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The importance of 200-feet

Flyers rookies showing two-Way skills in early preseason action

by Bill Meltzer @billmeltzer

Most the fan excitement over Flyers rookies Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom stems from the expectation that both players will become offensive impact players in the National Hockey League. 

While both players have made a few impressive plays with the puck in the early portion of first NHL preseason - most notably Patrick's set-up pass on Shayne Gostisbehere's winning goal in the split-squad game in Allentown on Wednesday - it has not been their offensive games that has most stood out to date.

Rather, it's the maturity of their respective two-way games that's been noticeable. Even as both have worked to get themselves into an offensive rhythm at the NHL preseason pace, they've hit the ground running in the less glamorous but equally important aspects of the game. 

Whether it has been applying back pressure in the neutral zone, cutting off a passing lane, lifting an opponent's stick, clearing the puck from the defensive zone, knowing when and how long to hang onto the puck or winning 50-50 battles in the corners (especially Lindblom), the two young players have done it well in camp.  

Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol has noticed, as have teammates.

"Nolan and Oskar both have a maturity to their games," Hakstol said last week. "They pay attention to the details of the game. I think, to me, that's the first thing I've seen."

Both young players are aware that, while their coaches and Flyers management want to see them be increasingly assertive on the attack, they are also being evaluated on their NHL readiness as overall players. 

"I find I get a lot more chances offensively when I'm playing good defense," Patrick said after Wednesday's win in Allentown. "I think there's a lot more that I'm capable of. I'm just getting back into it here." 

Lindblom expressed a similar outlook.

"You have to be good in both ends if you're going to play in the NHL. If you're good in your own end, you're probably going to end up having chances offensively. Play hard, be hard around the boards and just go to the net the whole time, then try to score some goals and do my thing," Lindblom said.

Patrick and Lindblom reflect an ongoing evolution of hockey at the development levels below the National Hockey League. They are not the only young forwards in camp who have demonstrated two-way awareness. Although Mikhail Vorobyev has been assigned to the Phantoms and 2016 first-round pick German Rubtsov has been assigned to his junior team in the Quebec League, both showed a high degree of defensive awareness in camp as well as puck skills that suggest pro-level offensive potential.

In years past, it was not uncommon for offensively skilled players to arrive in the NHL with a one-dimensional mentality. Even the likes of Hall of Famers Mike Modano and Steve Yzerman started out their careers as "offense only" players who put up prolific NHL point totals but later evolved into complete players.

Veteran forward Colin McDonald, who serves as the Lehigh Valley Phantoms captain and a periodic call-up to the Flyers, has seen the game change over the course of a decade in pro hockey. He notes that the average age of players in the NHL has gotten considerably younger even as the game has gotten more and more structured. McDonald says that youngsters realize early that offensive skill alone is rarely enough to land a spot in today's game.

"Kids know that one of the biggest differences at this level is having the responsibility to play defense. You can't just get away with your offensive game. Kids know that and they're focusing on it more, even before they get drafted," McDonald said.

"Take Nolan, for example. The last couple of years as he started progressing, and there was already talk about him being a top Draft pick, he focused a little more on playing a 200-foot game because he wants to make it right away. If you are a defensive liability, it's that much tougher to make it."

Both Patrick and Lindblom project as players who will be relied on as point producers as they mature as NHL players. Today's game emphasizes balanced scoring across three lines rather than the older model of creating two main scoring lines, a shutdown defensive trio and an often sparingly used fourth line designed mostly for supplying toughness, muscle and energy. Nowadays, NHL coaches expect all four lines to contribute on the defensive side of the puck and to play with discipline. That goes for the scorers, too.

Even many players whom NHL fans do not associate with scoring prowess underwent a similar process in their development into pros.

Historically and currently, most NHL role players were once offensive standouts at the developmental and minor league levels. McDonald, for instance, led the American Hockey League with 42 goals during the 2010-11 season. A 25-goal scorer last year, he is still a power play regular on the Phantoms. At the NHL level, however, McDonald plays a fourth-line role.

Speedy young forward Taylor Leier, now entering his fourth pro season and looking to expand upon some brief NHL stints with the Flyers into a regular job, was an all-situations standout during his junior hockey days with the WHL's Portland Winterhawks and plays both ends of special teams (power play and penalty kill) for the Phantoms as well.

"Growing up, I was always a scorer," Leier said. "It was an eye opener for me coming from junior to pro, that everyone was a superstar in junior. Everyone that's here is good. You get put in certain situations, and when you get a break and you get to play in a more skilled position, you try to show what you can do. I've always been confident in my offensive abilities, but sometimes it's a matter of when you get those opportunities."

If Leier eventually forges a full-time role with the Flyers, it will likely be his defensive awareness and speed that gets him there. However, in Wednesday's game in Allentown against the Islanders, Hakstol gave Leier some power play time and the player responded with two goals. Later, Leier was out on the ice while the Flyers were defending a late one-goal lead, and the player came up with a defensive zone clear to alleviate waves of pressure.

"It's definitely confidence boosting," Leier said. "When you get out there in those situations, you want to make the most of every minute out there."

There's an old truism in hockey: Offense wins headlines but two-way play wins championships. Some of the youngsters in the Flyers training camp have the chance to become NHL impact offensive players. Some may have to excel in other roles. In every case, they are laying a foundation as players who can contribute in a variety of ways.

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