Minnesota Duluth

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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Noah Cates is a prospect the Flyers 'can't stop bragging about'

Zack Hill/Philadelphia Flyers

Noah Cates is a prospect the Flyers 'can't stop bragging about'

The Flyers selected Noah Cates during the fifth round of the 2017 NHL draft, plucking him out of Stillwater Area High School in Minnesota with the 137th overall pick.

At the time, Brent Flahr, Chuck Fletcher and the Minnesota Wild were sitting at No. 147.

"A kid like Cates was right in our backyard," Flahr said. "One thing in Minnesota when you are there, you hate when Minnesota players, especially the good ones, go ahead of you."

Flahr can now thank Flyers amateur scout Nick Pryor. As the assistant general manager of the Flyers, Flahr no longer has to kick himself for missing out on Cates.

"Nick Pryor did a good job," Flahr said last month at development camp. "He was right near his house. They got him. He looks like a real good prospect for us."

(Zack Hill/Philadelphia Flyers)

As a fifth-round pick out of high school, Cates was once well below the surface in the Flyers' prospect pool. With time and hard work, he's beginning to blossom — and the Flyers see it. 

"We talk about him every day and we can't stop bragging about him," Flyers player development coach Kjell Samuelsson said. "He's quietly gotten better and better every year, and everything we ask him to do, he's doing it."

In 2017-18, Cates scored nearly a point per game (21 goals, 34 assists) over 60 contests with the USHL's Omaha Lancers. He then followed it up by playing an important role for 2019 national champion University of Minnesota Duluth, recording 23 points (nine goals, 14 assists) and a plus-12 mark through 40 games as a freshman.

What made the national title even sweeter was winning it alongside his brother Jackson Cates, for a school just shy of a 2½-hour drive from his parents Jeff and Jenny Cates.

"Awesome," Cates said. "I think they were at every game this year. It was so much easier for them that we were in the same spot, a couple hours from home. They're obviously so proud of us."

Couple his freshman year with a goal and two assists for the U.S. in the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship, and it was a productive 2018-19 for Cates.

"Just grew so much, developed so much with the college game — living on my own, going to school and everything like that," Cates said. "Just an awesome year all around and capping it off with that national championship was so special with my family."

Cates is far from the skinny, offense-first player he was in high school. He's gone from 6-foot-1, 165 pounds to 6-foot-2, 180 pounds. He's a smart, all-situation thinker — in large part because of his development with the Bulldogs and trust from head coach Scott Sandelin.

"My role kind of grew as the year went on, got more comfortable," Cates said. "A little bit of power play, some penalty kill, last-minute stuff — that's important to play in all those key situations, so important moving on to have that experience. To do it for a team like that, it was really special. I can't say enough good things about that program and the whole year in general. Coach Sandelin gave me a lot of opportunity and I'm so grateful for that opportunity and took advantage of it."

The Flyers noticed.

"He scored goals, he's on the ice when you're protecting leads, he's killing penalties," Samuelsson said. "He's a very rounded hockey player."

Cates said it's too early to tell how long he'll stay in school.

"When you're on a team like that and with a program like that, you don't want to leave too early and maybe hurt your career," Cates said, "especially with the opportunity that's in Duluth."

After all, there's no real rush. Flahr, Fletcher and the Flyers know him well.

"So happy to be in Philadelphia," Cates said.

"I just need to play the way I can play, especially these next couple years with my development. They're on board with that, they're happy with where I'm at, but I've got to keep making strides."

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Tough break for a Phillies’ draft pick with an intriguing story

Tough break for a Phillies’ draft pick with an intriguing story

The Phillies will announce a slew of signings from the recent draft next week.

Included in the group will be outfielder Mickey Moniak, pitcher Kevin Gowdy and infielder Cole Stobbe, the team’s top three picks who went No. 1, 42 and 78 overall.

Moniak, Gowdy and Stobbe were three of the most highly rated high school players in the country, Moniak and Gowdy in Southern California and Stobbe in Nebraska.

Alex Wojciechowski, another Phillies’ draft pick, is not as well known as the aforementioned trio, but his story is pretty intriguing. As a senior at the University of Minnesota Duluth this season, he hit .444, slugged 33 homers and drove in 101 runs in 55 games. Those are big numbers. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound, right-handed-hitting first baseman won five Division II player of the year awards.

Prior to the draft, several Minnesota media outlets wrote about the 22-year-old Wojciechowski and wondered if a big-league team would take a shot on him in the draft. After all, power is valuable and this guy has a lot of it regardless of what level he showed it at.

The Phillies were the team that took a shot on Wojciechowski, taking him in the 15th round. But now the club is uncertain whether it will sign him. Unbeknownst to the team, the player suffered an elbow injury “around the time of the draft,” according to general manager Matt Klentak. The Phillies will have to carefully review Wojciechowski’s condition before they make a decision.

Division II seniors taken in the 15th round of draft receive small signing bonuses and seldom make it to the majors, so this news does not diminish what looks like a promising draft for the Phillies. But Wojciechowski’s power numbers did jump out and it would have been interesting to see him take a poke at more advanced pitching. Who knows, maybe he’ll get that shot when he recovers.

According to the team’s official website, the Phillies have signed 19 of their 40 draft picks. Moniak, Gowdy and Stobbe are listed as unsigned, but sources say the team has agreements with all three players, pending physical exams, which should be completed in the coming days.