The Flyers coughed up another two-goal lead last night, losing to the New Jersey Devils in a shootout. It didn’t affect their position in the standings, as the Flyers got a point and stayed in third place in the Metropolitan Division, but the Devils are on their heels, and rather than send the Devils home with nothing, they allowed them to get two critical points in the standings.
The Flyers younger players had varying degrees of success in the game. Travis Konecny scored again. He has eight goals in his last 11 games. He had six in the first 45.
However, Ivan Provorov had a rare bad turnover that led to a Devils goal, and Shayne Gostisbehere was really fighting the puck a lot, another rare occurrence, leading to a lot of chances for New Jersey.
The Flyers next big game is coming Friday night in Columbus against the suddenly high-scoring Blue Jackets. It’ll be a tough matchup against another team chasing them in the standings, and without Brian Elliott until the end of March the Flyers have to lean on the inconsistent Michal Neuvirth in net – at least until Ron Hextall trades for a goalie before the Feb. 26th trade deadline.
But rather than go into a breakdown of the game, I had a one-on-one sit down with Flyers assistant general manager Chris Pryor to talk about a number of Flyers prospects at all levels. Pryor gave some interesting and candid answers (He’s good that way).
Here is a transcript of our 20-minute conversation. If I felt the need to add any details, to any of the questions, I added it post-interview for your context, in italics.
Craig Button released his annual Top 50 players not in the NHL list on TSN.ca and the Flyers had four guys on the list Carter Hart (No. 19), Phil Myers (No. 30), Morgan Frost (No. 33) and German Rubstov (No. 47). How does that make the organization feel to be so well-represented?
CP: It’s always nice to see because our guys work hard at that. Hexy did a good job of accumulating picks and we had to work to make something of those picks. Vancouver had the most with five guys and we were next with four. So it’s nice – and it’s good for the kids. They’re all working hard so it’s good to give them credit where credit is due and good to give the scouts credit where credit is due. It’s nice to know everyone else who is seeing your prospects feels the same way as you do, but you have to remember, this is just the start for a lot of these guys and it’s a long process.
When you see what Carter Hart is doing in the WHL (1.52 GAA, .952 save percentage) which is a bit of a scorer’s league, it’s a little mind-boggling, isn’t it?
CP: People around here will get to know Carter over the years. He’s a terrific young man who works hard at his game and conducts himself as professionally as he can at 19-years-old. He’s a serious athlete who goes about his business and he wants to be a player, and he’s showing the hockey world over the last couple years from a development standpoint. He’s very serious about his game and it’s evolved and it’s showing. Kudos to him because he got some accolades from Hockey Canada and his peer group. He’s done a good job up to this point.
Hart also played brilliantly at the World Junior Championships, backstopping Team Canada to a Gold medal. However, for those of you screaming for him to be called into service for the Flyers with Elliott’s injury – he can’t be recalled from Junior Hockey until their season is over. Sometimes teams get an emergency waiver for a player, but those are only in case of dire circumstances and usually last no more than a game or two. So… no Carter Hart this season guys.
When you guys made the Brayden Schenn trade with St. Louis for a couple first round draft picks and Jori Lehtera, the first pick you used to select Morgan Frost. To see the kind of year he’s having with Sault Ste. Marie so far (32-56-88, plus-51 in 53 games), has that even exceeded the Flyers’ expectations for him to this point in his development?
CP: I don’t know if anybody can ever anticipate the kind of year he’s having. Not even Morgan. The first thing I will say about all our young kids is they’re good kids who take what they do seriously. If you get to know Morgan he cares about the game. He’s one of those guys who is a student of the game. He’s worked hard and had a very good year up until this point. I don’t know that even if we had a crystal ball and looked at where Morgan was last June we’d have seen him being where he is today. We obviously liked him a lot – in order to make that trade – but to say we thought he’d be where he is now? Nobody can say that. Obviously we’re happy with what he’s doing and I think they have a terrific team up there and they have a chance to go a long way – and he’s a big part of it.
