5 reasons why all 3 rookie defensemen should make the Flyers

5 reasons why all 3 rookie defensemen should make the Flyers

You can safely remove the training wheels now. 

It’s time to ride with three rookies on the Flyers' blue line to begin the season. Sure, they may lose their balance and scrape up their knees along the way, but that’s to be expected. 

Few defensemen have made the smooth and seamless transition to the NHL in their first year without hitting a pothole and flying over the handlebars. Even Ivan Provorov had his wipeout moment in a minus-5 game against the Blackhawks in Chicago last season.

The expectation coming into camp was that two of the three young defensemen would separate themselves from the other guy, but collectively, the open competition has been beneficial and you can make a solid case for either Sam Morin, Travis Sanheim or Robert Hagg to make this team.

Although general manager Ron Hextall and head coach Dave Hakstol are probably very hesitant to begin the season with three rookies on defense, here’s why they shouldn’t:
1. The rookies' ability to bounce back
It’s crucial, if not vital, to have a short-term memory. Make a mistake and move on. One of the most impressive aspects of Sanheim’s camp was the manner in which he handled adversity early on. After a lackluster preseason opener at Nassau Coliseum, Sanheim didn’t beat himself up as he was “demoted” to the Phantoms' practice squad. In a matter of days, the 21-year-old displayed the necessary maturity and work ethic, which left Hakstol impressed.

“Sometimes you learn as much about a player and where he’s at coming off a night like that,” Hakstol said.

Sanheim quickly worked his way back into the main group after stringing together solid back-to-back games. Hagg had a slow start to the game at Madison Square Garden Monday night, but he kept his composure and turned in a solid effort over the final 50 minutes. Part of the seasoning process is escaping those moments that can potentially linger. When playing three games over three consecutive days at the AHL level, you’re forced to move on to the next shift and the next game very quickly.

2. They don't have to play every game
It’s a balancing act. You don’t want your young promising talent to sit for an extended period of time, but as part of the process, there’s a benefit to having a rookie take a step back and assess the situation from a different vantage point.

A coaching staff usually has a sense of when a young player needs to regroup coming off a tough game or tough stretch of games. Watching from the press box for a game or two can help a player gain a much different perspective. The 82-game schedule is a grind and when Shayne Gostisbehere was a healthy scratch, justified or not, for three games last season, he reverted back to the type of assertive offensive defenseman he was during his rookie season, and "Ghost" responded with 17 points in his last 27 games while firing shots more frequently.     

3. What's the alternative?
Are the Flyers considerably better with Andrew MacDonald or Brandon Manning in the lineup? The Flyers thought so much of MacDonald that they stashed him in the minors in 2015-16, as he played just 28 games at the NHL level that season. He was left exposed during the expansion draft and Vegas elected to go with fourth-line center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare instead. Both MacDonald and Manning are serviceable defensemen, but on many teams, they are probably that team’s sixth or seventh option.

Since 2011-12, the Flyers have finished 20th, 22nd, 20th, 21st, 12th (Hakstol’s first season) and 19th in goals allowed. Whether that’s a product of poor goaltending, overall defense or a combination of the two, stopping the opponent from scoring has proven to be a real weakness, even with a veteran lineup. 

4. The future begins now
If the Flyers were one or two pieces away from Stanley Cup contention, then it would make perfect sense to be a little more selective on how you work in young players into your lineup. I’ll contend with Hextall’s assertion that the organization isn’t in a rebuilding phase, but it's undoubtedly in a transitional period. The Flyers are seriously looking at starting a pair of rookie forwards (Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom) in their top six.

Teams vying for championships aren’t making those roster decisions. The Flyers' franchise goaltender appears to be a good two to three years away as well. Once Carter Hart, Felix Sandstrom or whoever it is makes that jump to the NHL, wouldn’t you prefer to have veteran defensemen with several years of NHL experience in front of them to ease the pressure that might come with a first-year player in net?

5. Injuries will lead to the inevitable
Even if the Flyers start with a combination of Morin and Sanheim or Morin and Hagg, it’s only a matter of time before all three will be playing here at some point. How long before the Flyers lose a defenseman to injury and the team is forced to recall a replacement from Lehigh Valley?

Over the past five years, the Flyers have utilized on average 10 different defensemen throughout the course of the season, whether it's been the result of injuries or trades completed near the deadline. The one quirk with bringing up a defenseman from Lehigh Valley is that the player you call up will likely serve as the team’s seventh defenseman and probably wouldn’t play right away, which would seem counterproductive.

In that event, if Hextall elects to recall T.J. Brennan or Mark Alt, then what message does that send to one of those three guys (Morin/Sanheim/Hagg), who are currently on the fringe and capable of making the Flyers' opening night roster?

Here’s how I’d pair the rookies going into the regular season from what I’ve seen so far.

Ivan Provorov-Robert Hagg
Sam Morin-Shayne Gostisbehere
Travis Sanheim-Radko Gudas

Andrew MacDonald

It's back to school for Flyers prospect Noah Cates

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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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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