pryor said.
All of the Flyers’ other 2016 draftees will be in attendance at Development Camp.
Laberge, who dealt with the passing of his beloved step-mother and serious illnesses with his father and mother, nevertheless had a strong QMJHL season for Victoriaville in 2015-16. Scouted extensively by Flyers Quebec-based scout Todd Hearty while considerable cross-over scouting from Philadelphia scouts based in other regions, the consensus was that he was a first-round caliber prospect in his own right. Laberge has played both center and wing in his junior career to date.
“With what he’s been through over the last year, I think it really shows Pascal’s character,” said Pryor. “But he’s also a skilled player. He’s very competitive. He has shown an ability to make plays and score. He’s someone we think can take off in his development.”
The main challenge that Laberge faces – and something that the organization will help him working on right away starting with Development Camp – is adopt a regimen that will enable him to fill out his frame. He is 6-foot-1 but currently is listed at just 162 pounds.
Added strength will immensely help Laberge to win more battles for the puck and positional jockeying in the trenches. He willingly engages in such battles already but, in order to compete at the professional level, becoming stronger is a must.
As with all but a select few teenage players, Laberge must also continue to work on his all-around game and get prepared for the highly-structured, faster-paced and puck possession oriented style that is the National Hockey League. Likewise, the preparation and stamina demands in the pro game are much higher than things any junior player has ever experienced.
It will be the responsibility of John Riley, the Flyers’ Development Coach for forwards and one of the three primary Development Camp instructors along with Kjell Samuelsson (defensemen) and Brady Robinson (goaltenders), to help Laberge navigate the process through follow-up check-ins throughout the upcoming season. Ultimately, though, it is on each player himself to embrace the tough work that lies ahead to go from prospect to pro.
In Laberge’s case, there is little doubt about desire to put in the work on and off the ice. That can be said virtually right on down the line. It’s something the Flyers organization priorities when it drafts or otherwise invites young players through the door. Most things in hockey can be taught. Desire is not one of them.
Allison, a big power forward with a heavy righthanded shot, was a hot name for the draft by the end of this USHL season. He started a little slowly while dealing with injuries and then came on very strong in the second half.
“It’s more about where you finish than where you start, and Wade was on upward track as the season went along. We like his game,” Pryor said.
Allison is committed to Western Michigan University for next season. Former Flyers assistant coach Andy Murray is behind the bench as its head coach.
Laberge’s and Allison’s fellow Flyers 2016 draftee forwards, Calgary Hitmen left winger Carsen Twarynski (selected 82nd overall), Kitchener Rangers center/winger Connor Bunnaman (selected 109th overall) both bring a hard-working, “heavy” game to the table. Flyers prospects Travis Sanheim and Radel Fazleev were teammates with Twarynski in Calgary.
The addition of these players to the prospect pool gives a little bit more size diversity to the system, because there had been a bit of an unintentional tilt toward smaller player. The more important development, though, is that there’s an influx of players who could project to play a variety of different roles if they develop as hoped. The selection of big-framed Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL) shutdown forward Samuel Dove-McFalls in 2015 was a previous step in the direction of building an array of systemic depth.
Selected 169th overall, Ohio State University committed USHL (Lincoln Stars) center Tanner Laczynski is strong with the puck on his stick and has been a good offensive player at every level he’s played thus far. Sarnia Sting forward Anthony Salinitri (picked 172nd overall) is a speedy and highly competitive “little big man” at the Ontario Hockey League level. In other words, he plays likes he’s bigger than his 5-foot-10, 168-pound frame. Salintri earned the trust of his head coach, Derian Hatcher, the retired Flyers defenseman and former Flyers Develop Coach. Flyers 2015 first-round pick Travis Konecny is a teammate.
Critics of the Flyers’ farm system have said there’s a lack of scoring among forwards in the prospect pool. Starting – but not ending – with the dynamically gifted Konecny, Pryor notes that there were already numerous forwards within the system with scoring upside even before the additions of 2016 draftees whom the organization believes have potential to carry offensive responsibilities at the professional level.
“Beyond Travis and some of the defensemen we think can contribute offensively, I think we had quite a few guys with a chance produce offensively. Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Oskar Lindblom, were up [in the American Hockey League] with the Phantoms at the end of the year, and both of them – really, all of the kids we had there at the end, including [defensemen] Travis Sanheim and Reese Willcox – all kind hit the ground running. They all produced. That isn’t any easy jump to make, especially at the end of the season,” Pryor said.
“Also, look at Taylor Leier. He has some scoring ability. We think Radel Fazleev can chip in offensively. Danick Martel is a scorer, first and foremost. Cooper Marody is a skilled offensive player. Plus, there’s the guys we added this year, starting with German, Pascal and Wade. Maybe a lot of people don’t know about a lot of these guys right now outside of Travis, but we like our offensive depth in the system right now.”
All of the pre-2016 draftees Pryor mentioned, except for Leier (who is entering his third pro season) and Marody (college commitments), will also be at Development Camp.
Most eyes at Camp will be on 2015 first-round pick Konecny, who had a combined 101 points (30 goals, 71 assists) in the Ontario Hockey League in 2015-16 with the Ottawa 67s and Sarnia Sting. After being a bright spot at the World Junior Championships for an otherwise underachieving Team Canada, Konecny went on a tear for Sarnia after being acquired from Otttawa. He closed out the regular season with 56 points (23 goals, 33 assists) in his final 31 games.
Konecny’s playoffs ended early due to a shoulder injury. He has rehabbed (no surgery was necessary), and is fine for Development Camp, Team Canada junior duties in August and for training camp.
