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I want to tell you a story about a hockey player that as recently as 12 weeks ago, nobody wanted.
Don’t worry, it’s Christmas time, so this is a feel good story.
But before we get to the crescendo of the underscore, we need to go back in time a little bit. Back to where there was no music playing in this story. There was just silence.
It was during Flyers training camp, the first under new coach Alain Vigneault. Every player in the organization was given a fresh start. What happened in the past was not prologue. Sure, those of us who watched the team would remember – both the good and the bad – and even some within the organization’s upper echelon of management would dust off their notes from a season ago, but Vigneault came in fresh-faced and eyes open to any possibility.
There were a number of younger players who were also going to be given the opportunity to make the team. We all know the journeys of Phil Myers, Morgan Frost and Joel Farabee, and how they were the final cuts from camp before getting recalled relatively quickly during the season.
But there was one player who signed a one year, two-way, “prove it” contract in July, who was hoping to open enough eyes to make the team in camp.
After all, there would be a couple of spots available for his style of play – a bottom six forward who could bring energy, speed, determination, and some potential secondary scoring to the lineup.
When camp broke, the Flyers chose to go with Carsen Twarynski and Connor Bunnaman in those roles. The guy they didn’t chose was the guy who signed that one year deal.
Instead, because of his age and experience, the “prove it” guy was waived.
He had 24 hours to wait and see if any of the other 30 teams in the NHL would claim him and give him the shot he was hoping for at the NHL level.
After the clock did two complete revolutions and that time expired, he heard nothing. Crickets. Nobody wanted him. Not even on a one-year deal worth only $700,000.
Without any other option, he had to once again return to the Phantoms in the AHL, a place where his development was sort of stalling.
It was an unfortunate set of circumstances. With the prior regime, lorded over by former GM Ron Hextall, he was considered a burgeoning prospect. An early-round draft pick, he was a guy Hextall and his staff had an eye on and expected big things from.
But then Hextall was fired and the staff turned over considerably. Chuck Fletcher came in and brought new people with him.
For the one-time prospect who was nearing his long-dreamed-about breakthrough, it was like starting all over again.
And that’s something that Nicolas Aube-Kubel knew might be a long shot.
Getting on the radar
Aube-Kubel was a second-round draft pick by the Flyers in 2014. He was considered a top-40 North American skater by many draftniks and because of his speed and determination, was a guy who some teams would take a shot on somewhere in the second or third round.
He wasn’t the biggest kid. That was the knock on him. And he didn’t have great hands. But he had a willingness to go to hard areas of the ice, so if he could just add a little size, maybe he could develop into the kind of forward that nicely fills out an NHL roster.
But playing junior hockey in Quebec, Aube-Kubel wasn’t asked to be much of a 200-foot player. His team needed him to score.
By his second season with the Val d’Or Foreurs, he was playing second line center (behind only Anthony Mantha, who was drafted in the first round the year before by the Detroit Red Wings), and he saw a huge spike in his offense.
As a 17-year old, he posted 10 goals and 17 assists for 27 points in 64 games for Val d’Or. But, in 2013-14, he nearly doubled his production, posting 22 goals and 31 assists for 53 points in 65 games as he helped the Foreurs win the QJMHL championship and he had an opportunity to play in the Memorial Cup Tournament between the champions of each of Canada’s major junior leagues.
It was this season that caught the eye of the Flyers – especially Quebec scout Todd Hearty – and they selected him in the middle of the second round, 48th overall.
With Mantha signing his entry level deal and shipping off to the AHL, Aube-Kubel was leaned on even more heavily the next season in Val d’Or. In 61 games he posted 38 goals and 42 assists for 80 points and the Foreurs made another deep run in the QJMHL playoffs.
In his final season in the Q, Aube-Kubel, improved his totals again, finishing with 38 goals and 46 assists for 84 points.
It looked like the Flyers had a gem on their hands.
Pro hockey without the glitz and glamour
But the AHL can be a humbling experience for many a high-flying junior hockey player. No longer are you playing against teenagers looking for the easy way out.
