General manager (GM) Chuck Fletcher made no splashy offseason additions to the Philadelphia Flyers. Just months after his vow to “aggressively retool” the roster in response to a disastrous 2021-22 season, he stood idle while coveted free agent Johnny Gaudreau went to a Metropolitan Division opponent. Despite the heated backlash the organization received, a large part of Fletcher’s reasoning was to allow for the proper evaluation of young players in 2022-23.
“Some of these players now, they’re young, but they’ve had some experience, players like (Morgan) Frost and (Owen) Tippett for example. Even (Wade) Allison and (Tanner) Laczynski are 25 now. At some point, you’ve got to grab that opportunity, and you’ve got to rise above what (former interim head coach) Mike Yeo spoke about last year. And you hope that with continued experience and getting these reps, that that’s something they can grow into, where their game doesn’t change regardless of the score, and they can continue to take steps forward, and I’d be surprised if many of them don’t.”-Chuck Fletcher
Young defensemen like Egor Zamula, Cam York, and Ronnie Attard will have some time to develop, whether it’s with the big club in the NHL or with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms of the American Hockey League (AHL). Five forwards on the current roster, however, are staring their NHL futures in the face. If they can’t take advantage of the opportunities given to them by a team with no expectations for contention this season, they won’t be considered NHL-caliber players much longer.
Frost entered the NHL with the highest expectations of any of the five players on the list. He shot up the prospect rankings after back-to-back seasons with over 100 points in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) in 2017-18 and 2018-19. The sluggish start to his NHL career is due to a combination of injuries and underperformance. The 23-year-old failed to take advantage of glaring holes at the center position for Philadelphia last season after a mountain of injuries piled up.
The most disconcerting part of Frost’s game in 2021-22 was the obvious lack of confidence he showed with the puck. The Flyers seemed to allow him to play in the NHL by default at certain points because of the incredibly thin personnel they had. He didn’t develop a good rhythm until the final weeks of a lost season, but the small step of momentum seems to have carried into 2022-23.
New head coach John Tortorella has allowed him to play over two minutes per game on the power play through the first four games. The young centerman has carried the puck with much better poise. His quickness through the neutral zone makes him look like a different player than the one who got demoted to Lehigh Valley in February.
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Frost scored twice on opening night against the New Jersey Devils, and he added one assist against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday. While a good start on the stat sheet looks like a positive step for the former Sault Ste. Marie Greyhound, sustained work as a playmaker will be the only way to shake off a bad NHL start. There will be no lineup spot handed to a former first-round pick by default this year, as the Flyers already proved with the demotion of York. Frost will continue to earn his ice time, or he will lose favor within the organization once again, this time likely for good.
The most impressive Flyer during preseason and training camp has kept the momentum going with an excellent start in his first four games. Noah Cates has continued his effective play in all three zones, especially by winning 50-50 puck battles, an area the Flyers struggled with during the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons. He scored the game-winning goal against the Lightning to complete an improbable comeback in a moment that hinted at his knack for winning hockey.
Noah Cates played four seasons at Minnesota Duluth, skating in two Frozen Fours and winning one NCAA National Championship. He spoke about “the energy and the swagger that winning teams have” after he debuted in the NHL in March and how he could like to become a leader within an organization that needs to develop those characteristics. An outstanding 58.04 expected goals for percentage (xGF%) at five-on-five in 16 games in 2021-22 backed up his bold statement.
He has transitioned well to the center position and firmly planted his standing as a lineup regular for the Flyers. Of all the Philadelphia players fighting for their NHL futures, the 2017 fifth-round pick has made the best impression by far. He’s not leaving Tortorella’s good graces anytime soon.
Allison turned 25 the day after the season opener. The early part of his professional career hasn’t gotten off the ground largely because of injuries. His unquestionable intensity appeals to an organization looking for players to make a splash with an all-out effort and a fan base that misses the passion of the franchise’s all-time greats. The bullish tenacity will continue to earn him some respect as long as he doesn’t land himself on the injured list with overaggressive play.
The potential is there for Allison to become a successful power forward. He scored his only goal of the season on a greasy play in front of the New Jersey crease on opening night. His physical play in front of the opponent’s net and his willingness to drop the gloves to stand up for teammates looks great in small sample sizes, and Allison will earn his position in the organization if he keeps it up over longer stretches.
A hip injury ended Laczynski’s 2020-21 season after just 14 AHL games and five NHL games. When an injury to the opposite hip forced him to sit out most of the 2021-22 season, four years of NCAA experience started to look like a bad thing. The clock was suddenly ticking, and some people within the organization even questioned whether he trusted his own body and ability on the ice after he returned from the hip injuries. He is just now getting his first real shot to earn a full-time role at age 25.
Laczynski plays a smart 200-foot game, and he could potentially chip in offensively in a secondary scoring role in bottom-six minutes with the right opportunity. However, Tortorella doesn’t seem thrilled with the former Ohio State Buckeye.
Tortorella spoke with the same tone just before the demotion of York after the young defenseman’s underwhelming effort during the preseason. The waiver acquisition of veteran journeyman Lukáš Sedlák will likely push Laczynski out of the lineup relatively soon. If the change is made, Laczynski will have a chance to regain his footing and steal back his position with a strong showing in the AHL.
Tortorella didn’t speak glowingly of Hayden Hodgson after training camp, but input from the front office convinced him to give the 26-year-old a lineup spot on opening night. The experiment didn’t last long, as training camp standout Jackson Cates took Hodgson’s spot before the second game. The decision to call up Noah’s 25-year-old older brother indicated Tortorella’s emphasis on merit and accountability once again.
Jackson brings the same qualities as Noah as the type of player that coaches praise consistently. The Flyers should not count on him to become a consistent point producer at the NHL level. However, he should play a serviceable role as a swing player between the NHL and AHL.
“We have really good depth this year, much better than we have the last two years, so if we do run into injuries, which seem to happen through the course of the season, I think we have a lot of kids down in Lehigh Valley we can call up,” Fletcher told the media on Oct. 12.
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When Tippett returns to the lineup from an upper-body injury, he’ll reenter the fray of players competing for their NHL futures. While Laczynski and Jackson Cates might lose their spots in the lineup in the upcoming weeks, the Flyers now have a sense of direction with their young talent. No realistically probable outcomes will appease an angry fan base starving for Stanley Cup contention, but players who are part of the solution in Philadelphia will emerge in 2022-23.