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MELTZER: Flahr on the Farm - Part 1

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer

With the World Junior Championships several weeks in the rearview mirror and American Hockey League currently at the All-Star break, Flyers assistant general manager Brent Flahr provided insight on the progress of the organization's prospects at every level below the National Hockey. 

In Part One of our three-part series, we will focus on young players on the AHL's Lehigh Valley Phantoms and ECHL's Reading Royals. Part Two will look at the Flyers' prospects playing in the NCAA, CHL, and BCHL this season. Part Three will focus on the group of prospects playing in Sweden this season

LEHIGH VALLEY PHANTOMS

Early this season, the Phantoms appeared to be on their way to being an American Hockey League powerhouse. That was before the team's roster was decimated by injuries and NHL recalls -- at one point, for example, the lineup was missing four centers and also hurting on the blueline. Meanwhile, many of the team's youngest players hit the wall by December.

More recently, the Phantoms started to get regulars back in the lineup. The team swept a five-game homestand, and recorded shutouts in three of the games in addition to 5-4 and 4-1 victories. Unfortunately, the homestand was followed by an 0-2-1 road trip heading into the All-Star break; a trip that saw many of the young players who seemed to be turning the corner during the homestand take a backward step in the final games leading into the break. 

Perhaps even more than the parent Flyers, the Phantoms have gone to extremes in their home and road records at the break. Lehigh Valley is 4-16-3 in away games compared to 14-5-4 on home ice. Flahr said that, now that the young players have a better sense of the demands of pro hockey, greater consistency will be the key developmental goal for the youngsters on the Phantoms.

MORGAN FROST
Many Flyers fans have asked what it will take for the 20-year-old rookie center to earn a return trip to the National Hockey League after an 18-game stint in the NHL and a reassignment to the farm team shortly after Christmas. It is not a matter of Frost's hands, ice vision or puck skills; all of which are of above-average NHL caliber.

Rather, the keys to Frost's advancement lie in the consistency level he shows in a few specific areas: playing with pace, off-puck reactions and winning more battles for the puck (including, but not limited to, faceoffs). 

"He's done it for stretches at a time but needs to do it with more consistency. Morgan is a very teachable and bright young man in addition to being a highly skilled one. He's very honest with himself and self-aware. But there's a lot of things he could get away with in junior hockey because his skill level was so high that he has move away from in the pro game. It's a work in progress, but we're confident that he'll get back up here at some point and succeed up here as things click for him. How soon that will be is up to him," Flahr said.

At the OHL level and even in the World Junior Championships for Team Canada, Frost was used to having puck possession for long stretches of time. His combined +103 rating over the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons, as well as his 19 shorthanded points, was more of a testament to how frequently he and his linemates had the puck than it was to a highly developed two-way game.

Meanwhile, in junior hockey, Frost was often able to slow the play down, study his options and then make a play with the puck. He could stickhandle his way out of many predicaments; even when outnumbered. 

At the pro level, Frost has the puck much less frequently and for shorter durations. Although he's periodically been able to stickhandle through multiple players, he's more often been taken quickly off the puck or turned it over on attempted passes that he used to be able to weave through skates and sticks. First and foremost, he is less effective when his pace slows down and his feet stop moving.  

The good news: As a young player who won the Fastest Skater events with and without the puck at the CHL Top Prospects event a couple years ago and was a winner of the Smartest Player category of the OHL Coaches' Poll, Frost has both the natural skating ability and innate hockey smarts to work through these issues. 

Even better news: There have already been games both with the Phantoms and Flyers where Frost has shown the ability to be a highly effective center. Even in some of his lesser outings, there have been shifts here and there where there are flashes of brilliance. The challenge moving forward will be do it with more game-in and game-out consistency.

Frost is the Phantoms' lone representive in the 2020 AHL All-Star Game. He scored goals in each of the first two games of his NHL career and then led a pair of 2-on-1 rushes in his third game. The pieces are there, they just have to be assembled. Beyond this season, Frost must continue to add more physical strength. 

