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Mikhail Vorobyev is finding his game again

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The Russian center has been getting back into the swing of things in Lehigh Valley.

Casey Liberatore - SB Nation ©

With the off-season departure of Valtteri Filppula, one of the bigger questions surrounding the Philadelphia Flyers heading into training camp was who would be filling the now-vacated role of third line center. With a mix of both veteran and rookie skaters vying for the spot, a strong showing from Mikhail Vorobyev throughout the preseason had him on the fast track to making the team—much to the surprise of many.

While Vorobyev was one of the Phantoms’ best play drivers last year, the production was lacking with just 29 points in 58 games despite getting power play time, albeit mostly with the second unit, and he really wasn’t playing all that much at even strength some nights. It was his play away from the puck, however, that made him stand out on a nightly basis. His play style drawing comparisons to Sean Couturier at times, Vorobyev was always looked at as a dark horse candidate to make the team in a defensive, bottom-six role. As we know now, he did make the team, but it wasn’t in a defensive role like we had imagined. Instead, it was in a much more offensive one.

With most of his minutes at even strength coming in a sheltered role alongside numerous linemates, Wayne Simmonds being the most common of the bunch, Vorobyev was expected to provide a solid boost to depth scoring. Two points in seven games, one being that goal that he scored after Semyon Varlamov was taken out by his own defender, didn’t cut it. Also of note is that while he was a mainstay on the Phantoms’ penalty kill last season, and made appearances on Flyers’ kill during the preseason, Vorobyev did not receive a single shift while the Flyers were down a man in his short regular season stint. However, he was a member of the second power play unit and was out-scored 2-0 on the man advantage—a statistic that would be shocking on most teams, but not the Flyers.

After scoring a point in each of his first two games as a Flyer, and winning the shot battle with an impressive 59.78% CF at 5-on-5, Vorobyev hit a wall. As his play dropped so did his ice time, and soon he was only playing eight minutes a night while barely seeing the ice in the third period, if he was even playing at all. Following his seventh game with the Flyers versus the New York Islanders, head coach Dave Hakstol was none too pleased with the rookie’s performance, alluding to a lack of effort and intensity when asked about Vorobyev’s lack of ice time in the third period.

The easy situation to compare this to is when then-rookie Travis Sanheim was scratched for an extended period of time just a year ago, with the differences being that Sanheim’s underlying numbers were actually good while Vorobyev’s were not, and the amount of games that Vorobyev sat out being much less. Outside of that, their paths were quite similar in that they were both second year North American pros who forced their way onto the team, only to quickly fall out of favor with the coaching staff and subsequently be loaned to the AHL.

So, after being bounced in and out of the lineup and seeing his minutes continuously decrease, it was clear that Vorobyev was without the confidence of his coach, and just one day after their contest with the Islanders it was official: Vorobyev would be heading back to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.

In his second game with the Phantoms, Vorobyev picked up his first two points of the AHL season, a primary assist on German Rubtsov’s shorthanded goal to tie the game, and a power play goal of his own thirteen minutes into the third period to give the Phantoms a 3-2 lead. While they’d go on to lose the game in overtime, Vorobyev looked more like his old self again even though his on-ice metrics were poor that night. Following a so-so third game, Vorobyev would put together what might have been his best game of the season in either league. Yes—we’re talking about a game where the Phantoms scored eight goals and Vorobyev had just one point as being his best performance of the season.

While it is true that he had just one point on the night, a primary assist on the Phantoms’ eight and final goal scored, Vorobyev made his impact off of the scoresheet. The duo of Rubtsov and Vorobyev, dubbed as the “Russian bash brothers” by Greg Carey, on the penalty kill proved key early on as they had already killed three of the Phantoms’ four minor penalties while the game was still close at a score of 2-1. The two were relentless forecheckers in not only the defensive zone, but in all three zones as they worked towards taking time off the clock. Not only was Vorobyev a key cog in the team’s penalty kill, he was arguably their most effective forward at 5-on-5 that night with a team-high 82.61 CF%, +38.35% rel.

Inconsistent comes to mind when thinking about how to describe Vorobyev’s return thus far, as that strong performance was bookended by two games where he posted a CF% sub-40% and had a negative Game Score. In fact in his fifth game of the season he had a Game Score of -0.68, his second-lowest in the AHL to date. His most recent game doesn’t help his case either, posting a team-low 33.33% 5-on-5 CF. So while he’s not exactly tearing it up just yet, there’s still been positive signs of what’s to come.

Following the Phantoms overtime win versus the Charlotte Checkers last Wednesday night, Broad Street Hockey’s own Maddie Campbell asked Phantoms’ head coach Scott Gordon about Vorobyev’s compete level, tying back to some of the comments coming out of the organization, and Gordon gave quite the thorough response that deserves to be read in full rather than picking and choosing what to include:

“I think there’s a lot of energy that goes into training camp, where you’re asked to play… if they played eight exhibition games, I think he played seven of them, and, you know, you’re knocking on the door, there’s a lot of stress, you want to make the team, you know you’re getting close, and you really don’t want to make a mistake that’s gonna send you down. And for him to be able to go in there and basically steal a job from another player, that’s not easy, that doesn’t happen too often. And that’s one of those situations that management of an NHL team, they welcome it, they would love to have somebody knock down the door and take a spot, but the reality is that it’s pretty hard to do it, and he did that. And I think his first two games, he played quite a bit and made contributions, but then all of a sudden, you know, it probably caught up to him. The adrenaline had worn off, he survived the cuts, made the team, played a couple games, played well, and you don’t get the benefit of the doubt when you’re a first year player. So, as things started trending… I don’t want to say negatively, but when things stopped happening for him, his ice time decreased, and when he was getting on the ice he’s not probably physically having the same energy as when you play all the time, you’re cold, you sit, and you wait. And you make a couple of mistakes and that ice time takes a cut and then you’re the odd guy out, and you don’t play for a couple of weeks, and your game sharpness goes. It’s a hard… that whole process is hard, and any player that’s been through it would probably say the same thing. You’ve just got to be on top, because you just don’t get the benefit of the doubt, you’ve got to prove it every single night.”

It’s sort of like a never-ending cycle in that once his play began to stagnant a bit, he didn’t play enough to get back to the level that we all know he can get to. So, without any improvement shown, his ice time continued to drop until he was eventually the odd-man out. It certainly didn’t help that the Flyers as a whole were struggling out of the gate, going 4-7-0 while Vorobyev was on the roster, because when things are going that poorly it’s not hard to understand a lack of trust in a rookie player who had been underwhelming in his last few games.

Through eight games with the Phantoms this season Vorobyev has two goals, four assists, a 43.24% CF and 42.03% SCF at 5-on-5, and a 0.44 average Game Score. He’s also drawn two minor penalties, taken three, and won 44.57% of his faceoffs. The points are there, but he’s not quite back to where he was last season yet—he’s getting there though. Remember, it took Sanheim a couple of games to get back into form before he took off on his incredible AHL run last season, and Vorobyev is working through that adjustment period just as he did.

NHL data courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, and is score-adjusted; AHL data via Phancy Stats