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Observations from 2017 Philadelphia Flyers development camp

After three days of development camp, which players impressed the most?

Development camp is mostly a teaching camp, immersing Flyers prospects in an NHL environment.
Kate Frese

Development camp serves as the de facto yearly conclusion to the offseason for the Philadelphia Flyers. Coming after the NHL Draft and in the wake of the usual July 1 madness, camp is a time for fans to get a firsthand look at the organization’s entire prospect pool, before taking a brief break from the sport of hockey until training camp in September.

During his media availability on Friday, general manager Ron Hextall was careful to note that development camp is meant for teaching the young prospects, not evaluating them, a sentiment that Nolan Patrick echoed as well. A prospect isn’t going to fall in the estimation of the organization because he struggled with a couple drills, or looked uncomfortable adapting to a newly-taught technique.

However, there is some evaluation value in development camp. Specifically, it gives both the organization and fans a better understanding of each individual player’s skillset. Hextall and his scouts surely watch hours of tape during the year on each of their prospects, but viewing them up close does help in picking up the subtle elements of their respective games. Not only is it a “learning camp” for the players, it is for the coaches and front office as well.

But the real value is for the fans, who generally speaking, do not have the ability to regularly watch Canadian junior hockey or leagues over in Europe. For all but the most diehard watchers, this is the first time in the calendar year that fans get to see most of the prospect pool.

And what a prospect pool it is. Out of the 40 players at camp, at least 25 of them fall somewhere between “intriguing sleeper” and “top-tier prospect.” That depth is the envy of every NHL team, and it makes for an especially intriguing camp.

Camp will continue through Wednesday, concluding with a 3v3 tournament and then the yearly Trial on the Isle event in Stone Harbor. But three days worth of sessions is enough to make some early observations regarding which players’ skillsets stood out, and which prospects showed significant year-over-year improvement. Obviously, all of these opinions are subjective and my own.

Oskar Lindblom

Oskar Lindblom skates at Flyers 2017 Development Camp in Voorhees.
Kate Frese

With Samuel Morin and Robert Hagg not at camp, and Nolan Patrick absent from on-ice drills due to his recent surgery, Oskar Lindblom was the prospect with the best chance of being on the Flyers’ opening night roster come October who fans could actually watch at camp. As a result, eyes were on him this year in the same way they were on Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny in 2016. Lindblom is the exciting prospect, the guy who killed it in Sweden and is expected by many to make a major impact with the big club in 2017-18. It was understandable that fans might have expected him to “pop” in these sessions in the same way that Provorov and Konecny did.

But that’s just not Lindblom’s game. What they did see was basically the same player from last year’s camp, except a little stronger and a little faster. Luckily, Lindblom was one of the most impressive guys (to my eyes) at the 2016 camp, so this result is far from a bad thing. It’s just that Oskar Lindblom is not going to fly around the ice, dangle his way past defensemen in drills, and rip high-velocity slappers at will.

Instead, he was merely the strongest player in every physical drill, and for the third straight camp, improved his skating from the previous year. He’s no Travis Sanheim in terms of speed, but watch him now and you’d never know that skating was once a major problem for him. It’s easily NHL caliber now. Where Lindblom really shines, though, is in the subtle areas — going backhand-to-forehand with the puck (lightning quick), soft hands around the net, and general hockey smarts. During one 4v3 drill, Lindblom skated through the slot without the puck and essentially set a pick on Philippe Myers, opening up space for Wade Allison (the best shooter at camp) to skate uncontested into a high-danger area and unleash a wrister. It was an instinctual play that even many NHL forwards wouldn’t think to do.

Lindblom is absolutely ready to join the Flyers from a physical standpoint, not that it’s a huge surprise considering his success in the SHL against grown men. As for the rest of his skillset, it continues to improve each year. I saw nothing this weekend to change my opinion that Oskar Lindblom will be on the Flyers in 2017-18.

Travis Sanheim

Travis Sanheim skates for the Phantoms in a March game against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Kate Frese

Skating drills tend to be fairly dull to watch, but I could spend all day admiring Travis Sanheim’s technique and never get bored. Everything is so fluid when it comes to Sanheim’s skating, from his first steps to his change-of-direction to his full speed stride. In drills, while his campmates were clearly trying to master slight adjustments to their technique, Sanheim was in a private competition with himself, trying to make a high-difficulty pivot move just a little bit faster or a turn just a bit sharper. No one matched him.

But we all know that Sanheim is a fantastic skater. What will decide when he makes his NHL debut is his defensive play without the puck, and I’m happy to report that this was the best he’s looked in that area at a development camp. In D-zone coverage drills on Sunday, Sanheim showed solid positional awareness, and was using his frame far more effectively than he has in past years to directly challenge opposing forwards. That’s not to say he was perfect — he made mistakes, including one rep where he lost his man in front of the net, which prompted Sanheim to slam his stick against the boards in frustration. But while in past years his “good-to-bad rep” ratio in coverage drills was around 50/50, this time it was closer to 75/25. He’s clearly making progress.

