Nicolas Aube-Kubel

End to End: Which Flyers prospect has most to lose in 2017-18?

End to End: Which Flyers prospect has most to lose in 2017-18?

Throughout the offseason, 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 reporters John Boruk, Tom Dougherty, Jordan Hall and Greg Paone.

The topic: Which Flyers prospect has the most to lose in 2017-18?

When Flyers general manager Ron Hextall started preaching patience with the organization’s prospects, the poster boy for that process was Sam Morin.

When Morin was drafted by then-general manager Paul Holmgren, the Flyers liked the defenseman's composition, his toughness and his athleticism, but knew he would require some significant grooming before his time arrived.

Four years later, that time appears to be now. Morin logged 246 games (including playoffs) in four seasons in the Q for the Rimouski Oceanic and another 155 games in two seasons at the AHL level for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. That’s a considerable amount of seasoning for the 11th overall pick in the 2013 NHL draft. The 10 previous picks in that draft all have at least 100 games played … at the NHL level. Once again, the maturation process is different for every player and Morin is well aware. Following his NHL debut in April, Morin, who’s usually brutally honest in his assessments, told reporters he needs to be “more mature physically.” 

Even as Morin enters training camp with a spike in expectations, there is also an injury history to be a little concerned about — a freakish jaw fracture in 2014, hip and abdominal surgery in 2016 and he’s coming off surgery on both wrists this summer. The latter injury is worth monitoring during training camp and the preseason. Regardless, that’s the medical dossier of a player who’s been in the NHL for five to six years.

By no means is this a make-or-break season for Morin, but it feels more like a make-it-happen type of year as the Flyers have a stable of young defensemen who are also closing in on the organizational depth chart. Robert Hagg, a 2013 second-round pick, made significant progress last season with the Phantoms and also gave a solid effort in his Flyers debut. There were moments last season when Hagg was Lehigh Valley’s most consistent defenseman, and consistency goes a long way toward NHL stability. Travis Sanheim took a big leap in his first full pro season and his all-around, two-way game is better than any defenseman the Flyers have in their system, and Phil Myers is on the cusp of NHL readiness.  

First-round picks, and certainly those selected in the top 20, come with an expectation that they will have some sort of impact at the NHL level. Morin’s window of opportunity may not ever be as wide open as it is now. 

It certainly wasn’t a banner first professional season for Nicolas Aube-Kubel last year in Lehigh Valley, and this season will be an important one for the 2014 second-round pick.

Aube-Kubel tallied just nine goals and 18 points in 71 games for the Phantoms in 2016-17. The offensive production we saw from Aube-Kubel in junior did not immediately translate to the pro ranks, which isn’t exactly out of the ordinary. In junior, Aube-Kubel said in July, scoring always came naturally. That doesn’t happen in the pros.

During development camp, Aube-Kubel said his main focus in his first season at Lehigh Valley was paying attention to detail and fulfilling the role Phantoms coach Scott Gordon asked of him. It could explain the low point totals. Now settled in, Aube-Kubel’s focus will be adding the scoring element he enjoyed in the QMJHL to his arsenal in the AHL.

He better.

Things have changed since the Flyers drafted him in 2014. The Flyers’ system is deeper at all levels. It has more skill at every level. There’s more competition at every level. Where does Aube-Kubel fit into the puzzle? It’s hard to tell.

But with the prospect pool overflowing, Aube-Kubel could find himself on the sidelines if he doesn’t make a sizable jump in his second season with the Phantoms.

There is a lot on the line this season for Aube-Kubel. It’s a storyline at the AHL level to keep an eye on. It could be a make-or-break campaign for the 21-year-old.

Scott Laughton is still a prospect.

Yes, he had a full NHL season in 2015-16, but he turned 23 years old this past May and is from the same draft class as Anthony Stolarz. Laughton very much remains in the Flyers' youthful equation.

Hextall wasn't about to give up on a 2012 first-round pick this offseason. If anything, Laughton is still an asset for the organization as it moves forward. The restricted free agent was protected in the June expansion draft and then re-signed in July for two years.

Opportunity and time are waning, though.

