After popping at world juniors, Mikhail Vorobyev sees 'good opportunity' with Phantoms

After popping at world juniors, Mikhail Vorobyev sees 'good opportunity' with Phantoms

VOORHEES, N.J. — Not many people knew who Mikhail Vorobyev was when the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championships began last December.

They found out quick who he was by the end.

Vorobyev led the tournament with 10 assists in seven games for Team Russia, which captured the bronze medal. He didn’t register a goal but his 10 points were third most.

“Vorobyev popped at the world juniors when he’s playing with his peers,” Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said recently during development camp at Flyers Skate Zone.

“Our guys really liked him his draft year. We got him in the fourth round probably because he was in Russia. He was hidden a little bit.”

After one full season playing in the KHL for Salavat Yulaev Ufa, Vorobyev signed his entry-level contract with the Flyers in late April. The 20-year-old center will spend the 2017-18 season with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms as part of an interesting forward group.

Lehigh Valley finished as the second-best AHL team last season with 101 points in the regular season, but it lost to the Hershey Bears in five games during the first round of the playoffs.

This season, Vorobyev figures to have a spot in the regular lineup, but the forward competition in the AHL could be as competitive as it will be with the Flyers.

Still, Vorobyev believed coming overseas was for his best interests.

“If you want to continue development,” Vorobyev said through an interpreter, Flyers skating coach Slava Kouznetsov, “this is a good opportunity to get better. In Russia, I think I reached up. That’s why I’m switching to North America to get better than I already am.”

It may take Vorobyev a while to get accumulated to the North American lifestyle, especially since he doesn’t speak English, but having Radel Fazleev at Lehigh Valley should help.

Fazleev is entering his second season in the AHL. He’s been in North America full-time since 2013-14, his first season in the WHL.

At development camp, Vorobyev had three other Russians — Fazleev, German Rubtsov and camp invite Ivan Kosorenkov — and Maksim Sushko, who’s from Belarus but speaks Russian, to lean on. Fazleev was the only development camp veteran of the bunch.

Like Rubtsov last summer, Vorobyev wasn’t able to attend development camp in 2015 and 2016 because of his contract obligations in the KHL. Having Kouznetsov around also helps.

"It is a big help,” Vorobyev said. “I'm feeling much more comfortable. The guys are helpful. It's easier to have conversation. They explain the rules, especially the guys who were here the previous years.”

The adjustment for Vorobyev will come largely off the ice. The Salavat, Russia, native doesn’t view the smaller rink as an obstacle, but it usually is for Europeans and Russians.

"When I traveled with the Russian team, I always liked to play on the smaller surface,” Vorobyev said. “I like it. There's no adjustment, basically."

Vorobyev isn’t the only player coming overseas this season for the Flyers. Oskar Lindblom, a 2014 fifth-round pick, believes the biggest transition for him will be the rink size.

“That’s the big thing,” he said. “It’s a little bit faster over here, so you have to think a little faster and be ready out there. Otherwise, you're going to get hit or not make the play."

Both Vorobyev and Lindblom were middle-round picks. Lindblom’s ascension has caught the eyes of the Flyers and their fans. Lindblom is expected to be a Flyer in 2017-18.

While Lindblom has earned the hype, Vorobyev’s progression has been interesting too. Both are examples of how far the Flyers’ scouting department has come in recent years.

Vorobyev earned a steady role in the KHL last season after splitting the 2015-16 season with Salavat Yulaev and Tolpar Ufa of the MHL.

For the average folk, Vorobyev’s numbers last season will not turn any heads. He had just three goals and 11 points in 44 games for Salavat Yulaev, but with young players in the KHL, it’s hard to judge strictly on statistics. What should be of note is the ice time.

During the regular season, Vorobyev averaged 9:47. That number shot up to 13:29 per game in five postseason contests. That signals his Salavat Yulaev coaches trusted him enough to play him.

It's easy to see the difference with Vorobyev and Rubtsov. Vorobyev carved out a spot on his team at 19 and 20 years old. Rubtsov couldn’t crack his KHL lineup.

