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Meltzer's Rookies to Watch

Rookie Camp kicks off with these five players to keep an eye on

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer

After undergoing physicals and off-ice testing on Friday, Flyers prospects take to the ice on Saturday morning for the start of 2019 Rookie Camp.

On-ice work will continue on Sunday and Tuesday, leading into the annual Rookies Game against the New York Islanders' prospects. Here are five players to keep an eye on throughout the Flyers Rookie Camp.

CONNOR BUNNAMAN
The 2018-19 season was an injury-riddled disappointment for the Phantoms, and the bottom dropped out for the team in the second half of the season. However, one of the overall bright spots for the club was the ability rookie forward Connor Bunnaman showed to park himself in front of the net. Bunnaman chipped in 19 goals and 32 points as a rookie.

Now 21, Bunnaman is entering his second year as a pro. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound power forward, who was a Rookie Camp and Rookie Game standout in 2017 before a somewhat disappointing final Ontario Hockey League season with Kitchener, has a size and strength edge against many of the less physically mature prospects in camp. It would not be a surprise if he stands over the next week. 

There are still many things for Bunnaman to work on in his game with and without the puck, before he is declared a call-up candidate for the Flyers. Nevertheless, the 2016 fourth-round pick understands the type of role he'd have to play to have an NHL career and he isn't afraid to do battle in the trenches.

It takes all types of players to build depth in an organization. While watching the large-framed Bunnaman, also keep an eye on his fellow second-year pro David Kase. The smallish Czech forward is a tenacious bundle of energy on the ice, and a clever player to boot. Injuries limited Kase to 43 games as a rookie last season and his early season play was his best phase of the season. 

JOEL FARABEE
All eyes will be on three recent Flyers first-round picks during camp and the Rookies Game: 2016 pick German Rubtsov, 2017 selection Morgan Frost and 2018 draftee Joel Farabee. Both Frost and Rubtsov are in their respective third September camps with the organization. Farabee, however, is a first-time participant, because he had NCAA commitments last year before turning pro. He enjoyed a stellar 2018-19 season as a freshman at Boston University and a member of Team USA's roster at the World Junior championships. 

Although this is the 19-year-old Farabee's first Rookie Camp, the bigger tests for him will come during the Flyers' upcoming full-squad camp and the NHL preseason. The same goes for Frost (who had a three-point performance in last year's Rookies Game) and Rubtsov, as well as the Rookie Camp attendees who have played one or more full seasons at the pro level. 

Primarily a left winger, Farabee is a talented offensive player but also an unusually mature two-way player. Although still somewhat slight of frame (roughly 180 pounds), Farabee goes to the greasy areas in the offensive zone and is diligent in all three zones. He also has a quick, deceptive shot release. Farabee and Frost are the two of the most naturally gifted forwards in Rookie Camp from an offensive standpoint, and could see time together.Video: Myers, Frost, Ratcliffe talk day one of Rookie Camp

MORGAN FROST
Perhaps even more so than Farabee, the real tests for the 20-year-old Frost will start to come next week when he's on the ice with the Flyers' NHL roster hopefuls. Frost has already shown he can dominate against players his own age, having been an elite playmaker and prolific overall point accumulator at the Ontario Hockey League level as well as in the World Junior Championships. In last year's Rookies Game against the Islanders, Frost did not even have his "A" game going in terms of all-around performance but still racked up three points on the power play (one goal, two assists) and came within a denied breakaway of posting a four-point outing. 

Although this year is Frost's third Rookie Camp, he has scarcely more full NHL camp experience than Farabee. In 2017, Frost was loaned back to his junior team, the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, at the end of Rookie Camp. Last season, he spent less than a week with the main roster -- appearing in one preseason game -- before he was cut. Frost struggled somewhat in the main camp during his abbreviated stay, which is hardly unusual for a teenager getting his first taste of the pace of pro-level practices.

As Rookie Camp progresses into main camp, Frost may be asked to move from his natural position as a center in order to play a wing. If can do so successfully, it will expedite his ETA for the National Hockey League because the Flyers already have Sean Couturier, Kevin Hayes and Nolan Patrick on the roster. Frost should not have too much difficulty making the positional adjustment if asked to do so.

During the 2017-18 season, Frost finished first in the OHL Coaches' Poll (Western Conference) in several categories, including "Smartest Player." Last season, he finished second in that category. At the 2018-19 World Junior Championships, Frost was switched to left wing and didn't skip a beat.

Frost has very good natural speed. At the 2016-17 Top Prospects Showcase, competing against Draft-eligible players from across the CHL, Frost won the Fastest Skater competitions both with and without the puck. In game action, however, Frost has a penchant for slowing the pace to study his options and make a play. As Rookie Camp gives way to NHL Camp and beyond, Frost will asked to demonstrate that he can make the same sorts of plays at top speed against a savvier and more physically mature caliber of checkers.

ISAAC RATCLIFFE
The hulking (6-foot-6) left winger had a monstrous goal-scoring season in his OHL draft-plus-two season for the Guelph Storm. After potting 50 goals in 65 games during the regular season, the Storm captain followed it up with 15 playoff goals in 24 games as his team capped off a Cinderella postseason run by winning the Ontario Hockey League championship. 

Size, hands and natural athleticism are traits that cannot be taught, and the 20-year-old Ratcliffe has all three in spades. However, he is still rather raw in some of the details of his game, such as how he uses his feet and the routes that he takes. He already has a pro goal to his credit -- scored in his AHL debut with the Phantoms in the penultimate game of the 2017-18 season -- but still has rather limited NHL camp experience. Along with close friend Frost, Ratcliffe was an early roster cut in last September's Flyers camp after previously being sent back to the OHL at the end of 2017 Rookie Camp.

Power forwards often take a little more time to come into their own at the pro level. The Flyers organization is in no rush with Ratcliffe but can envision a time when the raw materials are finished being assembled into a formidable end product.

MATTHEW STROME
For virtually his entire junior career, the knock on Strome was that severe skating limitations put a damper on his upside to effectively play pro hockey despite possessing excellent hands and instincts. There have, however, been some success stories with players who faced the same sort of issues at the start of their pro careers: current NHL forward Patrick Maroon, who was originally a Flyers draftee and farmhand, is one example. Another is former longtime Detroit Red Wings power forward Tomas Holmström. 

Strome has spent his offseason working extensively with a skating coach to overhaul his skating style. The early results have looked promising and Strome will have the opportunity at Rookie Camp and main camp to put his skating refinements to the test. Last season, after completing his final OHL campaign with the Hamilton Bulldogs (79 points in 68 games), the left winger dressed in six late-season games with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. He recorded the first two points (two assists) of his pro career.

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