Following 71 games with the Flyers in 2015-16, Laughton played just two in 2016-17. And now his competition is building in numbers. Last season, he wasn't up against Nolan Patrick, Oskar Lindblom and Mike Vecchione.

At this point, Laughton is just fighting for a roster spot. So while he has essentially bought himself two more years, if he doesn't carve out a role or take strides this season, imagine how buried he could be when the Flyers' forward depth becomes even deeper in 2018-19? Valtteri Filppula and Matt Read are set to be unrestricted free agents that offseason, but that's it. Take into account more prospects and potential free-agent additions, and Laughton's future in Philadelphia would become awfully precarious.

He's an invested player. He works hard and his time hasn't run out … yet.

With as desperately as the Flyers are yearning for scoring, and especially so from the wing, the consensus of many is that 21-year-old Swede Oskar Lindblom is a virtual lock to make the Flyers out of training camp and don an orange and black sweater come opening night at Shark Tank in San Jose.

With the way Lindblom tallied 39 times and added 49 assists in his age 18, 19 and 20 seasons against men in the SHL the last three seasons, the odds are in his favor to be a Flyer come October. Recognize his spike last season in Sweden with 22 goals, and the odds jump even higher that Lindblom breaks camp with the big club.

The key words above, though, are "virtual lock."

Despite the hype and expectations, nothing regarding Lindblom's status is etched into some sort of stone tablet Hextall is holding in his hands as he watches his team from his perch above during camp and the preseason slate.

The talented, young winger still needs to come into camp and have a good showing to earn his spot.

The Hextall way of prospect development is to let a kid get as much seasoning as needed at the AHL level rather than pushing him immediately in the NHL. That's just the way he thinks and operates. Always has been, probably always will be.

That's not to say a kid can't come in and change his mind. There are exceptions. See: Provorov, Ivan.

But if Lindblom, the Flyers' fifth-round pick in 2014, comes in and has a poor showing, that could hurt his standing within the organization and Hextall could be more apt to take on a veteran, say, for example, Colin McDonald, rather than a rookie with limited North American experience (eight games and two goals with the Phantoms at the end of 2015-16) who just struggled during training camp.

If Lindblom underwhelms and flames out during camp, it could hurt both his confidence and the confidence Hextall has in him. And Lindblom would have to do plenty of work in Lehigh Valley to earn that trust.

At the end of the day, count the guy writing this among those who firmly believe Lindblom will make the Flyers out of camp.

But that doesn't change the fact there is still a heck of a lot at stake for Lindblom in the coming weeks.

End to End: Which Flyers prospect has most to gain in 2017-18?

End to End: Which Flyers prospect has most to gain in 2017-18?

Throughout the offseason, 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 reporters John Boruk, Tom Dougherty, Jordan Hall and Greg Paone.

The topic: Which Flyers prospect has the most to gain in 2017-18?

When I think about the prospect within the organization who has the most to gain, I take it from a bell curve approach where the line was skimming the bottom when he first arrived and has only been trending upward during that time. The one player that instantly comes to mind is goaltender Alex Lyon.

If you had to compose the perfect goaltender, you might take the athleticism of Jonathan Quick, the glove hand of Pekka Rinne with the puck-handling skills of an old Martin Brodeur. However, the Yale-educated Lyon may be the most cerebral-thinking goaltender on any team at any level. Spending 15 minutes with him back in April, Lyon provided more insight into his first season with the Phantoms than most goalies can provide in a season’s worth of quotes.

Combine that strong mental presence along with steady positional play and sound technique on the ice, and Lyon has the opportunity to swing that curve even higher. He exceeded expectations finishing with a 2.74 GAA and a .912 save percentage in 47 games while adjusting to the workload, conditioning and level of competition coming straight out of college.    

Helping Lyon’s cause is the team’s two-year transitional period at the goaltending position with Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth serving as the stopgap tandem until the front office feels one of the prospects is ready to assume the No. 1 role. There will also be competition for the Phantoms' starting role with Lyon (undisclosed leg injury) and Anthony Stolarz (tore MCL in his right knee) working their way back from injuries.