No, now you are playing against men. Guys who have been through the wars and have the scars to prove it. It’s an amalgam of prospects trying to make their way to the big show, tweeners who are yo-yo’d up and down by the big club, and a bunch of other guys holding on to the faintest hope of ever making it, often hanging on far longer than they should, but knowing nothing but hockey, finding a way to make a living toiling in the minors.
The game can deflate you at this level. It takes you down a peg or three. It makes you eat dirt. It cuts you to the quick.
But it messes with your mind more than anything else.
It makes you question yourself. Are you really good enough? Hell, if it’s a challenge at this level, what’s it going to be like in the AHL? What happened to all my abilities? I used to score at will. Now, I can barely get a shot off without some grizzled hanger-on chopping his stick across my hands. What is happening here?
“It’s hard to prove yourself in the AHL because it’s such a different game,” Aube-Kubel told me. “It’s such a defensive game, even more than in the NHL. You have to play a role. I was asked to play on the penalty kill. I had to prove I could play defensively.”
It wasn’t something Aube-Kubel was used to. He was a guy who was used to just going out onto the ice, blowing past everyone with his speed burst as if he had an internal X button that he could tap repeatedly, and creating offense for his team.
But this defense thing, and the penalty kill, and the grind of playing a responsible defense-first game was something new to him.
Thankfully for Aube-Kubel he had a confidant in Flyers assistant coach Ian Laperriere. Laperriere always talked about the challenges for young players to find out where they belong.
He once described it to me this way:
“When you put together a hockey team, it’s like making a seating arrangement. Everybody is going to get a chair, but where that chair is located will make you see the game from a different angle. Young players always want to be in the chairs in the front row because they’ve been told all their lives that they are the best players and that they can do anything on the ice. But once you get to this level, only so many guys can have those front chairs. Everyone else has to find a different chair. The sooner you realize that you can go sit in a different chair, the better off you will be. Unfortunately, some kids never figure that out. We try to tell them. We try to guide them. But they don’t always get it.”
Scott Laughton has been one of the Flyers success stories in this vein. He was a first round pick, and first round picks are expected to be fast-tracked to the NHL and become top-end talents. However, Laughton is a guy who the Flyers needed to develop differently. They needed him to be more versatile. They needed him to be willing to be a third line player who did a lot of little things well that don’t necessarily show up in a box score.
Laughton embraced that role quickly. He found his chair. He’s now a fixture in the Flyers lineup as a very reliable and talented bottom six forward.
For Aube-Kubel, the light switch didn’t flick on as quickly.
Finding his way
At the conclusion of his final Junior season, Aube-Kubel was given a chance to test these AHL waters. Without much direction, basically in a “let’s see what you got, kid” kind of situation for a Lehigh Valley team that knew it wasn’t going to the playoffs, Aube-Kubel came in and impressed with his skill right away.
In his first six professional games, he scored a pair of goals and added an assist and flashed a glimmer of what the Flyers hoped he could become.
But then life changed the next season.
In 2016-17, Aube-Kubel was a regular player on the Phantoms, playing in 71 games. But the offense all but disappeared. He posted just nine goals and nine assists for 18 points, many nights being buried in a bottom six role on an AHL team.
He didn’t quite understand what was happening. The game was swallowing him up, as it does many first-year pros.
But at the end of the season, the Flyers met with Aube-Kubel and told him what changes were needed to be a better pro. He needed to get bigger without losing his top-end speed. He needed to be more willing to play with a defense-first mentality and realize that good offensive opportunities are born from good defensive posture.
When 2017-18 rolled around, Aube-Kubel was suddenly making a name for himself again, this time as a well-rounded player in the AHL.
Back in February, 2018, I spoke with then-assistant G.M. Chris Pryor about a lot of the Flyers prospects, and this is what he had to say about Aube-Kubel:
“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.”
Aube-Kubel had his best year in the AHL in 2017-18, finishing with 18 goals and 28 assists for 46 points in 72 games.
