Ninth Man In: Who Will Round Out the Flyers Forward Core?
Whether you agree with Chuck Fletcher's moves or not, the Flyers have certainly had a busy summer. Key additions were made at center and right defense, attempting to strengthen the Flyers as they hope to return to the playoffs this year.
Thanks to those additions, the Flyers opening roster is nearly set in stone. Line combinations and pairings are still up for grabs and will be decided in training camp, but the personnel is pretty easy to figure out. The defense will likely be comprised of Ivan Provorov (when he signs), Shayne Gostisbehere, Travis Sanheim, Matt Niskanen, Justin Braun, and Phil Myers, with Robert Hagg and Sam Morin battling for a spot in the press box. Carter Hart and Brian Elliott will be the goaltenders. That much is nearly certain.
The Flyers forward core is also nearly complete. Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, Travis Konecny (also in need of a new deal), Jakub Voracek, James van Riemsdyk, Nolan Patrick, Oskar Lindblom, and the newly signed Kevin Hayes will all play major roles. Scott Laughton, Michael Raffl, and Tyler Pitlick will also make the team, though their role is less clear.
They account for eleven of the twelve forwards that will make up the opening roster, leaving one spot up for grabs. More than likely, the player that wins that spot will end up playing on the wing on line three, though that is not totally guaranteed. There are plenty of candidates for the role, from organization mainstays to budding youngsters to new acquisitions. So who are the true contenders for the final third line wing spot, and what do they bring to the table?
(AKA The "If Anyone From Here Makes The Team, At Least the Fans Will Be Happy" Category)
C/RW Morgan Frost
2018-19 (OHL): 58 GP - 37 G, 72 A, 109 PTS
Acquired: 2017 #27 Overall Pick
The Good: Frost has dominated the Ontario Hockey League offensively, posting back-to-back 100+ point campaigns. Frost possess elite speed and puck skills, and is also a solid two-way forward as well. He was mostly a center in junior, but has played wing for Canada in World Juniors, where he scored a hat trick last winter. Frost has all of the tools to dominate the NHL in the near future.
The Bad: There are a couple of concerns as to how quickly Frost can assimilate to the NHL level. First, he's only 5'11'', and while that may not matter to fans, coaches and front offices still prefer size perhaps a bit too much. And though he possess great speed, it's been noted by many that Frost needs to improve his pace to adapt in the NHL. He prefers to take his time with the puck to make plays happen, time he won't have in the NHL.
The Bottom Line: For the second straight year, I'm picking Frost to make the Flyers. Last year I picked him to follow Travis Konecny's career path, but a return to juniors was the right call. Frost has bulked up during the summer and if he can hit the ground running in camp, the final spot could quickly become his to lose.
LW Joel Farabee
2018-19 (NCAA): 37 GP - 17 G, 19 A, 36 PTS
Acquired: 2018 #14 Overall Pick
The Good: The other player taken with the two first round picks acquired for Brayden Schenn (Frost was the first) has had just as much success before turning pro. Farabee had an excellent freshman season for a disappointing BU team, scoring at a near point-per-game rate. He was a short-handed beast, tallying multiple goals in those situations, which is no surprise considering his hockey sense is considered his strongest asset. That, combined with plenty of skill, makes him a special breed with a high floor and ceiling.
The Bad: Farabee is the only teenager on this list, which may draw skepticism from the decision makers. He's not the biggest guy ever (listed at 163 lbs on Elite Prospects), though like Frost he's bulked up over the summer. He's a pretty good skater, but doesn't have the same burst as Frost. Maybe being the safer player is good in the eyes of coaches, but he likely won't turn heads like Frost could.
The Bottom Line: Farabee's hockey IQ and responsible play-style could easily win the coaching staff over. But his age and size may suggest that at least a few months in the AHL might be the best for him long-term.
