With the entry draft and the rush of free agency now in the books, the dog days of the offseason are nearly ready to begin. But before the hockey-less summer officially kicks off, there is one last scheduled Philadelphia Flyers event -- prospect development camp.
Used primarily as a teaching tool by the Flyers organization, development camp sees the vast majority of prospects drafted or signed by Philadelphia come to town for a week-long schedule of drills, activities, and scrimmages. It also gives fans a rare chance to see those prospects up close, rather than being forced to watch them on shoddy online streamed video or via Youtube highlight reels.
The camp has only grown in stature among Flyers fans as Ron Hextall has slowly built a truly formidable farm system during his tenure as general manager. In previous years, camp was filled with low-upside undrafted free agents and tryout invitees. This past weekend, it was chock full of potential impact players and high-quality depth.
I was able to attend three days of camp (Thursday, Saturday and Sunday), and while practices and drills provide an incomplete picture of players' capabilities, they do shed light onto key aspects of their skillsets. Attributes such as speed, strength, shooting ability and stickhandling can be evaluated to a degree through performance in practice, so my thoughts are mostly limited to those observations. Still, I hope that they provide an improved understanding of what many of the Flyers' current prospects bring to the table, and where each of them are in their respective development curves.
Last year, I used the word "textbook" to describe Provorov's skillset at development camp, but I realize now that I was a bit disappointed in his performance. Provorov did everything well last July, but didn't obviously stand out in any key areas. Considering Provorov's seventh overall pick pedigree and the talk at the time that he might already be NHL-ready, I didn't expect for Travis Konecny to steal the show as the most electrifying, impressive player there.
This year, however, Ivan Provorov owned the camp.
The steadiness, hockey IQ and plus skating ability were all apparent last July, and those skills didn't go anywhere. But this time, Provorov simply demanded to be noticed in every drill. The biggest leap came in the quality of his shot -- while last year it looked fine, his wrister is a legitimate weapon now. Every shooting drill, Provorov was going top corner, and even if you happened to miss his turn, the unmistakable ping as his high wrister deflected off the top bar and into the net proved a consistent reminder that it had come time for Provorov to shoot. The goalies at camp had no chance.
On the defensive side, the 19-year old Russian was just plain cruel. In one-on-one rushes or battles down low, Provorov simply could not be beaten, using a combination of expert stick work, anticipation, and just old fashioned brute strength to gain control of the puck. In a 30-minute span on Sunday, he threw Radel Fazleev, Danick Martel, Nicolas Aube-Kubel and David Kase down onto the ice simply through power and superior leverage. No forward could consistently come out on top against him.
Last week, I outlined my view of the criteria that Hextall will use to determine whether a player like Provorov makes the Flyers' roster out of camp. I still believe it's far from a guarantee that Provorov wins a spot. But I will say this -- if he repeats his performance at training camp in September, I don't see how he can be left off the roster.
Konecny was, in my mind, the best overall player at camp last year, and it was always going to be hard for him to follow up that performance. But even though Provorov upstaged him this time around, Konecny was still clearly the most talented forward at the camp, and it wasn't particularly close.
Aside from his less-than-ideal size which can put him at a disadvantage in some puck battles, it's hard to nitpick specific elements of Konecny's skillset. He's an incredible puck handler, both at speed and in traffic. He's a well-rounded skater, with great high-end speed and plus acceleration. His hand-eye coordination (particularly in creating deflections) is also unmatched among Flyers prospects. At least from an offensive standpoint, he's the total package.
His skills stood out more in individual drills than in the combo practice sessions (when forwards and defensemen matched up against each other), but even during the latter, Konecny still showcased the most talent, whether it was a top-corner shot from in close or a slick backhand pass off a rebound to a wide-open teammate on the other side of the net. Every Konecny repetition was an event, because you knew he had the potential to deliver a showstopping play.
Konecny wasn't dominant in the same way that Provorov was, in that he still looked like he belonged at a prospect camp and was regularly stymied by mid-tier defense prospects on rushes and cycle drills. But his status as Philadelphia's best hope for a top scorer in the pipeline remains unchallenged.