In the summer of 2018, Hextall came on the Snow the Goalie podcast and indicated he thought Aube-Kubel was a young player to keep an eye on as a possibility to not only make the team out of training camp, but to be a real contributor at the NHL level.
Aube-Kubel had a really good camp in the Fall of 2018, but was one of the last cuts. He went back to the AHL and then, through no fault of his own and some bad timing, everything went to hell.
A series of unfortunate events
On Black Friday, 2018, I was told Hextall was going to be fired but former coach Dave Hakstol was going to keep his job. I told Russ just before the first intermission. Like a kid in a candy store, he couldn’t wait to publicize it. We went on the Press Row Show at intermission and he threw the scenario out to me. My facial expressions tell the story as I hem and haw about it.
Yet, three days later, that’s exactly what happened.
Hakstol stayed on for a bit longer, but he was dead in the water as a coach.
In the middle of all this upheaval, Aube-Kubel was recalled from the Phantoms, and wasn’t really given a chance to show what he could do, nor was he really being watched closely at the NHL level.
“It’s a different situation than last year,” Aube-Kubel said. “Last year the team was losing and I got called up as the coach was about to lose his job.”
Hakstol did lose his job. Aube-Kubel was sent back down to the Phantoms as new GM Chuck Fletcher wanted to assess what he had at the NHL level.
When Aube-Kubel went back to the Phantoms he suffered two injuries. An LCL sprain in his knee and a concussion.
Fletcher and new assistant GM Brent Flahr didn’t get to see Aube-Kubel at his best.
“Their first opinion of me was the end of the American League season and I wasn’t playing my best hockey,” Aube Kubel said. “I was coming back from injuries and I wasn’t at my best. So, it was very important for me to have a good summer, come back and have a good camp. I thought I had a good camp, but they made the decision and went for another player and I still had to wait for my chance.”
But getting sent down again wasn’t easy.
Aube-Kubel had just five goals and three assists for eight points in 26 games with the Phantoms. He was inconsistent. He would have one really good game, but it was often sandwiched by two games that weren’t great. Frustrated with his inconsistency, Phantoms coach Scott Gordon made him a healthy scratch for a game.
He came back determined, but was still further down the Flyers depth chart.
However, a rash of injuries, suspensions and a cancer diagnosis to Oskar Lindblom left Fletcher with very few choices for wingers to come in and play as fill-ins at the NHL level, so he leaned on the guy he gave one more chance with that “prove it” contract and recalled Aube-Kubel.
‘The time is now’
When Aube-Kubel was a kid, growing up in Slave Lake, Alberta, his favorite goalie was Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers.
He didn’t want to play goalie, mind you. It takes a certain breed to want to stand there and have people fire frozen vulcanized rubber at you repeatedly at 100 MPH. But he loved watching Lundqvist turn away shot after shot after shot.
One day, he hoped to have an opportunity to face his boyhood favorite in a real game, but first he needed an opportunity in the NHL again.
That opportunity presented itself with the Flyers so shorthanded up front- and not just one where he would play just five minutes a game, like last season.
This time, he was going to play meaningful minutes. Flyers coach Alain Vigneault paired him on a line with red hot veterans James van Riemsdyk and Kevin Hayes. Together, the trio were awesome when it came to puck possession, to hunting pucks, to pressuring the opposition and, to putting pucks on net.
Both van Riemsdyk and Hayes had begun scoring with more regularity, a boon for a Flyers offense that had begun to sputter in December after a brilliant November.
In the process, Aube-Kubel had picked up a couple assists in his first four games, but he also did some other things well. His speed stood out. So did his physicality. So did his determination to go get the puck.
Following a game against Buffalo last week, Vigneault highlighted those attributes and said, “there’s room for that here.”
Aube-Kubel, if he was willing to play that role at the NHL level, could keep a place in Vigneault’s foot-on-the-pedal system. Even when guys like Laughton and Michael Raffl return from their injuries, there’s still a spot for a 12th forward on this roster.