"Like most young players, Morgan is still trying to find out what works for him at this level with and without the puck. I think his instincts are very good, but it's a matter of making the transition fully to the pro level and having the confidence to make plays without taking excessive risks or getting too conservative. For a lot of kids, including Morgan, that's a work in progress." Flahr said.

ISAAC RATCLIFFE
Coming off a 50-goal regular season and 15 playoff goals en route to a Memorial Cup appearance with the 2018-19 Ontario Hockey League champion Guelph Storm, the 6-foot-6 winger has had a tough indoctrination into pro hockey during his first full season with the Phantoms. 

At Rookie Camp, Ratcliffe played regularly on a line with Frost and Joel Farabee. Once NHL camp began, however, Ratcliffe had a tough time handling the pace and details of the pro game. After being sent to the Phantoms, the struggles remained evident. 

Ratcliffe was placed on the Phantoms' fourth line early in the season, and was a healthy scratch a few times. He struggled to win battles in the corners and along the walls, scuffled with his puck handling and passing, had trouble keeping up with the play at times and quickly lost offensive confidence. 

"In junior hockey, because Isaac is so much bigger than most of the guys he was playing against, coming away with the puck and scoring goals came pretty easily to him. He started to question himself; the wheels started turning in his head, and he was probably putting too much pressure himself because he came in with high expectations for himself and he's a very competitive player," Flahr said.

The first step in the process with Ratcliffe was to get him to focus on winning the little battles. He's been part of the penalty kill for the Phantoms, for example, and his board work and ability to maintain possession of the puck has improved incrementally as the season has progressed. 

Slowly but surely, Ratcliffe started to be more involved in offensive chances, and the points started to come during the latter part of the Phantoms' recent five-game homestand. The road trip that followed was sporadic, but he goes into the AHL All-Star break an improved all-around player from where he was in camp in September.

"Every player develops at his own pace. We expected going in that Isaac was going to need time with the Phantoms, and there's still a lot of work to be done. But he's started to turn the corner. I think his confidence has increased, and some of the details he was struggling with are starting to come to him. At some point, I think he'll start scoring goals with more frequency. He can still add more strength. Like with Morgan, Isaac is 20 years old, and it's a big jump in level that he's making this year. Our hope is that he finishes strong this year, picks up from there over the summer and into next year, and we'll see how much he's come along from where he started at," Flahr said.

GERMAN RUBTSOV
Rubtsov's rookie pro season last year was off to great start when he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the first period of the 14th game of the 2018-19 AHL regular season. He rehabbed and came to camp in good shape. 

"I think German had a pretty good camp in September; he stuck around pretty deep into [NHL] camp and we were looking forward to good things from him this season," Flahr said.

Unfortunately, Rubtsov suffered another injury to the same shoulder on a fluky play along the boards; a different type of injury and one far less serious than the first (no surgery required). He missed several weeks and then struggled to make an impact upon his return.

"The foundation of German's game is that he is a solid and pretty mature defensive player. That's a good thing, of course, but sometimes he's fallen back too much on that. He gets too conservative at times. He's also got pretty good offensive skills, but he got away from doing the things that were making him effective with the puck. He's missed a lot of time with injuries, unfortunately, so it's natural that he's been a little hesitant and his confidence was down. Recently, he's started to get back to where he was at before," Flahr said.

As with Frost and Ratcliffe, Rubtsov was an offensive standout over the latter portion of the Phantoms' recent five-game winning streak. Able to play either wing or center, he was on a wing during that stretch and parlayed it into his second NHL recall of the season.

"I think it's going to take a little more time for Ruby to put everything together than it might have if not for the injuries, but he's got a good work ethic and a good attitude. I think it's a matter of regaining the level of confidence he had before [the second shoulder injury]. There's a lot of maturity to his approach, and his play without the puck is pretty advanced for someone his age," Flahr said.

DAVID KASE
When the second-year-pro is at his best, the Czech forward displays a nonstop motor, above-average speed and a high level of competitiveness. Kase has had two callups to the Flyers this season, and has an NHL goal to his credit in six games with the big club.