Who in the organization has kind of surprised you this year with their accelerated developement?
CP: Morgan’s got to be the guy. But outside of him, it’s hard to really put your finger on one guy, especially trying to be fair to the other kids. But, the kid at Ohio State (Tanner Laczynski), has had a really good year 12-25-37, plus-18 in 30 games). The kid out in Kelowna (Carsen Twarynski) has put some really big numbers up (35-23-58, plus-6 in 53 games). And then we have a little Swede in Olle Lycksell who has done a really good job for a young kid in the Swedish League (14-14-28, plus-11 in 52 games) people don’t give him the publicity and notoriety over here that he should, and I get it, but for an 18-year-old playing in that big league over there, that’s quite an accomplishment. As an analogy, to go from Swedish Junior to the Swedish League is no different than going from Junior to the NHL over here. It’s a big step. He’s done a really nice job. I can sit here all night and talk about our kids. As an organization we’re proud of our young guys and I’m certainly happy with how they’ve performed.
Interestingly enough, the Flyers haven’t had a Swedish forward play even one game for them since they traded Peter Forsberg in 2007. That’s crazy. Especially for a country that develops so many great hockey players. But, as you will see in a few questions, the Flyers are making a more concerted investment in Swedish hockey and that streak ought to end sooner rather than later.
Looking at the collegiate players, you’ve really had three guys who were playing at a real high level in Laczynski, Cooper Marody (Michigan) and Wade Allison (Western Michigan) before Allison got hurt. They’re all Laczynski and Allison are still sophomores, Marody is a junior. What’s the next step for these guys?
CP: We’ll evaluate them at the end of the year like we do with all our kids and where we can project them to be next year and what we deem the best situation for their development. As you know, Ron isn’t going to rush anybody. We’re going to let the kids develop and be on the safe side. We’re extremely happy with all three kids. I think at one point or another they were all at or near the top of the NCAA scoring lead, which tells you the kind of year they’ve had. Cooper’s done a real nice job at Michigan. We talked a little bit about Tanner’s production. For Wade, unfortunately injuries are part of the game, but he’ll work through it and hell be fine, but it’s unfortunate because he was a big part of that team and they had a chance to make a nice run.
Allison was a second round pick and had been dominant at the collegiate level before his season-ending injury. The Flyers have high expectations for him, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he comes out of college and joins the Phantoms in the AHL next season. I think Marody (a 6th round pick) stays at Michigan for his senior year. Twarynksi (also a 6th rounder) is the wild card. He could go back to Ohio State for his junior year, but maybe his excellent season will entice him to start his pro career and join the Phantoms in 2018-19 as well.
We talked about Carter Hart, but for the first time in a real long time, maybe ever, you have some real goaltending depth. It’s still far off but Kirill Ustimenko is playing well in Russian Junior hockey and Felix Sandstrom in Sweden. Can you talk about that depth and what it means to the organization?
CP: Don’t forget Alex Lyon and Anthony Stolarz too. We also have Ivan Fedotov (in the Russian equivalent of the AHL) and Matej Tomek (in the USHL). We’re trying to pay attention to it at certain points in the draft. If our guys feel comfortable with taking a goalie we feel like we can take a swing at it and over the last couple years, we’ve accumulated some pretty good prospects in goal. We’ll see what happens, but right now it’s a nice group. They’ve all developed and are all going in the right direction, so we’ll see where it goes here in the next couple years.
Sandstrom was traded in Sweden and is now just starting to see more playing time. Tomek is a real long-range project. However, Ustimenko and Fedotov might get into the KHL as soon as next season (Fedotov played in one game this season). But, right now the clear top of the goalie prospect list for the Flyers is Hart and Sandstrom is likely number two.