C German Rubtsov
2018-19 (AHL): 14 GP - 4 G, 6 A, 10 PTS
Acquired: 2016 #22 Overall Pick
The Good: Rubtsov's pro career got off to a great start. Following a disappointing 2017-18 season in the QMJHL, Rubtsov flashed his offensive potential in the AHL. He's a very smart player, and even if he never becomes a great scorer, Rubtsov projects to be at least a solid bottom-six forward (think Scott Laughton). Maybe you'd like a little bit more from a former 1st round pick, but that's nothing to scoff at. And like Laughton, Rubtsov can play both center and the wing.
The Bad: Unfortunately, Rubtsov's strong season was cut short when he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury last November. That puts him roughly on the same level as Farabee and Frost when it comes to experience, even if he is the eldest of that trio.
The Bottom Line: Chuck Fletcher has spoken fairly highly of Rubtsov throughout the offseason, meaning that he'll definitely be given a shot to make the team. Even if he could make the team as 4C (Frost and Farabee are either starting in the top 9 or the AHL), I think some more time in the AHL to make sure last year's promise was for real is optimal.
C/LW Mikhail Vorobyev
2018-19 (AHL): 42 GP - 7 G, 19 A, 26 PTS (NHL: 15 GP - 1 G, 1 A)
Acquired: 2015 #104 Overall Pick (Round 4, Pick 14)
The Good: Of all the players in this category, Vorobyev is one of only two with NHL experience, appearing in 15 games across two different stints. Like Rubtsov, Vorobyev is a smart player who has decent offensive potential but is more likely to be known for his two-way play. He's also a solid playmaker and has scored very well at the NHL level.
The Bad: After scoring in each of his first two NHL games, Vorobyev quickly fizzled out. Both Dave Hakstol and Scott Gordon gave him a chance, but the young Russian was unable to hang in the NHL level on a consistent basis. Misha's work ethic was called into question last year, and if he can't improve that, a full-time NHL job is a pipe dream going forward.
The Bottom Line: Since Vorobyev can still be sent down to the AHL without going through waivers, the flash of another youngster or the stability of a vet likely leaves Vorobyev on the outside looking in. When he gets his next chance, he better be ready to make it count.
RW Nicolas Aubé-Kubel
2018-19 (AHL): 72 GP - 18 G, 28 A, 46 PTS (NHL: 9 GP - 0 PTS)
Acquired: 2014 #48 Overall Pick (Round 2, Pick 18)
The Good: NAK is the only other kid with NHL experience, playing 9 games with limited ice-time last fall. He wasn't sensational, but he probably deserved a greater opportunity than Dave Hakstol gave him. At both the NHL and AHL, advanced stats have liked Aubé-Kubel, who posted a 51.18% Corsi For in the minors, where he's scored well, too. He also cleaned up his biggest weakness - after being suspended 3 times in 2017-18, NAK became cleaner without letting the suspensions affect his play style. Even though he's on the smaller side, NAK plays a very relentless game and isn't afraid to go to the dirty areas, something almost any coach will appreciate.
The Bad: Aubé-Kubel is the oldest player in this group, and you'd hope a second round pick would clearly be ready for the NHL five years after being drafted. NAK doesn't have amazing puck skills or an insane shot or any quality to separate him from his peers - the upset of a Frost or Farabee isn't present here. And while he did score at a decent clip in the AHL, he failed to take a noticeable step up from where he was a year ago.
The Bottom Line: NAK isn't waiver exempt anymore, meaning if the Flyers want to send him down, the other 30 teams can claim him for free if they want. Fletcher and assistant GM Brent Flahr have hardily mentioned him all summer, meaning he's facing an uphill battle. In my ideal world, he would share fourth line time with Raffl and Pitlick. But I'm not sure the Flyers think highly enough to keep him up - the good news is, I also doubt the rest of the NHL feels the need to have him on their roster.
The Returning Vets
(AKA The "They're Making The Team, But In What Role?" Category)
LW/C Scott Laughton
2018-19 (NHL): 82 GP - 12 G, 20 A, 32 PTS
Acquired: 2012 #20 Overall Pick
The Good: Laughton's thirty-two points ago look more like a third liner than a fourth liner. It's even more impressive when you consider that he achieved them while playing with mostly awful linemates against top competition with almost no power play time. Given a better role and players to suit up alongside, Laughton could put up 40+ points.
