peedy, feisty and brimming with two-way self-confidence, Mark Friedman was a standout in camp for the Flyers and Phantoms. Spending several weeks at practice with the Phantoms late last season after turning pro following his junior year at Bowling Green University helped him grasp the basics of the Lehigh Valley system.
During a bag-skate drill in camp, Friedman gained a full lap lead ahead of much of the field. He starred in the Rookies' Game at the Wells Fargo Center against the New York Islanders' prospects and made a solid impression overall before he was assigned to the Phantoms.
Once the 2017-18 AHL regular season began, however, Friedman went through the normal ups and downs that most rookie defensemen experience. Dressing in 12 of the Phantoms first 13 games of the season, Friedman posted two assists and was minus-10 at even strength.
At the time, Phantoms head coach Scott Gordon said that one of Friedman's biggest adjustment would be to better harness his speed defensively, especially when skating forward. Taking faster routes would help him break up plays sooner, avoid getting out of position and get to pucks first rather than getting into 50-50 battles. When he had the puck on his stick early in the season, Friedman was also sometimes guilty of trying to do a little too much.
"At the beginning of the year, the first 30 games or so, I was just kind of chasing the game around in all zones," Friedman said to the Morning Call. "The game was coming just a little fast."
After a roller coaster first half of the season, things started to click for Friedman. While there were some bumps in the road that followed, Friedman was a plus-five and posted 14 points (2g-12a) over his final 53 games in the regular season.
Late in the regular season, Friedman struck a good balance between being aggressive offensively - he chipped in a goal and four assists, along with 19 shots on goal, in the final 10 games - while also playing effectively without the puck.
The improvements have carried over into the postseason. Through his first 11 games, Friedman is plus-three at even strength on the Phantoms' second defense pairing and has contributed power play and even strength goals.
In Game 2 of the team's current Eastern Conference Final series against the Toronto Marlies, Friedman opening the scoring as he joined the rush, took a cross-ice feed from partner T.J. Brennan and, from the right circle between the faceoff dot and hash marks, sniped a shot past Marlies goaltender Garret Sparks.
According to Gordon, much of the improvement Friedman showed in the second half was simply a matter of fine-tuning the details that gave the rookie some problems before the Christmas break: it was a matter of adjustment, not talent.
"If you're not taking advantage of your skating by playing the rink inside the rink, meaning staying inside the dots or closing your gap or holding your gap, all of a sudden your skating gets negated and that's one of the areas that he's been a lot better at, as far as not just skating around the full board-to-board ice surface. Or when the puck is in the offensive zone, trailing the play by a full zone or backing up a full zone before you have to even leave the blue line in the offensive zone," Gordon said to the Morning Call.
By nature, Friedman is highly competitive and holds high expectations for himself. He takes a lot of pride in his game and strives to make his mark as a two-way defenseman. A mobile puck-mover with good offensive instincts and above-average first-pass ability, the Flyers drafted Friedman out of the USHL's Waterloo Black Hawks with the 86th overall pick of the 2014 draft. He was signed to an NHL entry-level contract on March 21, 2017 and dressed in one late season AHL game with the Phantoms.
With each year of collegiate seasoning, Friedman raised his stock. His play without the puck, once the primary question mark about his game, improved considerably before turning pro. He then had to pick up from there as a rookie this season with the Phantoms.
Although the 5-foot-10, 190-pound blueliner is far from the biggest player on the ice, he is a deceptively strong young man who can bench press 300 pounds. He is unafraid to take a hit to make a play and he competes tenaciously.
"I think my skating, my strength and my competitiveness in all situations are my biggest assets," Friedman said during training camp.
Friedman has added about 10 to 15 pounds of muscle since his NHL Draft year. The Toronto native has never been not shy about mixing it up with bigger forwards, as he has always played with some sandpaper to his game. As a freshman, he racked up 75 penalty minutes in 39 games. Playing with more discipline but no less competitiveness, Friedman cut his PIMs to 40 as a sophomore and 26 this season as a junior.
With the Phantoms this season, Friedman took just 18 penalty minutes. When challenged physically, however, the rookie did not back down.
The Phantoms return home for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals facing an 0-2 series deficit. Puck drop is 7:05 and can be seen on NBC Sports Philadelphia Plus. Below is the full schedule:
Toronto leads series, 2-0
Game 1 - Lehigh Valley 3, Toronto 4
Game 2 - Lehigh Valley 2, Toronto 3 (OT)
Game 3 - Wed., May 23 - Toronto at Lehigh Valley, 7:05 p.m. (TV: NBCSP+)
Game 4 - Fri., May 25 - Toronto at Lehigh Valley, 7:05 p.m. (TV: NBCSP+)
*Game 5 - Sat., May 26 - Toronto at Lehigh Valley, 7:05 p.m. (TV: NBCSP+)
*Game 6 - Mon., May 28 - Lehigh Valley at Toronto, 7:00 p.m.
*Game 7 - Wed., May 30 - Lehigh Valley at Toronto, 7:00 p.m.
*if necessary... All times Eastern