Flyers

Flyers Weekly Observations: The Wayne Train hasn't skipped a beat

Flyers Weekly Observations: The Wayne Train hasn't skipped a beat

Flyers hockey is finally back in our lives.

Feels pretty darn good to say that, right? It’s been too long.

You guys know what else is back?

Flyers Weekly Observations! Woo-hoo!

I know, it’s so hard to contain your excitement. I understand.

Anyway, the Flyers started things off with a bang with a hard-fought 5-3 win on opening night Wednesday in San Jose vs. the Sharks, endured a tough 2-0 loss Thursday evening vs. the Kings in Los Angeles and finished up the California portion of the trip with a strong 3-2 OT victory over the Ducks in Anaheim Saturday night.

Still sleepy from staying up for all those West Coast games?

That’s OK because there’s plenty to discuss after a busy first week of the season. Let’s hop right into it, shall we?

• Through all the change the Flyers have gone through both externally with player movement and internally with line changes, prospects filtering themselves into more prominent roles and veterans still in orange and black losing a step in the eyes of some, one constant has remained a driving force — Wayne Simmonds. He picked up right where he left off with his hat trick Wednesday at the Shark Tank. He was right there in his office in front of the net, deflecting two pucks from the point past Sharks goalie Martin Jones. His second tally on the evening was as stealthy as it gets as he tipped a chest-high shot right by Jones. But here’s the thing you have to like about his empty-netter to seal the victory — sure, it was an empty-netter, but Simmonds is trusted enough to be out there on the 4-on-4 as the Flyers desperately nursed a one-goal lead. He also played 3:30 of shorthanded time in that game. Yes, he’s a goal-scorer, but he’s the Flyers’ Mr. Do-It-All. He’s their steady rock. And that OT winner in Anaheim was just an another example of the complete player he is who possesses a heck of a wrister.  

• Let’s get into the kids now. Specifically, the ones who patrol the blue line. I questioned the decision to bring Travis Sanheim and Sam Morin to California only for both to be healthy scratches in the opener vs. San Jose. Sanheim eventually got in Thursday in L.A. (more on that in a bit) and stayed in for the OT triumph in Anaheim. But Morin has yet to suit up this season and play. What’s the point of having him there if he’s not going to play? These are important times in the development of a 22-year-old defenseman who already has to live with the pressures that come with being a high first-round pick. If he’s not playing with the big club, he should be getting reps in Lehigh Valley. The guy needs to be playing somewhere, not sitting somewhere.

• So, now, back to Sanheim, who made his debut at STAPLES Center on Thursday evening. The nerves were obviously there for the 21-year-old, especially early on as he tried to get his legs underneath him. And that’s to be expected. Try and put yourself in his shoes, or, in this case, his skates. You would feel the same way. The nerves should be there. But the game was a tougher one for Sanheim, as he tried to get adjusted to regular-season NHL speed and precision all night and wound up taking a bad four-minute high-sticking call in the third. He was critical of himself and his play afterward, saying he needed to be better. And you have to like that out of a kid, especially after his first game. He wasn’t happy just being there. He rebounded with a solid outing Saturday night in Anaheim. He can keep building and keep getting more and more comfortable in the NHL. He’s got the right attitude.

• Speaking of the kids, how about keeping Nolan Patrick and Travis Konecny on the same line for a long, long time?

• One area that had my particular interest coming into this week was the goaltending. Both how each goaltender played and how head coach Dave Hakstol would rotate them because you just knew he would split the starts one way or another. I will say that I’m still not sold on the Brian Elliott-Michal Neuvirth tandem, but each was very solid in net this week in their respective starts. Elliott hung in there in a tough environment in San Jose and earned the victory with 32 stops. Perhaps his best one came in the first period when Kevin LeBanc found himself all alone with a loose puck in front of the net and Elliott stuck out the arm to make an impressive stop. Neuvirth was very good the next night in Los Angeles as he took a hard-luck loss with 25 saves. That incredible sprawling stop he made on Anze Kopitar, though? My groin hurts more and more every time I watch it. Elliott retook the reins Saturday in Anaheim and excelled with 21 saves in the OT triumph. So, while Neuvirth played well in Hollywood, Elliott is still the one with two victories. Knowing how Hakstol tends to ride the hot hand in net, don’t be surprised to see Elliott see the fair share of starts coming up. Speaking of goaltending, how good was Jonathan Quick on Thursday? When healthy, he’s got a legit claim to being the best goalie in the NHL.

• Have to like what we’ve seen from the Flyers’ newfangled top line of Claude Giroux on left wing, Sean Couturier at center and Jake Voracek on the right wing. The triumvirate opened the scoring on the season with Giroux’s first-period tally in San Jose and has combined for two goals, seven assists, nine points and 21 shots on goal on the young season. Keep that kind of offensive pressure up and the goal numbers will come. And remember, those three could still benefit from more time to jell together.

• Mr. NHL Schedule Maker did the Flyers no favors to start the season. The California hell trip is hard enough, but then two of those games were the opponent’s home opener. The cherry on top: a trip to Nashville for the Predators’ opener and Western Conference championship banner ceremony.  But, hey, coming out of Cali with four points ain’t bad by any stretch of the imagination.

