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The Race for 3W: A Rookie?

Bill Meltzer examines which rookie could take the coveted spot at training camp

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer / philadelphiaflyers.com

With training camp roughly one month away, there are only a couple of spaces open for battle on the Flyers roster. That is assuming there are no major injuries and that the team's two remaining restricted free agents (right winger Travis Konecny and defenseman Ivan Provorov) are signed before the start of camp.

Perhaps the most notable current roster battle is for a wing spot within the top nine of the forward rotation. Eight of the spots are fairly settled, although the line combinations therein are not: centers Sean Couturier, Kevin Hayes and Nolan Patrick, left wingers Claude Giroux, James van Riemsdyk and Oskar Lindblom and right wingers Jakub Voracek and Konecny (once the RFA is signed).

Based on the likely scenario that third-year pro Nolan Patrick will be the third line center on the depth chart behind Sean Couturier and newcomer Kevin Hayes, who will be the third-line wingers in five-on-five situations? 

Keep in mind that some of the aforementioned wingers, such as Lindblom, are comfortable either on their natural side or the off-wing. Thus, the open spot that's up for grabs theoretically could work out to be a left wing spot, depending on how new head coach Alain Vigneault and new assistant coach Michel Therrien arrange the combinations on Patrick's line.

In this three-part series, we will look at the candidates for the open spot on the line. Part one will look at potential NHL rookies vying for the slot. Part two will look at returning candidates from last year's roster. The final part will look at newly arrived veteran pros. 

A ROOKIE WINS THE RACE?
Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher and assistant general manager Brent Flahr have gone on record several times during the off-season in saying that they would ideally prefer all of the Flyers top prospects to see some AHL time first and to excel with the Phantoms before being called up to join the big team. However, if a young player has a stellar training camp, there is a spot to be had.

Said Fletcher, "Obviously, of course somebody can come in and make the team, but they're going to have to earn it. We're not looking to just put players on the team. I think the American League is a great developmental league. I think it's important place for most players to spend some time there. Having said that, I don't like cutting players in [the off-season]. There's some talented kids coming out of junior, coming out of college. We'll let their play determine how they do, but I guess what I'm saying is I hope... it will be a little tougher to make the team. That will be ideal. Your depth is obviously better and you allow players time to full develop before they come in."

Added Phantoms head coach Scott Gordon, "I think [the biggest differences are] pace and strength. You are going from playing against 16-18 year old's as a junior player and same, well Farabee played college so maybe [the opponents are] a little bit older, but, all the players it doesn't matter if they play in the AHL or NHL they are going to be smarter and stronger. The things that I've found is when they do move up they have to figure out what they can and cannot do. What's going to work and what's not going to work for them," Gordon said.

Here's a look at six potential rookie candidates vying for forward spots on the Flyers:

JOEL FARABEE
The Flyers' 2018 first-round pick 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. The 19-year-old elected to turn professional after the season, and will be either with the AHL's Lehigh Valley Phantoms or in the NHL with the Flyers next season. This September will be his first NHL camp.

Why he might win the spot: Skill and hockey sense. Primarily a left winger, Farabee is a talented offensive player but also an unusually mature two-way player. Although still slight of frame, 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. 

Why he might not win the spot: Situational opportunity. While one aim of an American Hockey League team is to foster a winning environment, prospect development is also prime component. If Farabee joins the Phantoms, he stands a good chance at fairly quickly seeing all-situation usage by head coach Scott Gordon. Conversely, at the NHL level, Vigneault's prime directive as head coach will be to win hockey games. Farabee's playing time as a rookie may be more limited at the NHL level (at least to start) than in the AHL. Additionally, because he turned pro out of college at age 19, by CBA rules if Farabee plays no more than nine games at the NHL level in 2019-20, the first year of his entry-level contract will "slide" to the 2020-21 campaign.

Brent Flahr on Farabee (June 26, 2019): "You watch the way he thinks the game, especially the small area hockey games out there. He's a guy that I can imagine you put him with NHL players, he can play. Whether he's physically ready or mentally ready to handle the grind of an NHL season, I'm not sure. I'm not sure that's realistic."