I've always been a bit hesitant to get excited about Lindblom, and much of that hesitation has been driven by my evaluation of his performances in his first two development camps. Both in 2014 and 2015, Lindblom's skillset didn't stand out to me in any way -- he truly looked the part of "just a guy." I've long assumed that his strengths must be in game situations, where he can take advantage of his high-end hockey IQ to be an ideal support player on a line.
This year, however, Lindblom really looked the part of an intriguing NHL prospect. His speed remains "just okay," though I definitely remember him being slower in past years. However, where Lindblom really thrives is in the area around the net. His puckhandling talent while skating at his top speed is inconsistent, but those same skills while moving at a measured pace or planted in front of the net are fantastic. His hand-eye coordination was apparent in his ability to gobble up rebounds and deflect oncoming shots, with only Konecny approaching Lindblom's expertise in that area.
I'm not sure Lindblom's game would translate well to a team that wants to play a back-and-forth, trade chances type of style. But in Dave Hakstol's grind-it-out forechecking and cycling system? He could be a real impact player.
Most impressive about Sanheim this year was the fact that he now looks the part of an NHL defenseman from a size and build standpoint, but has lost none of his elite speed despite the additional weight. He was the best backwards skater at the camp, effortlessly gliding away from Provorov and Hagg, who are no slouches themselves. His lateral mobility shined in blue line shooting drills, and his forward skating finally earned the Ryan McDonagh comparisons that he has long received, since now his physical build actually resembles that of McDonagh.
As for the defensive side, inconsistencies remain in his game. His speed lets him overcome the occasional overcommit on rushes, but that can't be expected to continue at the NHL level. He also struggled initially in the one-on-one net front drills, as he could not prevent forwards like Lindblom and Wade Allison from forcing their way into prime deflection position. But to Sanheim's credit, after receiving specific instruction from a Flyers coach, he quickly took the advice to heart and used it to successfully box out Pascal Laberge. Always good to see that a prospect is coachable.
In terms of all-around skillset, I'd say that Laberge was the second-best forward at the camp after Travis Konecny. Everything is crisp -- his passes have zip, his shots were generally well placed, and he showed nice burst coming in and out of his breaks. He has a very slight frame (reminiscent of how Sanheim looked back in 2014), but the skills are definitely there.
In rush drills and scrums around the net, Laberge definitely looked to pass more than shoot, which was a tendency noted by scouts prior to the draft. Still, as long as he's creating chances, it really doesn't matter too much who is the one that buries them. Laberge will definitely need some development, specifically from a weight training standpoint, but there's real potential here.
Many were livid when the Flyers chose to pass up Kieffer Bellows and Julien Gauthier when both slipped to the 18th pick in June's NHL Draft. The hope was that Philadelphia would finally add a true goal-scorer to the ranks, as it's a skillset lacking both in the pipeline and with the big club. Instead, Hextall went with German Rubtsov (who was not at camp) in the first round, a playmaking, two-way center.
However, fans may get that sniper anyway, even though Bellows and Gauthier won't be wearing the orange and black anytime soon. Wade Allison certainly plays with the desired mentality.
To be sure, there are holes in Allison's current skillset. He's not an awful skater, but his first steps aren't exactly dynamic. His passes often floated to teammates in drills rather than being sent with authority. But Allison can do one thing really well, and that is shoot the puck. His shots had serious velocity, and he never hesitated to pull the trigger whether it was in close or from further out. Like Laberge, Allison has a long way to go before he'll potentially be NHL-ready, but if he reaches his ceiling, he'll score a lot of goals for the Flyers.
It's hard to judge Morin's camp in full, because he missed both Thursday and Friday with strep throat, and then looked clearly a step slow on Saturday in his first day back. His backwards skating on Saturday during rush drills was absolutely terrible, to the point where he wasn't even trying to cut off the forward coming down the wing during one-on-one rush drills. But I've seen Morin's skating look much better in the past, and the coaching staff did not seem concerned at all, so I'm going to chalk that up to Morin still feeling under-the-weather.