Recently, Kase had one of his roughest evenings as a pro in just about every facet of the game. He sat out one contest as a healthy scratch. Since then, he's been one of the Phantoms best players, and takes a four-game point streak (1g-4a) into the AHL All-Star break.

"I think he needs more time, and greater consistency. But David is a great kid. Very eager. When he plays that high energy style, he is effective. He's a smaller player but he has a really high compete level. When he's tenacious on the forecheck and using his speed, he's one of those players who always seems to dog the puck. He wants to win, and he is eager to improve. There are still areas where he needs to improve his game, but he is one of those kids who loves to come to the rink," Flahr said.

CONNOR BUNNAMAN
Bunnaman scored 19 goals as a rookie with the Phantoms last season, but still needed to work on his overall game beyond being an effective netfront presence with his big-frame. Over the summer, Bunnaman was one of the hardest-working players in the farm system. He dropped a significant amount of body fat percentage and replaced it with more muscle.

A training camp dark horse for the NHL roster, unexpectedly won an opening night roster spot with the Flyers. He dressed in four games before getting sent to the Phantoms. 

Very shortly after his return to the Phantoms, Bunnaman suffered a high ankle injury on Nov. 1 that kept him out of the lineup for one day shy of one full month. Even after his return, Bunnaman struggled rather severely and did not look like a healthy player. He was ineffective on both sides of the puck for the next five weeks after his return.

More recently, although still not at 100 percent (Bunnaman has played wearing a soft cast), Bunnaman seemed to be rounding back into form. Three of his four goals on the season and his lone assist of the AHL season camp over his last four games prior to his most recall to the Flyers.

Upon his return to the NHL, Bunnaman was credited with his first career NHL goal and first NHL assist during the Flyers' 4-1-0 stretch that led into the NHL All-Star break. He played sparingly in the win over Pittsburgh before the break.

Along with Rubtsov and Lyon, Bunnaman was sent back down the Phantoms to get playing time while the NHL team began its bye week.

"Connor was set back by the injury, and there are still areas in his game where he needs work to become a regular starter in the NHL level. But he's definitely one of the guys who has come a long way from where he was at midseason last year to where he's at now. He's put in a lot of work and he knows how to use his size. He's earned the time he's had up here," Flahr said. 

MIKHAIL VOROBYEV
Now a third-year pro, Vorobyev has established himself at the AHL level but has largely struggled over the majority of his combined 35 NHL games in the last two seasons. Nevertheless, every time he's gone back down to the Phantoms, Vorobyev has done the things necessary to eventually earn return trips to the NHL. At age 23, it's not too late or Vorobyev to translate some of his AHL success to the NHL level. 

"He's been the Phantoms best forward for much of season, as Gordo [head coach Scott Gordon] would attest. He plays in every situation for the Phantoms, and he's done well pretty consistently for them. Misha hasn't played his best hockey consistently enough when he's up here with the Flyers. That can be hard when you aren't getting a lot of ice time. There's been a few games up here where Misha has been on the right track, but it needs to be more consistent. He has earned his callups to the Flyers with his play in Lehigh. If he can bring the game he's shown for the Phantoms to the NHL level, he's got the 
tools [to find a spot]," Flahr said.

MARK FRIEDMAN
The third-year pro defenseman impressed during his recent five-game stint in the NHL with the Flyers. He returned to the Phantoms solely due to the numbers game with veteran Justin Braun coming back from injury. Even prior to his callup, Friedman was one of the Phantoms most consistently reliable performers.

"We didn't have any major injuries up here until Braun and [Shayne] Gostisbehere went down, so we didn't have to call up defensemen. For the most part, the blueline has been one of the stronger spots for the Phantoms this season. Mark improved last year in the second half and he's improved significantly this season. He uses his speed effectively and keeps things much simpler now. He's deceptively strong and very competitive. If we have a need to call someone up again, we'd have confidence in calling Mark back up again. AV and the coaches up here liked how he played," Flahr said.

MAKSIM SUSHKO
Without much fanfare, the 20-year-old rookie winger has been a pleasant surprise for the Phantoms in staking down a regular starting job on Gordon's team and seeing penalty killing time in addition to five-on-five duties. There is two-way upside to the Belarusian forward, although his primary role is in the bottom six of the lineup.

