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BSH Mailbag: Let’s talk about prospects

Answers await!

Heather Barry / SB Nation

You guys asked, and I answered. Thanks to everyone who submitted questions, this was a lot of fun to put together. Let’s get right into it! It’s prospect talk time!

I’m gonna lead right off with this one because I think it’s super fun. This could be a whole article in and of itself, so I’ll just stick with picking a couple for this (and last) year’s All Star Game skills events, for the sake of (relative) brevity.

Fastest Skater*: David Kase, Jay O’Brien, Noah Cates

*Man, we really don’t have any burners anymore. This was tougher than I though it would be.

Save Streak (who would shoot): Olle Lycksell, Bobby Brink, Morgan Frost

Accuracy Shooting: Mikhail Vorobyev, Wade Allison, Bobby Brink

Hardest Shot: Ronnie Attard, Linus Hogberg, Isaac Ratcliffe

Premier Passer: Mikhail Vorobyev, Morgan Frost, German Rubtsov

Shooting Star*: Cam York, Pascal Laberge, Connor Bunnaman

*Also known as “players I couldn’t fit elsewhere but still think deserve a little love”

I had to give this question a lot of thought—like, a lot of thought—because prospect tiers are something that I, personally, naturally want to resist, because to me they can seem a little static and somewhat lacking in nuance. That is, if, to use your example, McDavid and Provorov are both A prospects, there’s a pretty huge difference in the pure talent and impact level between those two players, despite the fact that they’re both incredibly talented and have top line/pair upside. Additionally, I think sometimes (but not always, depends who you ask), the tiers don’t leave a lot of room for movement between them. Like, for example, when Oskar Lindblom was first drafted, he was probably most safely categorized as a B prospect because of his weaker skating, someone who maybe, might, who knows have an NHL ceiling if he fixes the skating. And then he did it and by the time we saw him full time in the AHL, he had pushed himself up to looking like “hey, maybe he could have a second line ceiling? Maybe?” and effectively bumped himself up a tier with his developmental work. That’s a thing that can happen too.

If anything, I tend to try to think of prospects on more of a spectrum, where they can move up and down and exist more relatively to each other, but I acknowledge that that isn’t always as tidy and requires quite a bit more explanatory work in writing about said prospects. Which is all just to say that we live in tier world, folks, and sometimes you have to bend to the existing system.

So, gun to my head, for me (and these aren’t going to be hot takes) an A prospect would be someone who projects to be able to play in a team’s top six forwards or top four defensemen, and a B prospect projects as still an NHLer, but as more of a depth player. For both of these groups, assuming things go as projected (which doesn’t always happen, and we can’t always account for that!), the NHL, if it isn’t their absolute floor, is pretty close. There can be a bit of overlap there. When you get down to C and below (if you wanted to break it down further), things get a bit more nebulous—with these prospects, maybe their ceiling is an NHL depth role, if they do all of the developmental work right and all the pieces fall into place for them, but they may well cap out below that. That’s much more of a “wait and see” category.

So a couple of examples from the Flyers’ system that immediately come to mind would be something like:

A Prospect, Morgan Frost: Because of his skill level and game influencing potential, it’s not hard to imagine that he could be a 2C at the NHL level if he hits his ceiling, but his floor as a prospect may well be something like “good, very skilled middle sixer,” so still not too shabby.

B Prospect, Mark Friedman: Projects as a third pair defenseman in the NHL, maybe in a pinch a team could bump him up to the second for a bit and he’d be fine, but he’d be best suited in a third pair role. But he’s clearly good enough to play in the NHL.

C Prospect, Connor Bunnaman: With how he’s improved his pace and skating over the last year, he’s looking like he’s picked up NHL speed, and if he figures out how to drive play and make playing limited minutes work for him, he could be a good 4C for an NHL team. But, if not, he’d be a good AHLer.

I’m so glad you sent this one in because there are a number of layers going on here, each of which I feel pretty strongly about, which is fun.

