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DEPTH CHART: The Offense

Meltzer's look at how the Phantoms group of forwards could effect the big club in 2019-20

by Bill Meltzer @billmeltzer

Apart from the 2019 NHL Draft being the first for the Flyers under the direction of general manager Chuck Fletcher and assistant general manager Brent Flahr, it will be an opportunity for the organization to restock the organization's prospect pool at all positions. 

Come next season, there will be an influx of first-year pro forwards and, while it is theoretically possible that one or more among the Flyers top forward prospects could make the NHL roster out of training camp, Fletcher and Flahr are not inclined to rush the process. 

That includes recent first-round picks such as Joel Farabee (2018) or Morgan Frost (2017) or 2017 second-round selection Isaac Ratcliffe. The most likely course of action to start the 2019-20 campaign will be for most or all of the young forwards to play under head coach Scott Gordon. "Gordo" will return to steer the AHL's Lehigh Valley Phantoms after serving as the Flyers' interim bench boss from shortly before Christmas until the end of the 2018-19 season.

Said Fletcher, "I hope this team becomes a harder team to make as we get deeper and add players. Obviously, of course somebody can come in and make the team, but they're going to have to earn it. We're not looking to just put players on the team. I think the American League is a great developmental league. I think it's important place for most players to spend some time. Having said that, I don't like cutting players in April. There's some talented kids coming out of junior, coming out of college. We'll let their play determine how they do, but I guess what I'm saying is I hope we're a little deeper up front and on the blue line and it will be a little tougher to make the team. That will be ideal. Your depth is obviously better and you allow players time to full develop before they come in."

Farabee, who signed an entry-level contract with the Flyers on March 25, will turn pro next season after spending this past season playing collegiate hockey for Boston University as well as representing Team USA at the World Junior Championships. 

After an adjustment period to the collegiate hockey level, Farabee really took off after a strong performance for Team USA at the 2018-19 World Junior Championships. He went to lead his BU team in scoring, and continued to show the sort of high-caliber two-way instincts that made him a standout in the USNTDP before advancing to college hockey. 

The 19-year-old is slide-rule eligible for next season, meaning that as long as he doesn't play 10 or more NHL games next season, the first year of his entry-level contract will not burn until the 2020-21 season if he plays in the AHL. Farabee is still somewhat physically immature, and adding strength will be one his primary goals this season. 

Coming off a 112-point Ontario Hockey League season last year in his draft-plus-one campaign, Frost returned to the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds this season without much left to prove at OHL level but with a goal of playing for Team Canada at the World Juniors and making further strides in his all-around game -- specifically in stepping up his pace of play and dealing with playoff-type checking -- when he makes the transition to the pro game next season. 

Frost posted eight points (4g-4a) in five WJC games, leading Team Canada and tying for third overall in the tournament. Through 52 OHL games, he flirted with a lofty two-points-per-game average (103 points, 1.98 points per game) but a late season mini-slump and suspension a stick-related infraction at the end of season caused him to finish with 109 points in 58 games. In the playoffs, Frost's performance was somewhat uneven but he still compiled 18 points (7g-11a) in just 11 games before the Greyhounds were knocked out in the second round. 

In the meantime, Ratcliffe had a magical run in the playoffs as he captained an underdog Guelph Storm team to an improbable OHL championship -- after series deficits of 3-0, 3-1 and 2-0 -- and then to the Memorial Cup semifinals.

Ratcliffe's final point totals for the 2018-19 season - counting the OHL regular season (65 GP, 50 G, 32 A, 82 PTS), CHL vs Russia series (1 GP, 1 G), OHL playoffs (24 GP, 15 G, 15 A, 30 PTS), and the Memorial Cup (4 GP, 3 G, 3 A, 6 PTS) -- were 69 goals and 47 assists for 116 points in 94 games played. 

Come next season, the Flyers organization would like to see the now 20-year-old Ratcliffe continue to hone his game. 

The hulking winger (6-foot-6, 205 pounds) is not slow at top speed but needs more explosiveness in the first stride or two to get there; something that is workable. He can continue to get better in how he uses his frame and feet to protect the puck. All of these areas have improved from year-to-year, as has his two-way game. He was a regular penalty killer in Guelph the last two seasons but will have to work up to all-situation usage as a pro.

Also incoming to vie for spots on the Phantoms next season are rookie forwards Matthew Strome and Maksim Sushko. 

In his draft-plus-two OHL season with last year's champion, the Hamilton Bulldogs, Strome posted 79 points (28g-51a) in 68 games after back-to-back seasons of 30+ goals. The main area of concern with the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Strome remains his skating, but he is no worse off in the skating department than the likes of former Flyers prospect Patrick Maroon was at the time the current St. Louis Blues forward first turned pro back in 2008.

Sushko's offensive numbers dropped a bit this season (from 31 to 18 goals & from 60 to 51 points despite playing in two more games), but the organization has always projected the Belarusian forward as a versatile bottom-six role playing winger rather than as primarily an offensive-minded forward prospect.

Apart from the quintet of incoming pro rookies, there also is a returning youth brigade that could play another season in Lehigh Valley. 

Second-year Phantoms next season include: 

German Rubtsov (who was off to a very strong start to his first pro season before being lost for the rest of the campaign following a shoulder injury that required surgery).

David Kase (who missed much of the 2018-19 season due to a suspected concussion but returned and had some good games late in the season after a strong start as well).

Connor Bunnaman (19 goals in 62 games as a rookie).

Pascal Laberge (limited to 15 games by pre-season surgery and a late-season injury, but tallied five goals and six points with a +2). 

Carsen Twarynski (10 goals, 24 points in 69 games as a rookie).

Third-year Phantoms on the periphery of the Flyers' NHL roster include center Mikhail Vorobyev (15 NHL games in 2018-19), and restricted free agent this summer, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, who made his NHL debut with the Flyers during the early part of the 2018-19 season. He has spent each of the last three seasons with Lehigh Valley. No longer waiver exempt come next season, Aube-Kubel could get a long look in NHL camp as a candidate for a 4th line role. 

Still in the pipeline for the Flyers next season are various draftees at the junior or collegiate level or slated to play in European professional leagues. Specific to forwards, the ranks include 2018 first-round pick Jay O'Brien (transferring from NCAA hockey at Providence and a WJC stint with Team USA to play next season at a Junior A level), collegiate seniors Wade Allison (Western Michigan) and Tanner Laczynski (Ohio State), collegiate sophomore Gavin Hain (University of North Dakota), and European league players Olle Lycksell, Marcus Westfält.

Stay tuned to this week for Part 2 of the Flyers Depth Chart series, which will focus on the club's blueline.

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