The Bad: Laughton has never been an advanced analytics darling, and it will be harder for him to drive play the higher he goes in the lineup. Though he scored well last year, 2018-19 is probably Laughton's ceiling from a points standpoint at the NHL level. The versatility is nice, but with Nolan Patrick basically locked as the 3C, it doesn't matter that much if Laughton wants to move up to line three.
I'm also going to introduce what I'm going to call "the Patrick effect." Consider this in effect for everyone else after (and including) Laughts. Whoever is playing alongside of Nolan on line three needs to be capable of helping Patrick take a step forward - this is a critical year for the former #2 pick. Laughton or anyone else that's a veteran is someone we know isn't a high end offensive player - otherwise, they'd be making more money and be in a top six role somewhere.
Patrick needs an offensive threat to work with. JVR/Lindblom is one. With a Frost or Farabee (or even Rubtsov) on the third line with them, there's no shortage of skill. Though putting a vet on line three is the safest decision to make, at some point the Flyers need to make a concerted effort to help Nolan Patrick reach his ceiling. The Kevin Hayes signing was a good start - but there's work here to be done.
The Bottom Line: Laughton can certainly handle himself on line number three, and if none of the kids are ready, he'd be my number one choice to start there. But he's the opening night 4C if everything breaks right.
LW/RW Michael Raffl
2018-19 (NHL): 67 GP - 6 G, 12 A, 18 PTS
Acquired: Free Agent Signing in 2013
The Good: Raffl has played more games as a Flyer than anyone else on this list. He's shown the ability to play both wings on any line with any players against anyone, and he never looks out of place. Raffl is a solid two-way player that has a 20-goal season under his belt and has driven play over the course of his career. He's a leader on the team (although apparently more of a soft spoken one), and has been trusted and liked by every coach he's played for.
The Bad: Raffl didn't take a pay cut on the two-year extension he signed in March just to be a nice guy. Raffl's 20-goal campaign came as the third wheel alongside of Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek. His advanced stats have gone from great to meh over the last few years, as he was a negative relative to teammates in both Corsi and Expected Goals. Though he's still a serviceable everyday player and PKer, it seems like his best days are behind him.
The Bottom Line: It seems that way because it's probably true. Though keeping Raffl was a good move to sure up the Flyers forward depth, playing him above line four on a consistent basis is probably no longer a viable option.
The New Vets
(AKA The "In Case of Emergency Break Glass With One Exception" Category)
C/RW Tyler Pitlick
2018-19 (NHL): 47 GP - 8 G, 4 A, 12 PTS
Acquired: Traded Ryan Hartman to Dallas for Pitlick
The Good: This is the one exception. After looking like a bust in Edmonton, the former #31 overall pick saved his career with the Stars, where he became a staple of Dallas' bottom-six. His fourteen goals in 2017-18 were tied for 184th out of 320 forwards - far from below average. He's a solid skater who plays a physical and tenacious style that can complement almost any player.
The Bad: Pitlick has seldom played above the fourth line in his NHL career, and though he was ok when he was in a third line roll with Dallas, his lack of high end skill means he's probably best suited on the fourth line.
The Bottom Line: Though Flyers.com beat reporter Bill Meltzer said his gut feeling is Pitlick starts the year on line three, I believe that either a kid or Laughton jumps him, and he plays out the season on the fourth line. His recent left wrist injury hurts his chance to move up in the opening lineup.
RW Chris Stewart
2017-18 (NHL): 54 GP - 10 G, 6 A, 16 PTS (Played 2018-19 in England)
Acquired: Signed Professional Tryout (PTO) in 2019
The Good: Stewart has played solidly in a bottom-six role for his entire NHL Career. At one point, he was probably good enough to be a middle-sixer. He's a very physical player with decent scoring touch, a solid grinder and a fairly traditional fourth liner, with a little less fight and a little more offense. Not too shabby.
