It wasn’t a bang, but an easy fizzle, that saw the end put to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms’ chase for the Calder Cup in the Eastern Conference Final last spring. A slow letting of air from the tires, and, no ways about it, a disappointing end to a dynamic run. But for one player in particular, it wasn’t so much a fizzle at all. For Nicolas Aube-Kubel, it ended with a stutter step.
Maybe we should take a step back. There’s a whole season that happens before the playoffs even hit, and his was an unequivocal good one. In 76 games played, Aube-Kubel registered 46 points—third among all Phantoms—and did so without any time on the top power play unit, or any power play unit, for that matter. No special teams boost to be had. Which is, in short, impressive. And, in addition to this, per Brad’s tracked data, he also averaged a 54.64 CF% at 5-on-5, working out a nice balance between driving play positively while he was on the ice, and producing tangible results for the scoresheet. It’s a balance that has turned heads, and earned him some favor (but more on that later).
So, given this little short of stellar regular season performance, we could have reasonably expected that he would be leading the charge in scoring and all in the playoffs, right? That’s how this works? Well, not quite.
Some flash to the eye turned to lack of substance, on the scoresheet anyway, and Aube-Kubel was held pointless through all ten of his playoff games played—his longest pointless streak of the season by twofold. And that left us with some questions, chiefly among them “what’s up, here?”
Maybe it’s us framing this poorly. Are points on the board the only way to contribute? Aube-Kubel isn’t so sure. “It was different between the season and the playoffs, it’s way harder to score in [the] playoffs, everyone doing their job, their details,” he concedes, then adds, “I tried to have more of a physical role in [the] playoffs, trying to finish more checks, and maybe I should have tried to score more, but I don’t know, it worked like that for me. And I think I was doing some things that I wasn’t doing during the regular season, during [the] playoffs, and that took some of my offense off.” So the post-season was a question of roles shifting and contributions coming elsewhere, rather than a run for a scoring title.
But this can also go too far, and if establishing momentum or a scoring pace was in the cards, just as much a hinderance to that was games not played—in this case, it was Aube-Kubel getting hit with a suspension in the second round for an illegal check to the head. His third suspension in the back half of the season took him out for three games and left some feeling a little nervous—is this some kind of pattern emerging? In light of Washington’s Tom Wilson just getting 20 games for an illegal check to the head, we’re especially tuned in to goonery this week. Is that what we’re looking at, here?
Aube-Kubel would assure us that we’re not. “I’ve looked at all [the] checks and talked with the coach, and even players, and… I’m just trying to be physical, I didn’t mean to hurt them, the other players,” he tells me. “I’m just trying to do a certain job here, I’m not trying to hurt anyone. So, I think, if those guys didn’t [get] a concussion on those hits, they wouldn’t have been even close to a suspension. So, as I said, I didn’t mean to give them concussions, so I’m just going to do the same.” It’s the physical edge in his game that gets results, that he wants to maintain, without intent to cause damage. And again, it’s the question of roles that crops up again.
And we’re just reporting, here, not working at being didactic, so you can take those words however you will, but also maybe take a few of mine—for what it’s worth, I believe him, I think he’s being sincere. For what it’s worth.
But all that’s over, that’s done. Like the saying, the title of this baby says, new year, new me?
There’s certainly the chance for a step forward. We talked about his even strength production last season and how it impressed, and now we’re staring down a chance to see even more. Aube-Kubel got a look on the power play in the preseason and this wasn’t just a fluke, a need to get a body out there to fill a gap until they figure out the right personnel—he is the right personnel, and at long last..
Head coach Scott Gordon explained his reasoning: “with Nic last year, it was more about getting him to be… to have an impact in the game at 5-on-5. He really struggled his first year, and [going] into the year last year, it was more about getting him to have some consistency, defensively, and just playing an overall 200-foot game, and that’s what our focus was this year. He’s a guy that obviously has some offensive abilities, and now he’s getting closer to improving that 200-foot game, so now we’re gonna give him an opportunity to play on the power play, and maybe take advantage of some of his offensive abilities too.”
It’s an increased workload, more responsibility, and Aube-Kubel is all for it. “I’m pretty happy to work on special units, because last year I didn’t have any power play or pk, so that took a lot of my ice-time off. I mean, I was very good at 5-on-5, so I’ll just try to maintain that at 5-on-5, still be the best that I can, and if I can get some power play, of course it will be good for me.”
And those offensive abilities are just what we’re most excited about—he had a nice regular season run last year, but there’s room for improvement And, would you look at that, that’s where his focus is too, heading into the new season.
“I know last year in the playoffs I didn’t get as much points, and during the year, pretty much the whole year I was very consistent, but at the end there, I don’t know if I was tired, or mentally, so I’m just going to try to be more consistent for the whole season, and especially the playoffs”
A focus on finding consistency is a worthwhile one, one we would certainly like to see, as he has more opportunities given to him. He’s off to a nice start, to the tune of three points in two preseason games, and their opener on Saturday will be our first chance to see if this clip holds. But we’re going to key in on that very last comment there, in closing this thing out.
Already penciling them in for the playoffs? A Lehigh Valley Phantoms revenge tour? Yes, please.