Philippe Myers

This was the first time that Myers has participated in a Flyers development camp, since he wasn’t a member of the organization in the summer of 2015 and was recovering from surgery last year. I suspect the fans in Voorhees came away very impressed with their first live viewing of the 20-year old defenseman. Myers isn’t quite at Sanheim’s level in terms of skating, but he’s legitimately plus in that area despite his 6’5 frame. His mechanics are a bit odd, as he was using lots of little strides to get going or to skate laterally rather than a few powerful ones, but the end result in terms of speed is fine. And once he gets going, Myers can absolutely fly.

Where Myers did outplay Sanheim was on the defensive side. He was a beast in one-on-one drills, using his long reach to stop opposing forwards in their tracks. And despite being a year younger than Sanheim, Myers showed a better feel for positioning in defensive zone coverage as well. He also stood out relative to his peers in corner puck battle drills. Hextall noted that Myers’ lack of AHL experience probably puts him fourth in the pecking order in the NHL roster battle come September, but the guy who showed up at this camp doesn’t seem far away from being ready for the big club.

Philippe Myers is tall.
Kate Frese

Mike Vecchione

Considering the fact that Mike Vecchione is six years older than the youngest players at this development camp, it’s fair to say that he should appear head-and-shoulders above his peers. But a player still has to go out there and legitimately look that good, which Vecchione did with ease this weekend. He was one of the best skaters at the camp, and also had one of the better shots. As for physicality, despite not being an especially big player, his functional strength was obvious. There’s a reason why the coaches paired him with Lindblom during puck battle drills on Saturday — Vecchione was the only forward there who could hang with the powerful Swede.

This is a polished hockey player who knows the tricks of the trade, from disguising his intentions pre-shot, to getting off decent chances even with a defenseman hanging all over him. I’m not sure what his ceiling truly is, but it was clear that Vecchione was too good for this camp.

Morgan Frost

2017 NHL Draft - Portraits Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

On Friday, I came away a bit disappointed with Morgan Frost. He certainly was not actively bad in any of the drills, but none of his skills stood out. That’s why I was surprised when I heard from a few people that Frost had looked fantastic on Saturday, as I had missed both of his sessions in order to watch other groups. So during the Sunday session, I made it a point to observe Frost very closely. It certainly seems like the first round pick was merely getting his feet wet on the first day of camp, because he shone bright Sunday.

To start, his top-end speed is stellar. But just as important as his skating ability is the fact that he showed no problem executing high-difficulty puck handling moves while at that impressive top gear. The puck was glued to his stick on rush drills, and Frost didn’t have to sacrifice any speed to do it. He also showcased good passing vision in 3v2 drills, finding open men even while under heavy pressure from checkers. Frost simply looked like an obvious first-round talent, which is reassuring considering the fact that many fans viewed him as something of a reach with the No. 27 selection. He came the closest out of the forward prospects to “popping” out at you in the same way that Konecny did during his two camps.

Tanner Laczynski

Probably the player who surprised me the most (in a good way) at this camp, Tanner Laczynski looked the part of a high-end forward prospect. He obviously impressed in his freshman season at Ohio State last year, but he’s still generally viewed as a cut below the best Flyers prospects, probably due to the fact that he was taken in the sixth round. That might be shortchanging Laczynski. His skillset was far closer to players like Frost, German Rubtsov and Oskar Lindblom than mid-tier prospects like Wade Allison, Pascal Laberge and Connor Bunnaman.

Compared to last year’s camp, Laczynski appeared to be more solidly built, and his skating went from good to borderline great. It was especially apparent in his edges and turns, which were crisp and came without sacrificing any speed. He also was a top performer in one-handed puck handling drills, as the frozen piece of rubber seemed taped to Laczynski’s stick even as he skated faster than almost any other forward. Last year, Laczynski tread close to “just a guy” territory at camp; this year, he was a legitimate standout.

German Rubtsov

2016 first-round pick German Rubtsov looked the part at his second dev camp.
Kate Frese

The one player who had a case for topping Laczynski in the one-handed puck handling drill was German Rubtsov, who flew through the exercise. Throughout the weekend, I was struck by how smooth of a skater Rubtsov is. Aside from Sanheim, he had the most effortless stride at the camp, and flashed a strong top gear on a few occasions. Like Frost, Rubtsov definitely looked the part of a first round pick, though his finishing ability and shot probably could use some work.

Wade Allison

One player whose finishing ability needs little work at all is Wade Allison, as he very obviously possessed the best shot at camp. It’s accurate with a quick release and some serious zip, and he remains the organization’s best hope for a homegrown, high-volume shooting forward. Goalies are not going to like seeing this guy in the offensive zone.

Allison’s skating, on the other hand, is more polarizing. One observer at camp called his technique “a mess,” and I can see the point to a degree. He doesn’t have a compact stride, and his first few steps before getting to top speed could be better. But he’s far from slow. In fact, he was one of the better players in terms of change-of-direction ability in corner puck battle drills, with his stop/start move fooling a number of defensemen. And subjectively, he looks fast, even if the way he does it is nowhere near as pretty as Sanheim or Rubtsov. I wonder if overhauling his technique would even be a good thing for Allison, because his current style does seem to work for him.