I want to start with the elephant in the room, if you will—yes, Laberge had a terrible concussion and it took him a while to come back from that, and there was a lot of work that he had to do to get himself back to old form. That was also three and a half years ago. I keep hearing this, that he’s not the same player, that he’s playing tentatively now, and maybe that was true a few years ago. But I’ve also gotten to watch him for parts of two seasons while he’s been with Lehigh Valley, and I feel confident saying that this isn’t an issue with him anymore. He’s not afraid to take a hit, drive to the front of the net, get in a battle in the corners, whatever. And I’m hoping that we can quash that old narrative once and for all.

And, all of this said, his skill set hasn’t changed, and I still think that he has all the tools to be able to have an NHL career in the future. He still has a good bit of work to do in the AHL to round out his game before he’ll be ready for that, but he seems more than capable of making that happen. It might be trite to say, but development is almost never linear, and I’m not ready to count him out just because his path has been a bit more tumultuous than some others’.

It’s an open question whether he makes it to the NHL with this organization, given how deep they are with forward prospects, but if this season has proven anything, it’s that positions on depth charts are anything but static, and a player may be way down in the ranks on paper to start the season, and then find himself making his NHL debut before Christmas. That’s hockey. He’s going to still have to put in a lot of work, but I do still like his chances.

The first name that comes to mind is David Kase. I don’t know if we can fully call him a dark horse, because he made his NHL debut this season and already showed us a hint of an ability to be effective at that level. But I’ve always been high on Kase, I think he’s something of an ideal energy player—brings a good bit of speed and tenacity but also has enough skill to be able to chip in offensively at times. He still needs to work on some elements of his game—scoring consistency would be nice, as well as tightening up a bit away from the puck—and I imagine this will happen over the next season in the AHL.

But a couple more under the radar prospects that I’m particularly high on are Olle Lycksell and Ronnie Attard. Lycksell, still just 20 years old, is in his second season with Linkoping of the SHL, and is really starting to put it all together—he’s fifth in scoring on his team with 17 points in 36 games (up from 12 points in 51 games last season) and has worked to pull his underlying numbers up as well (a 47.57 CF% on a team struggling to drive play this season, after finishing last season at 42.78 percent). He’s got pretty good speed, and his puck handling is honestly just a delight to watch, he’s got great hands. And, with him working on figuring out scoring and driving play at the pro level in Sweden, it’s not hard to imagine that, given the right circumstances, he could translate that to the North American game. He’ll likely be in Sweden for a few more seasons, but he’s someone that I think could have an impact, once he makes his way over.

Attard, after he was drafted, I didn’t really know what to do with—I didn’t hate the Flyers taking a shot on him because obviously he had a monster season in the USHL, but it can be hard to parse through everything and be completely sure if he really is just a late bloomer, or if some of it had to do with his defensive partner and being a bit older in the USHL. But, in his first season with Western Michigan, he’s doing just about everything he can to prove that it’s the former and he is the real deal. He’s up to 6 goals and 9 points in 18 games, and has really been coming on recently, after missing a few weeks with injury. He’s still a little raw, and needs to get a bit stronger and work on his skating before he’ll be able to really hang at the pro level, but he’s already made strides (sorry) since I last saw him at development camp. The offensive instincts are clear, but he also plays a strong, aggressive defensive game which I think could translate well to the NHL level, as long as the rest of the development goes smoothly. He’s a sneaky exciting prospect, I feel, someone worth keeping an eye on.

