The current roster of the Philadelphia Flyers may not be that of a world-beating, Stanley Cup contender. But over the past two seasons, general manager Ron Hextall has restocked the team's cupboard of prospects, creating a great deal of excitement among the fanbase for the future of the organization.
His strong work in rebuilding the Flyers' pipeline was implicitly acknowledged by the amount of Philadelphia prospects participating in the IIHF U20 World Junior Championship. Seven players attached to the Flyers' organization made their respective National rosters. The list included first round picks (Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim and Travis Konecny), mid-round talent (Felix Sandstrom) and late-round sleepers (Radel Fazleev, David Kase, Oskar Lindblom).
On Tuesday afternoon, hosting country Finland took the gold medal, topping Russia in overtime. While there were no Flyers prospects on the Finnish roster, multiple players delivered impressive effort for their respective squads.
Provorov did not earn his way onto the all-tournament team, but he was most likely third in the voting behind the United States' Zach Werenski and Finland's Olli Juolevi. Provorov stood out during the entirety of the tournament, proving to be just as adept at point production (eight points in seven games) as he was at positional defensive play and zone exits.
Russia used an unorthodox strategy of icing four defensive pairings throughout the tournament, which limited Provorov's ice time at even strength to a degree. But he played in all situations, and Russian coach Valeri Bragin leaned on Provorov heavily at the end of games. In fact, it was Provorov's wrist shot from the point (deflected by teammate Andrei Svetlakov) during the goal medal game that sent the contest to overtime with only seconds remaining.
In terms of his on-ice play, Provorov lived up to the hype. He showcased his offensive talents by quarterbacking the Russian power play, and by jumping up into the offensive zone in timely situations. Even though Provorov may not play at the breakneck pace of a Shayne Gostisbehere, he's more than capable of leading the rush. But he also adds a calmness in the defensive zone that Ghost most likely will never develop.
As an 18-year old blue chip prospect, Provorov was expected to have a standout tournament, and he did not disappoint. He looked every bit the future star that Philadelphia was hoping he would become when they selected him seventh overall last June.
Considering his status as the WHL's highest point-per-game scoring defenseman, Sanheim was expected to play a major role for Team Canada in his final year of eligibility at the WJC. It didn't quite work out that way.
Instead, Canada coach Dave Lowry slotted Sanheim on the third pairing to start the tournament. In fact, in the preliminary round, Sanheim was mostly rotating in and out of the third pairing, since Canada chose to dress seven defensemen in each game. But after solid early performances (specifically in the offensive zone), Sanheim's ice time did increase as the tournament progressed, even if he never rose above the third pairing designation.
Lowry never appeared to fully trust Sanheim in terms of defensive play. And in the coach's defense, Sanheim did showcase some positioning issues in his own end, and also allowed smaller forwards to win physical battles in the corners and on the rush. Still, Sanheim was Canada's most effective defenseman in the offensive zone by far. Particularly in games when Canada dominated possession and spent the majority of the game on the attack, it was baffling to see Sanheim stapled to the bench, as the Canadians looked their most dangerous with the blueliner on the ice.
Sanheim remains at his best when he can use his long strides to engineer a push up ice, or when he is holding the point on the cycle or the power play. The rest of his game was far less consistent, though he certainly showcased flashes of brilliance. Sanheim may have deserved more ice time on the whole, but Lowry's lack of faith in the Flyers prospect wasn't totally unjustified.
On the other hand, Lowry's lack of faith in Travis Konecny was inexplicable. Despite minimal ice time, Konecny proved one of Canada's most dangerous forwards throughout the tournament. He may have finished with only one goal and one assist in five games, but considering his usage and absence of power play opportunities, his unimpressive point totals were no surprise.
Konecny was primarily used on Canada's "checking" line, often alongside Mitchell Stephens and Lawson Crouse. The Flyers' top forward prospect is fully capable of playing a third/fourth line role - he possesses a willingness to "mix it up" despite his lack of size, and he has the smarts to play a safe game if directed to do so. But Konecny's high-end scoring totals in the OHL hint at his ability to succeed on the top two lines.
In a sense, Konecny may have been penalized because he has the skillset capable of sliding into an energy role. Forwards like Mathew Barzal may not be dramatically more skilled than Konecny, but they do not play with the kind of edge necessary to satisfy the requirements of a "checking" forward. Unfortunately, because Konecny was penciled into that role, he was given ice time commensurate with it (not much). But when Konecny did hit the ice, he was undeniably one of Canada's most dynamic forwards. Don't be fooled by the lack of tangible production - Konecny passed the eye test at the WJC.
Entering the tournament as a fourth line checker for Russia, Fazleev was maybe the biggest overachiever out of all of the Flyers prospects at the WJC. In limited minutes, Fazleev scored one goal and two assists, and was noticeable in every game. Fazleev lacks ideal speed, but his hockey sense is through the roof and it allows him to play alongside skilled players and complement their games.
It was obvious that the Russia coaching staff were impressed with Fazleev, as his ice time increased throughout the tournament. In fact, Bragin chose to use the Flyers prospect with the clock running down in the gold medal game and down by one goal - a time when a coach only picks his most trusted players. As I noted after watching Fazleev at development camp over the summer, "My guess is that coaches are going to love this guy." The Russian coaches at the WJC certainly did.
Lindblom was a surprise standout at last year's tournament, scoring nine points in seven games as an 18-year old. He followed up that performance with another solid WJC, this time adding three goals and three assists for six points in seven games. Lindblom received heavy minutes in a top-six role for Sweden, and played a hybrid net presence/slot forward role on the team's power play.
The 19-year old forward remains an intriguing prospect, because so much of his game is centered around his instincts and positioning. While his speed has improved, he's far from a burner on the ice, and he's not the type of player who can create his own shot singlehandedly. But his hockey IQ is stellar, which allows him to play a support role with dynamic scorers. There's definitely some Michael Raffl to his game.
Kase only was able to produce one assist in five games with the Czech team, but his plus speed was apparent all tournament. The diminutive winger flies around the ice, and looks the part of Darroll Powe-type fourth liner. He lacked scoring touch during the tournament, but Kase was able to repeatedly set up teammates for high-quality chances, even if they rarely were able to capitalize.
Expected to play a much larger role for Team Sweden, Sandstrom fell behind Linus Soderstrom on the depth chart after the Islanders prospect jumped out to a great start in the tournament. Stapled to the bench for the majority of the WJC, Sandstrom only started three games and his performance was statistically underwhelming. He finished with a 3.88 goals against average and a 0.795 save percentage.
Still, he did have one shutout (against Denmark) and most of the damage was done against the United States in the bronze medal game, when Sandstrom was repeatedly let down by his defense in an 8-3 rout. As an 18-year old, Sandstrom will most likely have another chance to shine in next year's WJC, when Soderstrom has aged out of the tournament. He'll hope to deliver better results then.