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.”
Another look at Noah Cates' third-period goal ... pic.twitter.com/okx5o2K9kD— UMD Athletics (@UMDBulldogs) February 8, 2020
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."
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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