Coming up this week: Tuesday at Nashville (8 p.m./NBC Sports Philadelphia), Saturday’s home opener vs. Washington (7 p.m./NBC Sports Philadelphia)

It's back to school for Flyers prospect Noah Cates

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Philadelphia Flyers

It's back to school for Flyers prospect Noah Cates

Noah Cates became a hit in high school.

His first year after graduation, though, he didn't exactly mind being away from the classroom. From Stillwater, Minnesota, Cates traveled south to Omaha, Nebraska, for a full season of USHL hockey with the Lancers.

A nice, little perk to the decision?

"No school that year for me, so that was fun just to play hockey," Cates said with a smile three weeks ago at Flyers development camp. "Develop, work on everything."

Despite not hitting the books, Cates, a 2017 fifth-round draft pick of the Flyers, learned a lot, gaining a knowledge base he'll use moving forward.

Because it's back to school.

In mid-to-late August, the 19-year-old is headed to the University of Minnesota Duluth to continue his education and hockey career with the 2018 national champions, where he'll be joined by his older brother Jackson Cates.

"Very excited," the younger Cates said.

A year away from home to prepare for the college hockey life did Cates well. He grew on and off the ice, which built confidence — especially important ahead of development camp, a world junior summer showcase and his freshman season.

"Just how to be a pro, show up every day," Cates said. "It's a long season but you have to be consistent — that was a big part for me. Consistently, doing the right thing, day in and day out.

"It's all about confidence. If you're confident you can play with those guys and that your body can hold up, you can do it. That's just a big part of it and what I developed this year."

Cates, a left winger with a true offensive skill set, came on strong after a feeling-out start to the season in which he totaled 14 points (six goals, eight assists) over his first 22 games. From then on, he broke out for 41 points (15 goals, 26 assists) in his final 38 contests, finishing second on the Lancers with 55 points (21 goals, 34 assists) in 60 games, while posting a plus-21 rating. 

"Second-half league for me, just got more comfortable with the team, the coaches, the league," Cates said. "The team did well, so I kind of fit in, did my part."

The offense has always been a part of Cates' game. Beyond the statistics, what truly stood out from the 2017-18 season was the added strength to his 6-foot-1 frame. Cates weighed 165 pounds at 2017 development camp. He said he started the year with Omaha at 170. Impressively, by season's end, he was a solid 180 to 185.

"That was a big part, how I progressed throughout the season," Cates said. "That was my main goal going there to step into college hockey and get ready to play against those older guys, so it was a really good season in that case."

Cates will now take his next test — back in class and on the ice.

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Nolan Patrick selected as No. 1 breakout player for 2018-19 by NHL Network

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USA Today Images

Nolan Patrick selected as No. 1 breakout player for 2018-19 by NHL Network

Nolan Patrick's rookie season can be split into two halves, but his performance down the stretch has caught the attention of one national pundit.

NHL Network analyst Mike Johnson, who played 12 years in the league, selected Patrick as his No. 1 breakout player for the 2018-19 season during Friday night's "NHL Tonight."

Johnson scored 375 points in 661 NHL games from 1996-2008 and last played in the league during the 2007-08 campaign with the St. Louis Blues.

Behind Johnson's reasoning for picking Patrick as his No. 1 breakout player was the Flyers' center's two-way instincts, ability to finish, size and a full summer of training ahead of him.

"We know his injury history, his lack of proper training, his lack of ability to hit the gym properly," Johnson said, "and he's still strong on the wall. That's only going to get better as he matures physically."

For what it's worth, Connor McDavid was NHL Network's No. 1 breakout candidate for the 2017-18 season — that was a bit of a softball.

As for Patrick, the center joined "NHL Tonight" on Friday to discuss the honor and also provide an update on how his summer is going.

"Coming off that surgery last year," Patrick said, "I had a slow start. It took a while to get my body back to where I wanted it to be. I missed two summers of training. It's been the first summer for me in a while that I've been back in the gym."

Patrick, the No. 2 overall pick in 2017, finished with 13 goals and 30 points in 73 regular-season games. He missed nine games in October and November because of a concussion and spent most of the first half of the season getting his mobility back after undergoing offseason abdominal surgery. In fact, he's lost his past two summers of training because of surgery.

Prior to his final junior season and his draft year, Patrick underwent sports hernia surgery. Then 10 days before the Flyers drafted him, he went under the knife again.

Now he's fully healthy and has a full summer of training.

"First time I can get after it," Patrick said during the team's exit interviews in April (see story). "It's going to be a big summer for me. I'm not satisfied with how the year was or how my year was, so I'm looking to take big steps here."

Once Patrick began feeling healthier, he started getting a bigger role with the Flyers. He was elevated to the team's second-line center and stuck. He also found a role on the power play.

The 19-year-old posted 17 points in the final 25 games, which translates to a respectable 0.68 points per game clip and 55 points over an 82-game schedule. Not too bad for a rookie who couldn't actually train during his previous two offseasons.

"My coaches pushed me throughout the year. Then they gave me more opportunity," Patrick told the NHL Network. "Jake Voracek was huge for me. He thinks the game so well. The puck protection that guy has, you just got to get open for him.

"I think my body also just felt better as the year went on. I kind of took a while to get my skating legs there, so I think in the second half, I had a little more pep in my step."

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