September’s been set abuzz. The Flyers’ rookie camp is upon us, and we’re just days away from the opening of full training camp, and this year, perhaps more so than in the past handful, the battles for spots in the opening night roster are set to be tense.
There’s a lot being made of these battles among the forwards, and there are several big names being given quite a bit of attention, chiefly among them Morgan Frost, Joel Farabee, and German Rubtsov. It’s easy to get caught up in a bit of tunnel vision for the flashier, front and center prospects, but the Flyers’ prospect pool is deep at forward, and there are certainly more than a couple of more under the radar prospects with hopes of sweeping in and stealing a spot for themselves.
Enter Connor Bunnaman.
The soon to be second year pro is coming off of a strong rookie season with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and is taking big leaps forward in his development. He’s got NHL readiness in his sights, and it may well be approaching faster than we anticipated.
Does he have an eye on one of those open spots with the Flyers? It’s hard not to.
“Obviously it’s in the back of your mind” he said on Sunday, “but through the whole camp, from the start, you’ve just got to work and work and work and do all the drills right, and hope the coaches notice you enough to put you in a spot.”
It’s about doing all that you can to make an impression, and if his history at the pro level carries weight, he should find himself with the foundation for a compelling case for consideration on the roster bubble. His last season saw him, after a bit of a slow start, total 19 goals and 32 points in 62 games, with 17 of those goals coming in his last 49 games played. When the Phantoms found themselves pretty well ravaged by injury, Bunnaman answered the call, moving up in the lineup (and over to center) and doing well to re-infuse some more offense into a sometimes struggling corps.
It wasn’t a scoring total that many would have expected from him in his first season with the team, but Bunnaman did well to veritably shatter those expectations. It’s a testament to just how far he’s come in his development. Indeed, just watching him in camp this weekend, he looks like a different player from what we saw just a year ago. The strength and finesse are coming along just about as you’d expect from a player who has a season of professional playing experience under his belt, but the speed is what really seems to have come along. The game is just getting faster, he knows, and he’s doing all that he can to catch back up.
Twice a week this summer, he would make the trek to Toronto to work with a power skating coach to work on his speed, and the results are undeniable. Watching him in some of the full ice drills, as well as Sunday’s scrimmage, the impression of him wasn’t just that he was able to keep up with the pace of play, but that he looked flat out fast. And this wasn’t an impression that we were left with often last season.
And this is going to make all the difference for him. Because it’s not enough anymore to just be a passable skater at the AHL level, you need to move past that to be able to keep up with the still increased pace of the NHL. This was figuring to be one of the bigger pieces of his game that he would need to develop if he ever hoped to make it to the next level, and he’s been urging that pace and development along in bounds.
If he makes a push for a Flyers roster spot out of camp, all the better. But if not, the task will be to see if he can replicate last season’s success with this new and (hopefully) improved Phantoms team. But that’s a conversation for another day.
For now, he’s worrying about what he can control, just getting himself as well as he can into the coaches’ good graces. More than anything else, he’s just excited to be back:
“Just getting back on a team, waking up, playing hockey every day, it’s not a bad life.”
Not a bad life, indeed.
Stats via theAHL.com