Mark Friedman

This was Mark Friedman’s fourth development camp, and the fourth time that saw him treat every drill as if it would decide the fate of his career. Joe Pergola called Saturday’s mixed session (both forwards and defensemen) “The Mark Friedman Show,” and he wasn’t wrong. The 21-year old blueliner was a menace, showcasing expert pokechecking to disrupt forwards and surprising strength to separate them from the puck. Noah Cates was an early victim of Friedman’s high-intensity approach to drills.

Every year, Friedman dominates in these drills. It’s tough to know if it’s just because he takes them more seriously than anyone else at camp, or if he’s simply that good. My guess is that he approaches these camps with a major chip on his shoulder, trying to ward off the “he’s too small!” tag and to make a name for himself in an organization that has at least six defensemen under the age of 25 above him on the depth chart.

All I know is that his compete level always stands out, and yet again, he looked the part of a blue chip prospect in the on-ice portion of development camp. I’m excited that now I will finally be able to watch him play meaningful hockey this year with the Phantoms and determine how much of his dominance in drills translates to games.

Carter Hart

Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners
Carter Hart, the only Flyers prospect to ever throw out the first pitch at a Seattle Mariners game.
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Carter Hart was paired with Felix Sandstrom, which allowed for easy comparisons to be made between the two goalies considered to be the Flyers’ best chances at a true franchise netminder. To my eyes, Hart was more impressive. Sandstrom flashed a bit more athleticism, but that was because he was occasionally forced to do so as a result of being out of position. Hart, on the other hand, was as steady as they come.

There’s a real economy of movement to Hart’s game, as he’s set and square to the shooter very quickly, and I didn’t see him overpursue the puck once. His anticipation was also notable, as he showed a knack for reading passes immediately and being in ideal position to stop the recipient before he even corralled the puck.

If there was one critique I could make regarding Hart’s performance at camp, it’s that he did occasionally make himself small in net on rushes, giving the shooters lots of space up high to pick the corners. NHL forwards will exploit that. But on the whole, Hart was very impressive.

Isaac Ratcliffe

To paraphrase Dennis Green, Isaac Ratcliffe is who I thought he was. The giant forward obviously oozes potential, and watching a 6’6 player perform a lightning quick dangle less than a foot from the goalie and then roof the puck will have even the most restrained fan jumping out of his or her seat. But Ratcliffe is far from a finished product.

His skating is strong, but the soft hands that he shows off around the net do not appear when at full stride. On more than a few occasions, Ratcliffe fumbled the puck or failed to cleanly receive a pass when blasting down the wing at speed. That needs to be fixed.

And despite his frame, Ratcliffe wasn’t physically dominant in the corners. On Saturday, defensemen far smaller than he (such as Friedman) had little trouble picking Ratcliffe’s pocket as he tried to protect the puck along the boards. It seemed to be a technique issue more than a lack of strength, but regardless, one would think Ratcliffe might excel at a drill like that considering his frame, and it simply wasn’t the case.

That’s not to say I’m low on Ratcliffe. He’s huge, and guys that big who can also skate well and flash plus puck skills don’t come around often. But he’s a project, in the same way that Samuel Morin was a project when he was taken back in 2013. Don’t expect him to get fast-tracked to the NHL level.

Isaac Ratcliffe takes a shot during a Saturday session at 2017 Flyers Development Camp.
Kate Frese

Quick hits and other observations

  • There was almost always a coach standing by Matthew Strome during any drills primarily focused on skating, watching him intently and giving pointers.
  • Connor Bunnaman looked to have the second-best shot out of the forwards, trailing only Wade Allison.
  • Cooper Marody was far stronger and more solidly built than the last time I saw him at camp. His best drill, however, was lateral skating and shooting.
  • Maksim Sushko can really fly. His puck handling, on the other hand, was spotty at best.
  • Linus Hogberg’s backwards skating was far better this year. In 2016, he was getting turnstiled often in rush coverage, but this time that issue was nowhere to be found.
  • David Bernhardt was the best defenseman in the corner puck battle drills on Saturday. Used his size and strength effectively.
  • Mikhail Vorobyov’s skillset doesn’t translate especially well to drills, but he did showcase soft hands around the net and crisp passing ability.
  • He’s quite raw, but Noah Cates certainly had his moments, especially in shooting drills. The puck absolutely jumps off his stick.
  • Pascal Laberge looked far better in rush drills than in the offensive zone cycle ones.
  • Watching Ivan Kosorenkov, it was surprising that no team was willing to even take a seventh round flier on him. His skillset wasn’t overwhelmingly impressive, but he was able to execute on a number of difficult maneuvers with the puck and didn’t look out of place in offensive zone drills alongside some of the Flyers’ better prospects. He didn’t dominate to the point where I’m certain the organization will offer him a contract, but he looked like he belonged at this camp.