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Prospect Update: Friendly Fire

by Brian Smith | / Philadelphia Flyers

Whenever Travis Sanheim and Radel Fazleev see the Brandon Wheat Kings on their Calgary Hitmen schedule, they know a text might be on the way. That’s because Ivan Provorov will be on the other bench, and their fellow Flyers prospect will likely be in touch to say hello, maybe talk a little playful smack, and just catch up in general.

The phenomenon of playing against former teammates is widespread in the hockey world. A lot of players in the NHL have played with a lot of other players in the NHL at one point or another in their lives. And when schedules cross, it’s not uncommon to see small groups of people chatting in the hallway, checking up on past friendships that were forged when they took the ice together in another city, whether it was New York or Moose Jaw.

But in Canadian juniors, NCAA hockey, and some other levels right below the pros, there’s a bit of a different dynamic – many times, players are going against future teammates, and actually are aware of it. Throughout those leagues, there are players who have been drafted by NHL teams that are playing out their developmental years in various different places. Once drafted, these players have met each other at NHL prospect camps and training camps together, where they form bonds through team-building exercises, rooming together, or just the commonality of reaching their first pro camp at the same time. Many have become friends. But in the NHL, it’s the rare exception that an 18-year-old makes the big club right out of the draft. More often, they’re sent back to their individual amateur teams to continue to work on their skills, meaning in many cases they’ll do so in sometimes high-stakes games against each other.

Sixth Round pick in 2013, goaltender Merrick Madsen, made his first ever NCAA start and recorded a 25-save shutout to lead Harvard to a 7-0 win over Dartmouth on opening night. He also won the next game to go 2-0-0.

In the Western Hockey League, Sanheim’s and Fazleev’s Calgary team will play Provorov’s Brandon club four times this regular season. In the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Nicolas Aube-Kubel and his Val d’Or club will meet Samuel Dove-McFall’s Saint John team twice. Stateside, the Flyers have three prospects playing in the ECAC – Terrance Amorosa at Clarkson, Reece Willcox at Cornell, and Merrick Madsen at Harvard. They even have two prospects playing for different teams in the same league in Russia – Mikhail Vorobyov and Ivan Fedotov.

“It’s pretty cool,” Sanheim said of going up against Provorov. “We played each other the second week we got back from Philly, and we were texting the day before and stuff like that. When you get on the ice though, we’re enemies, and especially with the teams we play on and the amount of times we’ve played them in playoffs over the past so many years. We’ve got a pretty good rivalry going with those guys. It’s fun playing against him. He’s a really skilled hockey player, and I enjoy playing against him and going up against him.”

In addition to those regular season games, there could be high-stakes playoff series in the springtime. And the tables will even change a little bit next week in the 2015 CHL Canada Russia series, a four-team tournament consisting of all-star teams from the OHL, WHL, QMJHL, and one comprised of junior-age players from Russia. In that tournament, Fazleev will jump over to Team Russia to play with Provorov. They’ll go up against Travis Konecny, who’s on the OHL team, and against Aube-Kubel, who’s representing the QMJHL. Sanheim is an alternate captain of the WHL team, but he was injured in Calgary’s game last Wednesday night. The upper-body injury seems likely to keep him out of the event.

“Guys are pretty excited to be able to represent their league and play in those types of games,” Sanheim said. “You don’t take it lightly. Anytime Canada plays Russia, it’s always a battle.”

Said Provorov: “It’s a great opportunity to play for your country. To play against the best players in the WHL, it’s a great opportunity and a good experience.”

Flyers scouts see the prospects often, but this Western Canada trip was supposed to be an opportunity for Hextall to see Sanheim and Fazleev himself. However, Sanheim’s injury will mean it’s just Fazleev.

“We have a lot of guys out in the field and I’ve had all good reports on both guys,” Hextall said. “Travis is continuing to improve as a player, get better defensively and do all the things he needs to do to become a better player. We’re thrilled with Travis’s progression. Radel, I feel the same way. Radel’s probably got a bigger piece of the pie than we anticipated him having, and he’s doing a great job with it. He’s progressing well [also].”

When Flyers prospects return to their amateur clubs, the organization doesn’t just forget about them until the following year’s camps. The Flyers routinely check in with and keep tabs on their prospects over the course of the season, mainly through development coaches John Riley and Kjell Samuelsson. Riley tends to work with the forwards, while Samuelsson visits with the defensemen. They and other team scouts primarily watch games from the press box. Samuelsson or Riley might even get on the ice with the players in the junior leagues, but not with collegiate players, where it’s not permitted under NCAA rules.

“[Samuelsson] was out the third weekend [of the season], so I saw him a little bit, talked to him and stuff like that,” Sanheim said. “The following weekend Sammy came out and he actually skated with me. He continues to help me out. I talk to him probably at least once or twice every couple of weeks. We always go over my game and how my week went and things that are going well and things that I continue to need to work on. He just helps me out with my game, and he’s trying to develop it just as I am. He’s trying to get me to that next level. I’m happy to have him follow my hockey and help me out whenever I need him.”

As the players develop – especially in the junior ranks – it’s not uncommon to see them climbing up their league scoring charts. For instance, Sanheim is leading all WHL defensemen in scoring with 22 points in 18 games, while Provorov is tied for seventh with 16 points in 18 games. Meanwhile, Fazleev is in the top 15 overall with 23 points.

Over in the OHL, Konecny is in the top 5 with 26 points in 17 games, while in the QMJHL, Aube-Kubel is better than a point per game at 16 points in 15 appearances; he’s only out of the league scoring race at the moment because he’s missed some time with an upper-body injury.

Even though points obviously help the team, Provorov says scoring is a secondary consideration.

“For me, it’s help the team first,” he said. “Points are points, for me first is playing the right way and trying to help the team. If you play the right way, everything will take care of itself.”

Provorov and Konecny, along with the other Flyers’ 2015 picks, are also in a different dynamic this year as NHL prospects. A year ago, they were heading into their draft year, meaning there was a bit of pressure on each of them individually to play well as NHL scouts evaluated them. There were also NHL prospect combines to go through, which include physical testing and interviews with NHL team personnel. When they’re over, there are rankings to read – the NHL Central Scouting rankings, done twice yearly, are public and the players can see the opinions. But that doesn’t count the internal rankings that all 30 NHL teams do. With their draft behind them, those players can now relax a bit and focus on improving their game under the guidance of their NHL organization.

“[Last year, I was] trying to do my best every game and just see what happens, not knowing what’s going to happen at the end of the year,” Provorov said. “This year’s more relaxed and just trying to help the team.”

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