Flyers

Flyers' best college prospect? Excitement building around ascension of Noah Cates

Flyers' best college prospect? Excitement building around ascension of Noah Cates

Division I coaches in Minnesota never like when local recruits sneak out of the state.

Fortunately for Scott Sandelin, he knew Noah Cates going back to the prospect's early teenage days. The Stillwater, Minnesota, native played summer hockey with Sandelin's son Ryan.

They were just kids.

"I remember Noah when he was not 6-foot-1, 6-foot-2," Sandelin, the Minnesota Duluth head coach, said, "I remember when he was about 5-foot-8, 5-foot-9.

"I'm just glad he picked Duluth."

Cates stayed and is still in Minnesota ... but not for much longer.

Sandelin is now OK with that looming reality. Of all people, he understands best why Cates' days in the home state are numbered.

Cates is no longer a skinny high schooler. He no longer portrays a fifth-round pick. And the Flyers are no longer well off in the distance.

It wouldn't be outlandish to proclaim Cates as the club's top college prospect in the system. After playing a notable role in his freshman season for a Bulldogs team that won the 2019 national championship, the 21-year-old winger made an even bigger stride as a sophomore. Cates scored just a shade under a point per game with 14 goals and 19 assists in 34 contests, tying him as the second-leading scorer for fifth-ranked Minnesota Duluth.

When Cates left Stillwater Area High School in 2017, he was 165 pounds and relied a lot on his skill. Sandelin does not see that anymore.

Cates is a 6-foot-2, 190-pound, all-situation winger — a prospect the Flyers couldn't stop talking about last summer.

"He’s a fun player to watch, he does so many little things within his game," Sandelin said April 11 in a phone interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia. "He’s got tremendous compete level, he’s hard on pucks, great body position, he’s strong on his feet. He’s got everything. He’s not going to wow you with Connor McDavid speed, but he does a lot of things that sometimes maybe the normal hockey person doesn’t always see all the time, but as a coach and as a teammate, you really appreciate. I think that’s what makes him, in my opinion, special.”

The 2020-21 season has the makings to be a special encore for Cates. Sandelin expects him to turn pro after his junior year.

"For us, I think the plan is probably one more year of college and then making the jump, which I think would be pretty realistic for him," Sandelin, who played for the Flyers in 1990-91 and was a teammate of player development coach Kjell Samuelsson, said. "I’d love to keep him for four years, but I don’t think that’s going to happen and I hope that he continues to develop so he has that opportunity after next year to be able to step in and maybe play in Philly and have a long career.

“He just loves to play the game. And that’s what you want to see. He comes to the rink with a smile, he works hard every day, he works on his game, he’s a student of the game and that’s why down the road a year from now hopefully the Flyers are going to be getting a pretty good hockey player.”

In 2018-19, his freshman year with the Bulldogs, Cates had a productive 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship for the U.S., playing alongside guys like Jack Hughes, Quinn Hughes, Joel Farabee and Josh Norris.

Sandelin was one of the team's assistant coaches and watched Cates return to Minnesota Duluth as a freshman surging down the stretch.

"I thought he had a very good tournament there," Sandelin said. "Very versatile, he can play wing, he can play center, so he was very valuable to that team.

"You know what that tournament can do for players. I thought he really, really excelled in the second half for us, played with more confidence in everything that he was doing. I think this year, through his summer, training hard, came here — you know, confidence is a funny thing, right? You come off a really strong year as a freshman and sometimes guys can go the other way, but I think he took another step and rode that wave of confidence."

(Minnesota Duluth Athletics)

With Cates as a sophomore, his role was "pretty much everything," Sandelin said. He killed penalties and handled a variety of jobs on the power play because of his multifaceted skill set.

"He’s played the bumpers, he’s played the half wall, he’s played different things and I think that’s important to those guys, too, from a development standpoint — you put them in different spots," Sandelin said. "You try and find, for all those players, especially on a power play, you try to find where they can really excel.

"His strength along the wall, his puck protection skills, his ability to play in those areas is really good. A lot of guys don’t always get to those areas or want to play in those areas all the time, but he’s certainly not afraid of that. He’s good around the net. He’s kind of a net-front guy on our power play that can get pucks. We did some different movements with that."

Sandelin, a three-time national champion head coach, recalled a weekend in February when the Bulldogs lost Cates' older brother Jackson Cates to an injury for the rest of the season, which forced Minnesota Duluth to shift the younger Cates to center.

"He didn’t really miss a beat," Sandelin said.

"That’s what I love about him, he doesn’t care, he just wants to play. He played center in junior hockey, as well, and even according to the coaches, he really excelled there. It’s nice to have that versatility in a player. For us, losing Jackson was a big loss, but being able to move Noah to the middle and not really miss a beat was important to our team.

"Positionally, he doesn’t really care. ‘I’ll go there and I’ll do what I need to do.’ ... Some guys are like, ‘I don’t want to play there,’ or they kind of look at you. They don’t even have to look at you or say anything, sometimes they’re just like, ‘I don’t know, I don’t really want to play there.’ He just doesn’t care, he just wants to play — he’s a hockey player.”