I want to start by saying that I’m so glad I got a question about Willman because I’ve really liked him so far and he’s been an interesting case. He isn’t technically a prospect—he came out of college (Brown, then BU) and signed with the Royals and started his season there. It’s funny, he was actually a healthy scratch through the first ten games or so of their season. But he really came on for them in November and into December, and while the Phantoms were struggling a bit in December, they brought him in on a PTO and he’s been really solid ever since. He’s got good speed and brings a lot of energy to his line, and has been a veritable high danger chance generating machine (eight alone in his first 10 games that Brad has tracked), even while playing in a fourth line role. He’s also brought a nice scoring touch, as you alluded to, with five points in his last six games. He’s been a really useful energy player for the team, in the best meaning of the term. Now, we’ve only seen him for 13 games at this point, so it’s still a little too early to say with certainty just what we have with him. He’s also a little older (25 in a few weeks), but the initial signs are really promising. I imagine the Phantoms will offer him an AHL contract once his PTO is up (frankly, they’d be crazy not to), and I really think, if they can make it work logistically, the Flyers should consider tossing him an ELC after this season. It may be worth giving him a longer look in the system.

I think, of all of the prospects we’ve seen get a look with the Flyers so far this season, the only one that I would say is completely NHL ready is Mark Friedman. Really, he’s been ready since, I’d say, towards the end of last season, and it’s really just been the numbers game that’s kept him down with the Phantoms. It’s a shame, but hey, if nothing else, he’ll be really ready when we see him next season (when I’m figuring he’ll get a chance to carve out a more permanent role with the team).

Just about everyone else I would say needs a bit more time with the Phantoms to develop, but some are obviously closer than others. Morgan Frost is obviously incredibly skilled and could well be back with the Flyers before the end of the season. He’s close. So too is Mikhail Vorobyev—he has all of the tools to be able to be successful in the NHL, he just has to find a way to bring some consistency. And then all of German Rubtsov, David Kase, and Connor Bunnaman have a bit of work left to do. They’re all first or second year pros, so it’s understandable, but I’d imagine it’s next season at the earliest that any of them are really ready (but we’ll likely revisit that later, when they have the full season under their belts).

​As far as “tweeners” ​go, I guess Andy Andreoff would fall into that category? He isn’t a prospect, and we kind of knew this already (this is kind of what he was brought in to be), but I’m including him just for comprehensiveness’s sake.

I’m hesitant to ​say that any of the prospects we’ve seen so far are absolutely going to be tweeners, full stop, because they’re all so young and still have a lot of developing to do, but Carsen Twarynski is the one that’s given me the most pause. Credit to him for having a strong training camp, and there was obviously something that the Flyers saw in him, but seeing him with the Phantoms this last season and a half, there hasn’t been much about his skill set and ability to influence play at the AHL level that screams “will be more or less consistently effective at the NHL level.”

And maybe that sounds harsh, but I’ll fully acknowledge that this could change in a hurry—last October I wasn’t sure that Bunnaman had an NHL ceiling, but he found a way to be effective down the stretch and then trained hard in the offseason to improve his speed and endurance, and suddenly his game is coming together in a big way. It’s possible that Twarynski goes on and finds a niche and keeps developing and makes me change my mind, but he has some work to do before that happens.

Last but not least! I think at this point I would say that Samuel Ersson is the top goaltending prospect, presently. And this doesn’t even have to do with the fact that both Kirill Ustimenko and Felix Sandstrom (the next closest prospects) are looking to be a bit further away than we perhaps initially thought they would be, it really just is a testament to Ersson’s skill. He plays a more technical style, more about precise angles than pure athleticism, and he already looks solid in it.

He also dominated in the Allsvenskan (a .933 save percentage with Vasteras IK) last season, which is still a difficult league, which is exactly what you want to see from one of your top prospects. He had a rough start to this season with Brynas in the SHL, but has pulled it together some, and proved to be the more effective goaltender for the struggling club. He’s pulled his save percentage up to .896 already, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets that above .900 to end the season. The SHL is a difficult league to play in, particularly for a recently turned 20 year old goaltender, and it would have been unfair to expect that he would come in and dominate in that league right off the bat. He’s finding his footing right now, and it’s encouraging to see him improving as the season goes on.

I would say that he’s their most complete goaltending prospect, at present, and while I imagine he spends, at the very least, one more full season in Sweden, before he comes over to the States, so far he’s the one with the most promise, separating himself from the pack. He might not be knocking on the door to the NHL right now, but I think he has the best chance of making it there in the end.