Both are now in North America. The Flyers have three options with Rubtsov: QMJHL, AHL and NHL. They technically have two choices with Vorobyev, but he’ll be in the AHL.

“The Russians are a little bit of a different animal because if you’re playing in the KHL,” Hextall said, “you got a young kid playing against men in a top league and keep them down on the fourth line and give him seven minutes. It’s hard to show a whole lot in seven minutes.”

Vorobyev has added at least 13 pounds since the Flyers drafted him in the fourth round of the 2015 NHL draft. He’s currently listed at 6-foot-2, 207 pounds.

“If you look at his weight, his body makeup, it’s changed quite a bit since we drafted him,” Hextall said, “and again, he popped at the world juniors last year. Quite honestly, if you asked our scouts, I don’t think they’d be too surprised.”

The world junior performance was Vorobyev’s coming out party in North America. He was exciting to watch on a Russian team that also featured Rubtsov, who struggled in the tournament. Vorobyev displayed playmaking and vision not many ever he knew he had.

Vorobyev did most of his damage setting his teammates up from behind the net and said at development camp behind the net is an area he’s comfortable.

“Behind the net, I felt comfortable and got points off feeding the puck to the slot,” Vorobyev said. “If my partners did not score, I wouldn’t get assists. It is pride [to lead the tournament in assists], but the partners, that’s who I relied on.”

Best of NHL: Blue Jackets shut out Rangers

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Best of NHL: Blue Jackets shut out Rangers

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Sergei Bobrovsky made 36 saves for his 21st career shutout and Zach Werenski and Artemi Panarin scored in the Columbus Blue Jackets' 2-0 victory over the New York Rangers on Friday night.

New York ran into a hot goalie in Bobrovsky, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner who notched his second shutout of the season in powering Columbus to its third straight victory.

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist was nearly as good against the increasingly aggressive Blue Jackets, stopping 40 shots on the night. The Rangers (11-8-1) lost their second straight following a six-game win streak.

After a scoreless first period in which both goalies made some slick, sprawling saves, Werenski found the back of the net with his sixth goal of the season 13:34 into the second.

Brandon Dubinsky lost the handle of the puck in the slot, and Werenski picked it up just inside the right circle and beat Lundqvist with a one-timer.

Columbus (12-7-1) was the aggressor in the second frame, outshooting the Rangers 19-9, and kept up the pressure in the third.

Panarin scored his fourth goal of the season on a power play 7:14 into the third period, rocketing a slap shot from the high slot that ricocheted off the bar and in.

The Blue Jackets are 9-1-0 this season when allowing two goals or fewer (see full recap).

Red Wings’ 3rd-period goals enough to top Sabres
DETROIT -- Tomas Tatar scored a go-ahead goal midway through third period and the Detroit Red Wings went on to beat the Buffalo Sabres 3-1 on Friday night.

Detroit's Luke Glendening broke a scoreless tie late in the second period. Ryan O'Reilly pulled Buffalo into a 1-all tie 5:50 into the third.

Dylan Larkin scored late in the game and Jimmy Howard had 19 saves for the Red Wings. They have won consecutive games at home for the first time this season.

Buffalo's Robin Lehner stopped the first 20 shots he faced and finished with 30 saves.

The Sabres have lost four straight, one away from their longest losing streak of the season, but were thankful they didn't lose more than a game in Detroit.

Jack Eichel went to the dressing room late in the second period after coming off the ice slowly, keeping weight off his right skate following a collision with Glendening, and making a brief stop on the bench. Buffalo's standout center was cleared to return at the start of the third period.

After a scoreless first period with a combined 14 shots, Detroit outshot Buffalo 13-4 in the second and took control without that translating to a big lead (see full recap).

End to End: How to solve the Flyers' scoring woes

End to End: How to solve the Flyers' scoring woes

Throughout the season, we'll ask questions about the Flyers to our resident hockey analysts and see what they have to say.

Going End to End today are producers/reporters Tom Dougherty and Jordan Hall.