And one that is closing in on the pro level.

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Ivan Provorov earns Flyers' 2019-20 Barry Ashbee Trophy

Ivan Provorov earns Flyers' 2019-20 Barry Ashbee Trophy

Following a down season in 2018-19, Ivan Provorov was a restricted free agent and up for a new deal. After the entire offseason, Provorov and the Flyers agreed to a six-year, $40.5 million contract the night before training camp, making the 2015 first-round pick the club's highest-paid blueliner.

Provorov, a work-till-you-drop player, was clearly determined to rebound in 2019-20 and prove his worth.

He did and added to the credence Thursday as the winner of the Flyers' 2019-20 Barry Ashbee Trophy, given to the team's "most outstanding defenseman," an honor voted on by a panel of sports writers and broadcasters. It marks the second time Provorov has won the award in four years with the Flyers as he took home the trophy his rookie 2016-17 season.

"It's just a great honor," Provorov said in a statement released by the Flyers. "There are a lot of great defensemen that have played for the Flyers and have won this in the past. I think overall this year, our defense is a lot better. We're defending as a five-man unit, the forwards are backchecking, so it allows us to step up and get the puck back faster."

Provorov, who has never missed a game in his NHL career, playing 315 straight, did it all for the Flyers during the regular season. He played the league's eighth-most minutes per game at 24:51, led all NHL defensemen in power play goals with seven, and led Flyers blueliners in goals (13), points (36), blocked shots (111), shorthanded ice time (189:30) and man advantage ice time (210:05).

In 13 fewer games this season, Provorov put up six more goals, four more assists (23) and 10 more points than he did last season, while going from a minus-16 to a plus-11. Over his first three seasons, Provorov had 12 power play points (two goals, 10 assists). This season, Provorov put up 16 man advantage points (seven goals, nine assists). He has become a bona-fide do-it-all blueliner for the Flyers at 23 years old.

"I think he's one of the best young defensemen in the league," Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet said in December.

"He plays with an edge in a sense that he doesn’t play safe. He’s up the ice, he makes plays, he’s not scared the way he plays. Not so much scared physically, just the way he plays, he’s trying to win the game. As a young guy, he wants to be in those spots. When I watch him, he wants the puck. I love young kids like that, they’re not scared.”

On the blue line, the Flyers are built around Provorov — and for at least five more seasons.

The Flyers have handed out their annual team awards throughout the week. Kevin Hayes was the recipient of the Gene Hart Memorial Award, while Scott Laughton earned the Yanick Dupre Class Guy Award and Pelle Lindbergh Memorial Trophy.

On Friday, the winner of the Bobby Clarke Trophy (Flyers most valuable player) will be announced.

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Is Claude Giroux's playoff history telling of what's to come for the captain?

Is Claude Giroux's playoff history telling of what's to come for the captain?

As the NHL playoffs get closer and closer (which sounds weird to say during this time of year), the analysis of potential playoff matchups and the key factors for the Flyers is well underway. Regardless of the matchup, a few things are certain for the Flyers. One of those is that they need their captain to be on top of his game when the playoffs begin to have success.

Claude Giroux’s playoff history can best be described as a long and winding road. We’ve seen examples in all sports where young players reach the pinnacle of their sport early in their career and never getting back to that peak again. In the NFL, Dan Marino reached the Super Bowl in his rookie season and never made it back. In somewhat similar fashion, Giroux in his first full season in the NHL reached the Stanley Cup Final for a Flyers team with a leadership group that included Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Chris Pronger. Giroux was dynamic in those playoffs with 21 points in 23 games — that included 10 goals, 11 assists and an overtime winner in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Chicago Blackhawks.

The two years following that Cup Final run, Giroux continued to be a great player in the playoffs. In 2011, Giroux had 12 points in 11 playoff games. Then, in the 2012 playoffs, Giroux was perhaps his most dominant. Giroux had 17 points in 10 playoff games and was a force in the opening round against the Penguins. In Game 1 of that series, Giroux told his teammates, “Watch my first shift.” 

What his teammates saw was the captain put a huge hit on Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and then score a goal to give the Flyers the lead. They never looked back, dispatching their cross-state rival in six games. That playoff run ended with a 4-1 series loss to the Devils in the second round, a series in which Giroux was suspended a game after a hit on Dainus Zubrus in Game 4.

Since 2011-12, the playoffs haven’t been exactly kind to No. 28, with first-round losses in 2014, 2016 and 2018. In those years combined, in 19 playoff games, Giroux scored just three goals and registered only seven assists for a total of 10 points. In the Flyers' last playoff appearance against the Penguins in 2018, Giroux had a minus-10 rating in six games.

The past few seasons have been a little different for Giroux with moving to the wing, while still assuming some of the center’s defensive responsibilities at times. Could that change in position allow Giroux to be that dominant force on the offensive end again? Possibly. Of course, playing with Sean Couturier in the middle is never a bad thing and that’s likely where Giroux will find himself when this year’s playoffs begin and the captain looks to regain his early career offensive playoff magic.

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