MORGAN FROST
The Flyers 2017 first-rounder may be the best pure offensive talent -- especially on the playmaking side -- within the organization's prospect pool. He dominated the Ontario Hockey League offensively in 2017-18 and then stepped up the pace (despite the departures of many of his key teammates) this past season. Frost also racked up the points at the World Junior Championships. A natural center, Frost will likely need to switch to a wing at the pro level due to the presence of Couturier, Hayes and Patrick. Frost played right wing at the 2018-19 World Junior Championships, and made the adaptation seamlessly. 

Why he might win the spot: Ice vision and puck skills. Frost, who turned 20 in May, is an outstanding passer and finds the open man as well as just about any player his age. His finishing touch is not as elite as his playmaking, but has developed considerably. Although Frost's shot is not overpowering, he has a deceptive release. He potted a combined 79 goals in the OHL the past two seasons plus four in five games at the WJC. He is also a fleet skater -- winner of the Top Prospects Showcase's "Fastest Skater" competitions in 2016-17 both with and without the puck -- when he keeps his feet moving. 

Why he might not win the spot: Pacing and overall adjustment. Frost faces some significant adjustments to make his junior hockey dominance translate to the pro level. 

One key component: At the OHL level, Frost often liked to slow down the pace to study his options and then make a play. As a pro, he'll have to keep his feet moving and make use of his offensive gifts at the breakneck pace of the NHL game. Defensively, he was not a liability as a center in the OHL -- he went to the right spots the majority of the time and was a deadly shorthanded threat on PK counterattacks -- but he sometimes struggled in matchups against bigger, stronger pivots.

Another factor: In junior hockey, especially during the 2017-18 season when he led all CHL players with a +70 rating, Frost and his linemates almost always had the puck. As a pro, he'll have to adapt to having the puck less often at 5-on-5. Frost will have to demonstrate that he can handle pro-level checking responsibilities and deal with opponents who get physical with him. Although 2019 is his third NHL camp, Frost has only appeared in one preseason NHL game to date as he was an early roster cut in both 2017 and last year.

Brent Flahr on Frost (June 26, 2019): "You can see the way he thinks the game and sees the ice. He can make plays. Again, whether he's ready physically to handle the rigors of the NHL, we'll see."

GERMAN RUBTSOV
The Flyers' 2016 first-round pick saw his pro career get off to a strong start last October as a rookie center with the Phantoms. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury in the first period of his 14th game ended Rubtsov's season abruptly. 

Why he might win the spot: Adaptability and two-way play. Rubtsov played both center and right wing at the junior hockey level. Although he is a natural center, Rubtsov spent most of the 2017-18 season as a third-line winger on a stacked Acadie-Bathurst Titan (QMJHL) team that went on to win the Memorial Cup. As a rookie center with the Phantoms last season, he made rapid adjustment to the style adaption and showed that he was a threat offensively as well as a reliable player without the puck.

Why he might not win the spot: Injury history. As with both Farabee and Frost, more overall ice time (and wider situational usage) would be more quickly available for Rubtsov at the AHL level than with the Flyers. In Rubtsov's case, missing nearly a full year due to shoulder surgery as well as previous injury issues that curtailed or caused him to miss time during junior seasons have meant missed time in his offensive development cycle. Rubtsov needn't be "only" a defensive specialist as a pro; there are puck skills as well when he is put in situations where he can display them.

Brent Flahr on Rubtsov (June 26, 2019): "Rubtsov's a guy that you watch him in certain drills, defensively. Our coaches, they like a lot of things he can bring. Maybe won't watch first glance, but he's always above the puck. He's always responsible. He's always in position."

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.

Why he might win the spot: Size, hands and natural athleticism. These are traits that cannot be taught, and Ratcliffe has all three in spades. When paired with a playmaker who can get him the puck, Ratcliffe can puck the puck in the net quickly. Although he was a streak scorer at the OHL, his hot streaks saw him score in bushels both during the 2017-18 season (41 goals in the regular season, five goals in six playoff games) and this past season.

Why he might not with the spot: Rawness. Ratcliffe still needs refinement in many of the finer details of the game. He's only scratched the surface as to how to best use his size to his advantage and to play a power forward's style. He's not a big bruising hitter, and may never need to be, but better use of his feet, backside and mastering things such as the well-timed reverse hit (in the mold of John LeClair's dipped shoulder sending would-be checkers down hard to the ice) could take him a long way. He has a good work ethic and became an all-situations player in the OHL but the demands increase significantly to do the same in the pro game. Ratcliffe may have the steepest remaining learning curve of the Flyers' top four forward prospects before he is deemed NHL-ready.