The topic: How to solve the Flyers' scoring woes.

If Thursday night's 3-2 shootout loss in Winnipeg confirmed anything, it's the Flyers cannot break up their top line. They might not be able to score much, but their only scoring is coming from Sean Couturier, Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek.

The Couturier line accounts for 48 percent of the Flyers' offense, or 25 goals. Factor the defense and top line together, and that's 59 percent, as the blue line has produced six tallies this season.

Of the 21 goals the Flyers have scored that do not come from the top line or blue line, 12 have come from two players, Wayne Simmonds and Valtteri Filppula. Simmonds hasn't scored in 11 games, and Filppula has one goal in his past nine games.

Two lines have stayed intact since Day 1 — the Couturier line and the fourth line of Scott Laughton, Taylor Leier and Michael Raffl. Head coach Dave Hakstol has been hesitant about breaking up his fourth line, and rightfully so. Laughton, Leier and Raffl have chemistry, and they're almost always cycling in the offensive zone.

Nolan Patrick just returned after missing three weeks because of a "suspected" concussion and played sparingly against the Jets. He should help the Flyers' scoring woes, but he won't solve them. I think it's time to break up the fourth line, and based on the Winnipeg game, it looks like a possibility Hakstol is considering.

Here's why. Raffl played on the second power-play unit against the Jets, which was a first this season. Perhaps Hakstol didn't want to throw Patrick back into the fire and watched the rookie's minutes.

Breaking up lines Nos. 2, 3 and 4 is the best course of action. Travis Konecny is struggling with confidence, Jordan Weal hasn't been great, and those are two players the Flyers need to get going. It's time to end the Dale Weise in the top-nine experiment.

With what the Flyers have, here is what I would do:

Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Jakub Voracek
Travis Konecny-Nolan Patrick-Wayne Simmonds
Jordan Weal-Valtteri Filppula-Michael Raffl
Taylor Leier-Scott Laughton-Dale Weise

There's no need to panic if you're the Flyers.

First, you finally have a no-doubt-about-it top line. Voracek, Couturier and Giroux have blended beautifully and are doing damage, as the Flyers entered Friday one of only three teams in the NHL with a trio of players over 20 points each. Don't break that up just because there's an imbalance below it. 

And second, it's a long season. Ups and downs are common and things can change quickly. Just look at last season. The Flyers ripped off 10 straight wins and scored the NHL's second-most goals through the first two months of 2016-17. As we all know, they didn't make the postseason and finished as a bottom-third goal-scoring club.

The Flyers simply need to continue experimenting with their middle six and see what eventually works best. A little patience was going to be required when you're relying on a 19-year-old rookie in Patrick, a 20-year-old still finding himself at this level in Konecny and a 25-year-old facing his first full NHL season in Weal.

And let's not forget, the defense is exceptionally young with two rookies (Robert Hagg and Travis Sanheim), a 20-year-old leader (Ivan Provorov) and a third-year player coming off a sophomore slump (Shayne Gostisbehere).

But back to the forwards. 

If you recall, a stretch from Oct. 10-17 featured Filppula centering Weal and Simmonds on the second line, with Patrick centering Konecny and Weise on the third unit. It resulted in a pretty productive three-game span in which the Flyers picked up two wins and outscored the opposition 18-9.

I really liked the dynamic of that middle six. And the Flyers can now return to it with Patrick suiting up. He will be eased back into heavier minutes, but he can make a difference when healthy and comfortable. Patrick and Konecny can still play plenty of minutes on the third line with less pressure and potentially more favorable matchups.

We've seen Weal and Simmonds work well together, and Filppula adds smarts and steadiness down the middle.

But the important thing to remember is the Flyers are only 19 games into an 82-game grind. Scoring can come and go at times, and there's no reason it can't come down the line.

So, here's what I like best for the Flyers right now:

Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Jakub Voracek
Jordan Weal-Valtteri Filppula-Wayne Simmonds
Travis Konecny-Nolan Patrick-Dale Weise
Taylor Leier-Scott Laughton-Michael Raffl