Just in the past five years we’ve seen Cal Heeter, Rob Zepp and Eric Semborski (well, almost) make their NHL debuts, so it’s not outside the realm to think Lyon could get his shot if the Flyers are hampered with injuries and inconsistency. While few people may have the 24-year-old on the Flyers' radar, it was general manager Ron Hextall who recently reminded us, “Don’t forget about Alex Lyon.” 

It’s hard to look at Pascal Laberge and not want to root for the 19-year-old. Stories like Laberge's are one of my favorite things about sports. It reminds us athletes are people too. Laberge endured another season mired with adversity in 2016-17 but this time on the ice.

Laberge was the victim of a vicious, dirty hit to the head last October and suffered a pretty serious concussion that he said this summer forced him to sleep all day for the first month. The concussion forced him out of the lineup for over a month before returning for two games. Then the symptoms returned and he had to miss three more games.

During development camp in July, Laberge admitted he had confidence issues when he did return. He said he was shy to go to the boards and caught himself looking over his shoulder too much. Laberge finished the 2016-17 season in Victoriaville with 32 points in 46 games. Hextall said he didn’t like what Laberge went through last season, either, but he also didn’t like, at times, the level the Flyers’ 2016 second-round pick was playing to.

I view Laberge as a prospect that has been lost in the shuffle after his underwhelming campaign last year and I expect him to have a bounce-back season this season in Victoriaville. With added motivation, Laberge has an opportunity to prove himself again to the Flyers. That said, he is also a candidate to have the most to lose in 2017-18 too. If he has another down season, the Flyers could sour on him. But I don’t think that will be the case.

Laberge was a fringe first-round prospect in his draft year and fell to the second round. He has the playmaking and skills to be a pretty solid NHL prospect, but he’s dealt with some adversity. I believe we’ll see the Laberge who scored 68 points in 56 games during his draft year than the one we saw last season. He has both a lot to gain and lose this season.

But his story is one that you want to root for and you want to pay attention to. I certainly will be.

Some may see Morgan Frost and think baby-faced teenager, 5-foot-11, 172 pounds.

Frost might be a lot closer to the NHL than it looks.

First-round picks can rise quickly, while this man's league is becoming more and more predicated on speed, skill and smarts. Just look at Travis Konecny. He was 18 years old and 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, when drafted 24th overall in 2015. In his draft year, he put up 68 points over 60 OHL games. One prolific junior season later, Konecny was in a Flyers sweater on 2016-17 opening night.

Frost was drafted 27th overall this summer after turning 18 years old in May. The center is coming off a 62-point OHL campaign in 67 games. Every player's development is different, but there are similarities here to forecast the potential climb for Frost.

Playing with Bruins 2015 first-round pick Zach Senyshyn, Frost racked up 42 assists in 2016-17 to take a big leap in his second junior season. In 2017-18, Senyshyn will be in the AHL or NHL. It'll be interesting to see how Frost's role changes in Year 3 with Soo, but more growth and another sizeable jump in production could have him in the Flyers' picture come 2018-19.

Let's face it — I'm not breaking any news here when I say the Flyers need scoring, and specifically from the wing, where only Wayne Simmonds has produced and shoveled pucks into the net consistently and been a true known commodity who hasn't lost goal-scoring touch for games or weeks at a time for the last several seasons. 

Don't stop the presses now with that info.  

Nicolas Aube-Kubel has proven in the past in junior that he can score from the wing. In four seasons with Val-d'Or of the QMJHL, Aube-Kubel put frozen rubber to twine 108 times all while becoming the Flyers' second-round pick in 2014. 

Last season was his first full pro campaign, and, well, let's just say things didn't necessarily go as he planned, as he tallied just nine times in 71 contests with the Phantoms. There were clearly adjustments that needed to be made to the size and skill of the AHL level, and, in many ways, expectations were tempered. 

Now, there's no real push or expectation for Aube-Kubel, a natural right winger, to make the Flyers out of camp. The eyes of Flyers fans will be on the Oskar Lindbloms and the Nolan Patricks of the world when it comes to the club's forwards. 