Chuck Fletcher on Ratcliffe (July 1, 2019): "He's a quality young player. Isaac came on strong in the second half of last season..... His play at the next level will determine his pace to get here (as a Flyers regular), and there will be opportunities for him to do so. He's one of the players we're excited about for our future."

MIKHAIL VOROBYEV
Entering his third pro season, Vorobyev is coming off a strange 2018-19 season. His stellar play during last year's camp was one of the big stories of the preseason, and Vorobyev earned an opening night NHL roster spot as the Flyers' third line center. However, when the regular season got underway, Vorobyev quickly found himself struggling and his usage dropped precipitously. He was returned to the Phantoms, where he had some strong stretches of play but also spells of ineffective. Injuries were also a significant factor for Vorobyev in his staccato second season with the Phantoms.

Why he might win the spot: Physical maturity and pro experience. The 22-year-old Vorobyev (unlike Farabee and, to a lesser extent Frost) has already filled out his frame.His overall game is NHL caliber when he is engaged and assertive. He's a clever player -- particularly in terms of well above-average passing skills with two-way upside. He more than held his own during the preseason last year; he excelled. Although primarily a center, he can also play some wing. Vorobyev appeared in 15 games at the NHL level last season.

Why he might not win the spot: Consistency of "compete level." Last season, one day before Vorobyev was returned to the Phantoms (he later had a brief second NHL recall), former Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol uncharacteristically went public with concerns about the player's engagement level that had been privately expressed periodically about the young player's by several hockey people during Vorobyev's previous seasons prior to 2018-19. 

After returning to the Phantoms, Vorobyev dealt with both inconsistency and injury. He hit his stride again early in the second half for a stretch of very strong two-way hockey that prompted a return trip to the Flyers. After his second return to Lehigh Valley, Vorobyev was a bright spot in an injury-depleted lineup before a late-season injury of his own effectively ruined the rest of the young Russian forward's season. 

Chuck Fletcher on Vorobyev (July 1, 2019): "Vorobyev is a young man that we feel is going to come back next year a little bit stronger. There are several players down there [in Lehigh Valley] that can play games."

NICOLAS AUBE-KUBEL
Now entering his fourth pro season, Aube-Kubel made his NHL debut with the Flyers in late October of last season. He appeared in nine games, playing very sparingly in fourth-line duty. The 23-year-old winger posted 16 goals and 30 points to go along with 69 penalty minutes in 54 games with the Phantoms. 

Why he might make the team: Physical play. There's an edginess to Aube-Kubel's game when he's at his best, and Aube-Kubel has been, for the most part, a solid producer at five-on-five the last two seasons with the Phantoms. 

Realistically, he is competing for a 12th or 13th forward spot with the Flyers in training camp this September (more so than than a top-nine role to start) but Aube-Kubel is generally a middle-six forward at the AHL level and has shown flashes of potential to work his way up in a lineup. It is worth noting that Aube-Kubel is no longer waiver exempt. In order to be loaned back to the Phantoms if he does not make the Flyers' opening-night roster, Aube-Kubel would have to clear waivers. Last season, the Flyers lost Danick Martel on waivers to the Tampa Bay Lightning. 

Why he might not make the team: Inconsistency. After a rough rookie season with the Phantoms in 2016-17, Aube-Kubel took significant strides in his second AHL season. However, there were still spells where his game dropped off (three suspensions by the AHL for what were deemed illegal hits may also have been a factor) and he was one of the more disappointing Phantoms players in the 2018 Calder Cup playoffs. This past season, Aube-Kubel did not regress but also did not take a major step forward. An overwhelming number of injuries and recalls that decimated the roster, a midseason coaching change necessitated by Gordon spending roughly half of the season as Flyers interim head coach and other factors derailed the Phantoms season. However, individually, Aube-Kubel needed to raise his own consistency bar just a bit higher to improve his chances of an NHL recall with more meaningful minutes. 

HONORABLE MENTIONS
Second-year pros David Kase and Connor Bunnaman as well as rookie pro Matthew Strome are all players worth keeping an eye on during the Flyers rookie camp and early in the preseason. While none are likely to open the year in the NHL, they could work their way into consideration for a recall at some point down the line.

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