We haven’t really discussed the AHL guys, and we’ve seen a few of them up in the NHL already, but one of the things I argue with fans about most – whether in the comments on Crossing Broad or on Twitter, is when guys in the AHL are ready to play in the NHL. I argue that it’s a delicate balance and that each guy is mutually exclusive from the next because each guy has a different makeup. Am I mistaken in making that argument?
CP: I think from a hockey standpoint and an industry standpoint, you’ll get the same answer from a lot of guys – going into the AHL is probably the biggest jump in competition these kids will ever experience. Whether they come straight from junior, or college, or Europe, it’s always tough. Now it’s a job. It’s a livelihood for some guys and their families. They are playing against men for the first time in many cases. And it’s not only the on-ice stuff. It’s the day-in, day-out routine off ice too. A lot of these kids hit Christmas break and feel like they’ve played a whole year and they’re not even halfway done. People don’t understand that part of it, or maybe they do they just don’t consider it when we’re talking about young adults. I also don’t think people know the American League. That’s not a criticism, it’s just that they aren’t watching it. I urge them to go and check it out. See it. Watch the kids playing there. It’s one of the benefits we have here – having our American League team so close. I encourage fans to venture to Lehigh. They have a fantastic rink and we have a lot of young kids playing there. It’s exciting to see the future, but it’s also a very hard league for those kids. We preach patience for a reason. We will bring a kid up when we think he’s ready to play. We don’t want a kid sitting around up here when he can get a lot of ice time down there. It’s very important for their development not to miss that stage. We’ve seen it with a lot of guys. Some spend more time than others but it is an important stage of each guy’s career.
Can you talk a little about Phil Myers, who is in the AHL and German Rubtsov, who is in the Quebec League, since they were also on Button’s list of the top 50 players?
CP: Phil Myers is interesting. If you backtrack to when we got him, we didn’t draft him and had to sign him as a free agent. We didn’t know him, obviously, but everyone didn’t know him as well as they probably should have. He’s been a nice surprise for us. He’s done a really good job and he has tremendous upside. People are going to be excited to see him eventually, but whenever that time is, it’s going to be up to Phil Myers. I encourage people to go watch him. He’s in a good situation right now. He has good coaching, he’s on a good team, he plays a lot, but it’s his first year – so it’s a big step for him.
Before you get to Rubtsov, when you signed Myers, was there a debate at a ll about potentially drafting him in one of the late rounds, and you guys just didn’t for whatever reason?
CP: You always wish the draft was an exact science, but it’s not. When you get to those late rounds, there’s a lot of balls in the air. Sometimes maybe you’ve made a couple defensive picks already and you want to go somewhere else. You always have a group of guys you are talking about and you want to take one from that group. We had him in the group late in the draft. We knew him, but maybe not as well as we should have. It’s hard to know everyone as well as we should. We had him in those late round groups, we just didn’t take him. But, we did think highly enough of him to bring him into camp, and, well, the rest is history.
What about Rubtsov?
CP: German has gotten bit by the injury bug a little bit up there in Quebec. He came in last year – and that’s a big jump too. People have to realize, not only is it a big jump for the North American kids to play in the AHL but for a European kid to come to North America, maybe without a real good handle on the English language or an understanding of the culture, that’s huge. German has done a good job, but there was definitely a learning curve for him. Think about it, he’s in Quebec, so he not only has the English language issue, but there’s a lot of French there too. So, that takes time. A lot of times, the off-ice stuff translates on-ice. The more comfortable they get with the off-ice the better they’ll be on-ice sometimes. He went into Quebec last year, started off really well and then ran into some injury problems. This year, he got traded from Chicoutimi to Acadie-Bathurst, so there was that transition. He went to World Juniors and came back. He also ran into some injury problems – nothing serious. So, it’s been hectic, but things are finally on course, but you can see why it takes time. We don’t want to rush German. He’s a good kid, but he’s still getting acclimated to the North American game and the North American culture, the more he figures that part out and he can walk around and communicate with everyone – that’s a huge relief for those guys – when they can finally express themselves.