And that could be a good thing for Aube-Kubel. He can come into camp without any pressure, just play his game and leave an impression that will stick on Hextall, Dave Hakstol and crew. 

He's playing with house money. What exactly does he have to lose? Not much. What exactly does he have to gain with the orange and black poker chips he'll be playing with? A whole heck of a lot.

For Aube-Kubel, it isn't just about the here and right now at this very moment. His chances of making the club out of camp are quite slim. But it's about leaving that impression and keeping his name and skills fresh in the minds of those who matter.

Despite what happened last season, the kid can still score. That skill doesn't just evaporate in a talented 21-year-old. It was a year of development and learning the pro game. Now it's up to him to show what he learned.

If he leaves a mark by blistering pucks into the net during camp and the preseason along the same lines he did in his days with Val-d'Or, and then continues that production during the early part of the season with Lehigh Valley, Aube-Kubel could very well be among the first call-ups on Hextall's checklist.

That's a big skate blade stride he'll have the chance to take starting in September.

With AHL experience, Flyers prospect Nicolas Aube-Kubel out to score again

With AHL experience, Flyers prospect Nicolas Aube-Kubel out to score again

VOORHEES, N.J. — At the junior level, scoring was second nature to Nicolas Aube-Kubel, like riding a bike after you figure out the balance aspect.

Goals came in bunches and points piled up — that was his game and it came effortlessly at times, especially over his final two seasons with the QMJHL's Val-d'Or Foreurs, posting back-to-back campaigns of 38 markers and 80-plus assists.

"Usually in junior, scoring was always coming naturally to me, having points and goals," he said last week at Flyers development camp.

On the AHL ice last season, it was a whole new ballgame. For Aube-Kubel, Year 1 of pro hockey was a feeling-out process from start to finish. His prolific scoring didn't carry over much at all, as the speedy 5-foot-11 winger finished with nine goals and nine assists in 71 regular-season games for Lehigh Valley.

"Guys are better with the puck," he said of the AHL. "I've always been strong on the ice and skating-wise, too, but translating to the AHL, guys are faster, guys are quicker with the puck and less turnovers."

This was part of toeing the waters in a new surrounding. Not many prospects jump from the junior ranks to the AHL without missing a beat. Aube-Kubel, who turned 21 in May, wanted to fulfill his role and duties first before worrying about scoring. He finished the season as a plus-10, tied for fourth best on the team and tops among Phantoms with 70 or more games played.

"I've always been an offensive player," Aube-Kubel said. "From being my first year in the pros, I was trying more to focus on details and what the coach was telling me. I'm excited for next year and I'll try to step up my game, for sure, and try to do what I was doing in junior."

Following his fourth development camp, Aube-Kubel finds himself heading into an interesting second season with Lehigh Valley. A lot has changed since he was taken by the Flyers in the second round of the 2014 draft. With time, the organization has significantly built up its prospect pool and added depth at forward. 

Aube-Kubel is just fine with that.

"Since I've been drafted, there was depth," he said. "Any way I'm going to play in the NHL, I'm going to make my own spot. No one is going to give it to you. If there are more drafted players, it doesn't change anything."

He's also enjoyed working with the Phantoms' staff, led by head coach Scott Gordon. More development off the ice and a greater workload during games should help moving forward.

"I liked it. They treat you like a pro," he said. "Everyone does their own thing. If you cheat or if you're not serious about it, it's you to pay off. If you're not serious, it's going to be you that gets penalized."

If Aube-Kubel needs any comfort in the quiet start to his pro career, he can look back at his first season of junior play. He tallied just 10 goals and 27 points in 64 regular-season games. Then he jumped to 53 points (22 goals, 31 assists) in 65 games in 2013-14 before scoring at will over his third and fourth seasons with Val-d'Or.

Maybe easing his way in is just part of his hockey DNA.

If so, keep an eye on Aube-Kubel next season.

"This year, I was maybe more focusing on having a role and trying to do what the coach was asking of me," Aube-Kubel said. "Now that it's all set, I'm going to focus on offensive play. I don't want to put pressure on myself, but last year wasn't my best offensive year. It was also my first year. I think I was trying to learn a lot of it and we'll see what happens next year."