"Max is another highly competitive young player, and he's started to figure out what will work for him in the pro game. There are still things he has to improve, and he's aware of them, but he's been coming along from one month to the next. He's strong on the cycle and competes for pucks. He's another guy that we'll see where he's at the end of the season and then in camp after the season," Flahr said.

PASCAL LABERGE
Injuries have plagued the 21-year-old forward throughout much of his junior and pro career to date. Last season, as a rookie, he was limited to 15 games due to preseason hip surgery. Late in the campaign, Laberge did score his first professional hat trick.

This season, Laberge had a somewhat disappointing training camp and then struggled early on for consistency both at the AHL level with the Phantoms and the ECHL level for the Phantoms. There were flashes of the offensive upside that made him the 36th overall pick of the 2016 NHL Draft but those were sporadic and there were significant holes in other aspects of his game.

Finally, Laberge started to settle into a groove for the Phantoms. Unfortunately, he recently suffered an upper-body injury that is expected to keep him sidelined for several weeks to come. 

"He didn't stand out in camp, and I think his confidence was down for awhile. He went to the ECHL for awhile. Pascal has things to work on in his game, but he's a good shooter and he has good offensive instincts. The injuries have set him back, for sure, but we liked where he was trending of late [before the latest injury]," Flahr said.

READING ROYALS

The Royals (23-14-5) are currently in second place in the North Division and fourth place in the Eastern Conference. Four players whose NHL rights belong to the Flyers have suited up for the team this season: rookie goaltenders Kirill Ustimenko and Felix Sandström, rookie forward Matthew Strome and second-year forward Laberge.

KIRILL USTIMENKO
The 20-year-old goaltender decided to make the jump this season from Russian junior hockey to the North American pro ranks. After some training camp struggles and an early season adjustment period both to the small-rink North American style and to off-ice life (including the English language, in which he's still far from fluent), Ustimenko has thrived in Reading. The youngster has quickly become a favorite both of his coaches and Royals fans, taking over the primary starting duties.

The Flyers are in no rush with Ustimenko, especially with 21-year-old Carter Hart already entrenched as part of their NHL tandem and possessing superstar upside in the long-term. Ustimenko will be brought along one step at a time. However, the organization is happy with what they've seen so far.

"Brady Robinson [the Flyers goaltending development coach] likes the progress that Usti has been making. He is still pretty inexperienced and, like most goalies his age, he's still fairly raw in some aspects but there's a good foundation to work with, and he's been playing well. I think the ECHL has been good for him," Flahr said.

FELIX SANDSTROM
With veterans Lyon and J-F Berube on the Phantoms, Sandström has played in the ECHL this season apart from a stint backing up Berube on the Phantoms when the Flyers recalled Lyon due to Hart's lower right abdominal muscle strain. Although the 23-year-old Sandström had four plus seasons of pro hockey experience in Sweden before coming to North America this season, this season representing a significant transition.

"The rink is one factor. But there was also an injury issue he dealt with early in the season and adjusting to the style of play over here. Structurally, Felix is very sound as a goalie but there are times where there are broken plays and the angle changes. There's more screens. Brady has worked with him in coming out of his structure. He was giving up a lot of goals early on -- some that he could have played better, some where the team was struggling to give him a chance to make save. That can affect a goalie's confidence. But he has worked through much of that. He's a good athlete and he's a battler," Flahr said.

MATTHEW STROME
The rookie-pro winger, who turned 21 on Jan. 6, has dressed in 19 games with the Phantoms and nine for the Royals.

"He worked hard over the summer and I thought he was pretty good early, before he struggled and lost confidence. His pace of play has to improve. Some of his issues are strength-related. But he's a smart player and has some skill as well. There's a process involved," Flahr side.

The primary knock on Strome has always been his skating but there are players who started from a similar below-average skating framework who went on to solid NHL careers. Two examples: current NHLer Patrick Maroon and retired longtime Detroit Red Wings winger Tomas Holmström.

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