He looked much better on Sunday, though to be sure, those drills definitely played more to his strengths. In one-on-ones along the boards, Morin was able to use his size and reach to great effect. His best moment was when he completely engulfed 2016 sixth round pick Anthony Salinitri on the boards, forcing the coaches to blow the play dead because Salinitri was simply never going to escape. If I had to single out the biggest positive from Morin, I'd say he did a much better job at this year's camp of using his reach to contain forwards as they tried to cycle the puck, taking away their options and slowing down the play.
Linus Hogberg and David Bernhardt
I'm lumping the two 2016-drafted, Swedish-born defensemen into one section, because I couldn't help but compare them throughout the weekend. Hogberg is quicker than Bernhardt, though Bernhardt seemed to have a bit more confidence in his backwards skating ability. During a number of one-on-one drills on Saturday, Hogberg immediately switched to chasing the rush rather than containing the oncoming forward using strong positional backward routes. Bernhardt had no such issues.
On the other hand, Hogberg looked far more comfortable when facing two-on-ones. Given no choice but to skate in reverse, Hogberg showed legitimately strong defensive instincts while Bernhardt looked overwhelmed on a few occasions. However, the Swedes were at their best when paired together in three-on-two cycle drills. Aside from the pair of Morin and Reese Willcox, they were the most sound duo on Sunday.
Aube-Kubel comes with the reputation of being a highly-skilled forward, but I was most impressed with his puck protection game. The 20-year old winger may measure just 5'11'' and 187 pounds, but he looks much bigger than that on the ice. On a number of occasions, Aube-Kubel expertly shielded the puck from a larger defender without losing any speed on the rush or the cycle. I'm sure he's been working on this element of his game for quite a while, and it showed.
I admit that I've never really taken Willcox too seriously as a viable prospect. His scoring numbers at Cornell were never anything to write home about, and in past camps, I've come away unimpressed by his skating ability. He always struck me as an example of the old-school stay-at-home type defenseman that is slowly being phased out of the NHL game. But Willcox really showed me something this weekend.
He's not going to be a dynamic offensive weapon, but either he's dramatically improved his skating ability or I've just always underrated it. Don't expect him to lead the rush, but Willcox had no issues keeping up with even the most talented forwards on the ice. His size allowed him to easily manhandle even larger opponents like Wade Allison, and he was the best overall defenseman (yes, better than Provorov) at defending two-on-ones on Saturday.
Willcox will likely be with the Phantoms this season, and for the first time, I'll be keeping a close eye on him.
Here's a classic example of why it helps to watch multiple days of these camps. On Thursday and Saturday, Kase looked like his best-case upside scenario was Darroll Powe -- great straight-line speed, but a predictable shot and mediocre puck handling ability.
Then, on Sunday, he went out and played like one of the best forwards on the ice. Suddenly, his shots were quicker and more accurate, and he wasn't flubbing passes or losing control of pucks on the rush. He was even one of the few to (sort of) beat Provorov in a one-on-one drill, using a surprising burst of speed to get the angle on the Russian defenseman. Of course, Provorov then unceremoniously knocked Kase on his behind during the next rep, but just beating Provorov once is noteworthy enough, especially for a player who looked so underwhelming during the early days of camp.
Inconsistent skills for a prospect beat nonexistent skills any day of the week. The Flyers just need to hope that he puts them all together on a regular basis at some point in the future.
Just like last year, Friedman played a very aggressive defensive style in drills. Shayne Gostisbehere mentioned in his exit interview that Gord Murphy has impressed upon him the importance of using his skating ability to close gaps while defending against the cycle, surprising opponents with speed to take away time and space. Friedman already has that piece of advice down.
Bardreau has received a fair amount of hype over the past few months, as members of the Flyers' organization have dropped hints that he could be closer to an NHL job than most believe. He definitely does have a skillset characteristic of a tenacious bottom-six forward, as he possesses a high-effort skating style and fights for every inch in the corners and in front of the net.
He even added a few nice snipes during drills, generally to the cheers of his teammates, who clearly like Bardreau. He's definitely a player to keep an eye on, if only because the Philadelphia front office seems to appreciate what he brings to the table.