There’ve been several AHL guys who’ve had a chance this season. Twarynski, Bunnaman, Misha Vorobyev, David Kase and Andy Andreoff have been up and down with the team, but none seem to stick.
With Lindblom done for the season and Nolan Patrick remaining a complete enigma with his migraine disorder, the Flyers need one of their AHL forwards to latch on to that final forward spot. And you can tell Vigneault likes Aube-Kubel’s style.
So maybe it was serendipitous for Aube-Kubel, who has had such a long and tumultuous journey, that he was on the roster at a time when the Flyers would face the Rangers and Lundqvist.
There was definitely an extra pep in Aube-Kubel’s step too – evident from his first shift. Maybe playing with Hayes, who was absolutely pumped to face his former team, and JVR, who grew up rooting for the Rangers, and playing for a coach who likes him – who just so happened to be fired from coaching the Rangers a season ago, that had “Cube,” as Vigneault likes to call him, elevating his game.
He was a bowling ball early. He pissed off the Rangers with some physical play. A hard hit on $11 million man Artemi Panarin had the Rangers chasing him around the ice trying to fight him. Aube-Kubel remained disciplined, and drew a penalty. Later, his aggressive skating drew another penalty. He was becoming a pest. Skating around the Rangers with a combination of piss and vinegar.
“I play with that edge since I’ve become a pro,” Aube-Kubel told me. “There’s a role like that for me here right now and I’m trying to take it. The time is now for that. If I can get into someone’s head a little bit or finish my hit, I’m going to do it. I like playing that way. I didn’t have to fight today, but maybe someday I’m going to have to, and I won’t mind.”
That’s an old-school mentality that will surely win over fans in Philly.
But while he was a pistol at 5-on-5, and has been a contributor to the Flyers staunch penalty kill in his short time in the NHL, the one thing he hasn’t had an opportunity to do is play the power play.
Yet, for all the bad timing that Aube-Kubel has faced in his career thus far, the timing couldn’t have been better Monday.
The Flyers had just scored two quick goals to open up a 4-1 lead on the Rangers it what was a game played with a playoff like atmosphere. The Rangers were frustrated late in the game that they were going to lose, and started to get a bit ornery.
South Jersey’s own Tony DeAngelo (Sewell, N.J.), was especially cantankerous, and drew a late penalty.
Travis Sanheim had already scored two goals, so Vigneault put him out on the power play with a chance at the hat trick, but he also rewarded Aube-Kubel for his gritty efforts, and sent him out as well.
The next thing you know, this happened:
“The guys were teasing me saying, ‘who was that goalie? Never heard of him,'” Aube-Kubel said with a smile. But there it was, a lifelong dream finally coming to fruition. A first NHL goal against the goalie who was his favorite growing up. It doesn’t get much more storybook than that:
— Russ Joy (@JoyOnBroad) December 24, 2019
“I can’t thank AV enough for giving me the chance to go out there in that situation,” Aube-Kubel said. “He didn’t have to do that, so I appreciate that and I appreciate that he trusted me in that situation.”
It’s obvious AV likes him, and he and Laperriere are still talking to Aube-Kubel every day. Reminding him of what he can do to stay in the NHL.
“I’m thankful for the minutes AV has been giving me so far,” Aube-Kubel said. “It could be a lot different for me if he was giving me just five minutes like last year. AV just keeps telling me to skate as hard as I can and be physical. I talk a lot with Lappy too and he reminds me to keep doing those things but to also play a simple game too. Sometimes you can try to do too much. He reminds me to keep it simple.”
In other words, find your chair.
Aube-Kubel seems to have found it, now it’s up to him to keep his seat at the Flyers table.
For more Flyers coverage, follow Snow The Goalie on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Also be sure to tune into The Press Row Show as Anthony SanFilippo and Russ Joy provide pregame and intermission coverage of every Flyers home game from press row of the Wells Fargo Center via the Crossing Broad Facebook page, YouTube Live, and Twitter, and their Twitter accounts Follow @SnowTheGoalie Follow @AntSanPhilly Follow @JoyOnBroad
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