The Bad: Stewart wasn't even good enough last year to play in North America - he played in the EIHL in England, and he didn't exactly light it up there. Stewart isn't an amazing skater either, and it's fair to wonder if his days as an NHLer are behind him. And it's worth noting that he's not under contract - Stewart's playing on a PTO, meaning he can be cut at a moment's notice if he can't keep up.
The Bottom Line: I believe Stewart will push well for an NHL job, most likely as a 13th forward, but there are too many options under contract with the Flyers for me to believe he'll make it out of camp with a job in Philadelphia (or Lehigh Valley).
C Andy Andreoff
2018-19 (AHL): 75 GP - 26 G, 29 A, 55 PTS
Acquired: Signed 2-Year, 1-Way Deal in 2019 (AAV: $750,000)
The Good: 55 points is nothing to scoff at in the AHL, and the fact Andreoff is on a one-way deal (he gets paid the same amount of money regardless of if he's in the NHL or AHL) means the Flyers believe he's better than an AHLer. So did the LA Kings, who he played 149 games for from 2014-2018 (remember, that was when the Kings were actually good). Andreoff is a good two-way player and can kill penalties in a pinch. The importance of face-offs is often overstated, but Andreoff is a career 51.2% on draws in his career, which will draw positive attention from coaches.
The Bad: Most players don't become drastically better at age 28, so Andreoff is likely going to remain a fringe NHLer for the remainder of his career. He doesn't bring a ton of offensive upside to the table, nor is he an elite skater. He's the "safe" player that fans loath but coaching staffs appreciate because they don't make the dreaded big mistake. A serviceable player in the bottom of a lineup in a pinch yes, but Andreoff's nothing more than that.
The Bottom Line: When he was signed, Fletcher said that there was a strong chance he'd be contending for a roster spot. Andreoff makes this team, much to the fanbase's chagrin, but he likely does so as the 13th or 14th forward, a role he's well suited for. If not, he'll be a good leader in Lehigh Valley.
RW Kurtis Gabriel
2018-19 (AHL): 32 GP - 2 G, 4 A, 6 PTS (NHL: 22 GP - 2 G, 2 A)
Acquired: Signed 1-Year, 2-Way Deal in 2019 (AAV: $700,000)
The Good: Gabriel was taken in the 3rd round of the 2013 draft by Fletcher. After turning pro in 2014, Gabriel has bounced up and down between the NHL and the minors. He's a physical player and plays the game hard. Fans have been begging for the Flyers to bring some more sandpaper to their lineup for a while - maybe Gabriel is sneakily the answer to their cries.
The Bad: Yeah, he's probably not. Sometimes Gabriel plays the game too hard - Flyers fans probably remember Gabriel as the guy who cheap shotted Nolan Patrick in a game last year, so he's already not off to a great start in the popularity scale. He was meh at best across the board last year. In fact, he posted a downright ugly 36.96 Corsi For%. 22 NHL games last year. Even for a depth player, that's pretty bad.
The Bottom Line: The closest Gabriel is getting to this roster is the fact he's listed on the Flyers roster on CapFriendly. Ok, that was harsh - he might make it as a 14th forward (the same type of role as Andreoff). But again, there's not much to be excited for here.
(AKA The "You Never Know, But You Probably Know" Category)
Perhaps the most notable dark horse is left winger Isaac Ratcliffe. He's a big winger with soft hands and a scoring touch, but he hasn't mastered how to use his size to his benefit and likely needs seasoning. Carsen Twarynski was a big standout at least year's camp, nearly cracking the team. Connor Bunnaman had a sneaky solid first AHL season and is a good two-way center. Forward Kyle Criscuolo, who once was an intern for Chuck Fletcher, has scored 54 points in 94 AHL games the past two seasons and has 9 NHL games to his name. All of them could sniff for a fourth line spot (bumping Laughton, Raffl, or Pitlick up in the process), but are extremely likely to land in the AHL.