Back to the European players – you mentioned Lycksell briefly playing in Sweden. You got a couple guys playing in the KHL. How does playing in those leagues at this age benefit young prospects like yours?
CP: Sweden does a fantastic job with their league. We’re very happy with how things go over there. Our scout over there (Joakim Grundberg) does a great job. But the Swedish League is a patient group. If you look at their history in how they bring their kids along, it should be a development model we all should follow. There’s very little travel. They have multiple tiers of play within their system. Right now we have five kids playing in the Swedish system – David Bernhardt, Lycksell, David Kase, Sandstrom and Linus Hogberg. We’re happy with that league having five kids there. We know they’re comfortable, they’re going to get good coaching. They’re going to be brought up right. The hockey is really good and they spend a lot of time on practice and they spend a lot of time on the off-ice stuff. I don’t want to say it’s ideal, but it’s really conducive for good development and it goes a long way to help each kid. We have a couple kids in the KHL, and that’s a good league with a lot of high-end, quality players whose names you recognize from playing in the NHL. A lot of times, kids play in the lower levels over there, but you just have to be patient. They’re in a good situation. There’s no rush. Those kids are coming along fine and we’re happy with it.
Back to the Phantoms, fans have been screaming all year for Oskar Lindblom to be called up, but if you look a the Phantoms, Nicolas Aube-Kubel has had a similar, if not better season than Lindblom because of his two-way ability, so maybe he’s actually further along than Lindblom, no?
CP: One thing about Aube-Kubel is he’s put a year in the AHL already. For Oskar, this is his first year and like I said before, it’s a huge jump. He’ll be fine. People have to be patient. Let him play in the AHL. The North American game is a big adjustment for him. Playing on a smaller ice surface – I’m not sure people realize just how big an adjustment that is for a young player. Oskar is doing well. He started off without scoring because he was feeling his way around, but now he has his feet under him and he’s doing fine. Nick is a perfect example of the difference a year can make and how patience works for these kids. He was feeling his way around last year. It’s tough too when you go from junior hockey where you are the guy and you are counted on in every situation, to going to the AHL where you have to earn your ice time – and that’s a good thing. Nick had to figure it out and last year was a bit up-and-down. This year he’s getting it and now he’s a big part of that team. I know this is a cliche saying anymore but really, you have to trust the process. It’s a proven process in this league and it’s worked that way for every team. No one really does it any differently than anyone else. Just understand that the organization is looking out for the best interests of each player. If you put your time in, things will turn out. I think both Oskar and Nick are good examples of that. They come to the rink, do their job, work hard, and put their trust in the fact that we know what we are doing.
The difference between the two is the Flyers think Lindblom is ultimately a second line winger, so there’s no reason to call him up to play fourth line minutes. However, Aube-Kubel is showing some real promise as a bottom six forward, and could get a call if there’s an injury. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him as a third line guy for the Flyers as soon as next season.
Last question, is there frustration building with the repeated injuries for Sam Morin and how that’s really slowed his development?
CP: I don’t know if frustrated is the word. You just feel so badly for the kid. Sam wants so badly to play. Injuries are part of the game and sometimes you wonder when they’re going to slow down or stop for a guy, but he’ll be fine. It’s just one of those years where every time he turns around it seems like he’s getting nicked up a little bit. It’s too bad and it’s a tough thing to go through. But, he’s got a good head on his shoulders and at the end of the day, it makes everything that much better when you get to where you want to get to and you had to go through some adversity.
But he’s close? I mean, I know it’s been five years since he was drafted, but you knew when you drafted him that it was going to be a little longer of a process with him, right?
CP: Exactly. I think the expectation got a little carried away here with Sam. It’s unfair to him. But now I think the fans and media finally realize that it takes some time. He just needs to play in the AHL and learn the game. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s trusting the process and there’s no timetable. Some guys take three months, some guys take three years. but at the end of the day, it’s valuable experience.