Aube-Kubel, selected in the second round of the 2014 NHL Draft, blossomed after his selection into one of the top offensive players in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. At one juncture this past season for the Val-d’Or Foreurs, he reeled off a streak of producing at least one point in 25 of 26 games. In that 26-game span, he racked up 21 goals, 28 assists and 49 points.
As with most young players, both Konecny and Aube-Kubel are still developing physically and refining their play without the puck in order to bring it to pro-grade standards. Aube-Kubel is working on greater shift-in and shift-out focus, which is an area he made strides between the 2014-15 season and the recently completed season.
Lindblom, who has a chiseled physique on a 6-foot-1 frame, was selected in the fifth round of the 2014 NHL Draft. He worked through some pre-draft skating deficiencies to the point where it was no longer a concern – although there is always room for further improvement in his quickness – and rapidly became one of the best teenage players in the Swedish Hockey League while playing against grown men. He has also been a standout for the national Under-20 team at the last two World Junior Championships.
“We really like Oskar’s game,” Pryor said. “We like the approach they take to player development in Sweden. They teach players to play the game the right way and they don’t put kids in situations they are not ready to handle. Oskar has come along very well so far.”
In 48 SHL games in 2015-16 season, Lindblom routinely saw first-line or second-line duty at five-on-five and second unit power play time. He responded with 25 points (quite respectable for his league and age) and a solid two-way game. After his SHL season with Brynäs IF Gävle, he joined the Phantoms on an amateur try out deal for the final eight games of the AHL season and produced seven points (two goals, five assists).
Soon to turn 20 years of age, Lindblom intends to play one more season in Sweden to complete his contract with Brynäs before coming back to North America on a more long-term basis.
“We are completely comfortable with that for Oskar,” Pryor said. “It’s a good league over there and he’s been progressing each year.”
Martel, signed as a free agent in 2015, is more of a pure scorer. A winger who overcomes a 5-foot-8 frame with blazing speed, elusiveness and offensive creativity, Martel produced a 22-goal, 37-point rookie season for the Phantoms this past season despite being limited to 67 games. Despite his lack of size, the 21-year-old does not back down from getting to the scoring areas and is unafraid of much bigger players.
The 19-year-old Marody, selected by the Flyers in the sixth round (158th overall) of the 2015 Draft, is coming off an impressive collegiate season as a freshman at the University of Michigan. Even as a supporting cast player, Marody got off to a torrid start to the season on the way to scoring 10 goals and 24 points in 32 games.
Fazleev, who is slated to join the Phantoms as a rookie in 2015-16, is an exuberant and versatile player who has the versatility to play different roles and either center or wing. He developed into a fine junior-level offensive player, including a 71-point campaign in 59 games for Calgary last season, but his anticipated pro role is more along the line of a reliable player without the puck who can forecheck and backcheck with gusto and contribute on the penalty kill while chipping in some timely offense on occasion. He performed these tasks well for Team Russia at the World Junior Championships.
Another returnee to development camp who played well at the World Juniors is Czech forward David Kase. Drafted in the fifth round (128th overall) of the 2015 Draft, the 19-year-old has natural leadership tendencies and a tenacious work ethic as well as puck skills. His frame (5-foot-10, 159 pounds as of last July) is small but his heart is huge. Pryor offered a similar assessment to the one Flyers’ general manager Ron Hextall gave shortly after the World Juniors.
Said Hextall, “David plays a real honest game. He's a little pit bull; he just needs to get a little bigger. Right now, he's a pit bull in a poodle's body. He plays and competes. He's just a dog out there, [meaning] he hounds the puck. The skill level is there. He is a smart player. He stays on the right side of the puck. He needs to get stronger. For where we got him in the draft and his upside, we're very happy. He's a great kid and he just loves to play the game.”
Flying under the radar a bit is the deceptively strong Cole Bardreau, who quietly had a strong first full AHL season. Playing a straightforward two-way style of hockey with a bit of an edge, Bardreau improved steadily as the season went along. He also managed 13 goals and 30 points in 54 games, along with 54 penalty minutes.
Dove-McFalls missed a big chunk of the 2015-16 season to a knee injury after a promising start. He returned to hold his own in the Quebec League playoffs. A steady two-way player who is good in the faceoff circle, battles in the trenches and kills penalties, the 6-foot-2, 205-pounder can play wing as well as center,
“Next season, I think he will see more offensive opportunities,” said Pryor of McFalls, who had five goals, 12 points and 41 penalty minutes in 29 regular season games. “I also wouldn’t say this was a ‘lost season’ for him. He dealt with some adversity and came through it.”
Russian two-way forward Vorobyov graduated from the MHL to the KHL level last season. Although his KHL ice time was sparing, he played well in the MHL and is considered a candidate for the Russian team at the next World Junior Championships.
Attending his final development camp, Phantoms winger Tyrell Goulbourne showed in his rookie pro season that, while he was best known in junior hockey for his fighting prowess, he could play a disciplined enough game at the pro level to avoid excessive minor penalty and that he possesses good speed. Goulbourne also chipped in seven goals and 17 points for the Phantoms.
In addition to all of the Flyers-affiliated prospects attending Development Camp, there is one unaffiliated invitee.
Union College (ECAC) forward Mike Vecchione is a two-way winger with quick hands and who plays a responsible game without the puck on his stick. He is slated to enter his senior collegiate season. Vecchione is not big but he's deceptively strong.
The 23-year-old American forward has had a good all-around collegiate career, although his junior season raw numbers (nine goals, 29 points in 34 games) may not look as nice on paper as ones he put up on superior Union teams, including the 2013-14 Frozen Four champion squad for which Shayne Gostistbehere was the team's most dominant player and which much better depth than last year's team. In his sophomore season, Vecchione had 19 goals and 50 points in 39 games. The right winger stands just 5-foot-10 but packs 194 pounds on his frame.