Flyers 2020-21 Season in Review: Nicolas Aube-Kubel

Right-winger Nicolas Aube-Kubel played 50 games for the Philadelphia Flyers in 2020-21. He finished with three goals and nine assists while leading the team in penalty minutes with 44. He lost the position in the lineup that he had earned during his rookie season in 2019-20, as head coach Alain Vigneault healthy scratched him several times late in the regular season.   

The 2014 second-round pick out of Slave Lake, Alberta, earned his stripes through the minimal opportunity he had at the NHL level following an imperfect climb through the minors with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. As the Flyers hit their stride during the second half of the 2019-20 season, Aube-Kubel locked up a spot in the lineup as part of a bottom-six that consistently hammered their opponents on the forecheck. He played strong minutes in each game of the Flyers’ nine-game winning streak just prior to the COVID-19 pause in March 2020. Their record in 36 games with him in the lineup during the regular season was an outstanding 24-10-2. 

A Solidified Role for Aube-Kubel 

The Flyers lost winger Tyler Pitlick to the Arizona Coyotes in free agency following the 2019-20 season. They hoped that his gritty style as a bottom-six winger would be replaceable through the continued development of Aube-Kubel. Both players offered the same style of ferocious pursuit in the tough areas of the ice, and Aube-Kubel looked to be the better option as a cheap, homegrown player making just north of $1 million per year at age 24. 

Unfortunately, Aube-Kubel’s contributions to the team’s aggressive style did not continue in 2020-21, and his lack of rhythm became yet another element of disappointment during a lost season for Philadelphia. The forecheck, which had been such a vital strength of the team in 2019-20, never regained its form. The Flyers were consistently outmuscled by physical opponents like the New York Islanders and Washington Capitals, and their inability to gain possession on winnable puck battles was a weakness that Aube-Kubel didn’t help to reverse.  

Nicolas Aube-Kubel Philadelphia Flyers
Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Philadelphia Flyers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Aube-Kubel did not make contributions as a pesky agitator, which seemed like his successfully carved niche in 2019-20. It used to be a calling card to lead the team in penalty minutes for the Philadelphia Flyers franchise in past eras when enforcers occupied fourth-line spots in the lineup. However, the majority of his penalties were ill-timed. Careless handling of the stick made two-minute infractions for hooking or slashing seem like regular occurrences in each game he played. Leading goal scorer Joel Farabee and Bill Masterton Trophy recipient Oskar Lindblom both went beyond their true roles and aggressively tried to get under the skin of opponents during their disastrous month of March, while Aube-Kubel made little contribution in sparking energy into a team that desperately needed it.  

Future With the Flyers

Aube-Kubel turned 25 on the final day of the regular season, and his cap hit will again be just north of $1 million in the final year of his contract in 2021-22. He is an expendable piece in an offseason that likely holds major changes to the roster, and he will be left exposed in the expansion draft in July. He did, however, re-enter the lineup consistently late in the season. His average time on ice (ATOI) was still comparable to his ATOI in 2019-20 despite his struggles, indicating at least some remaining confidence for a turnaround from within the organization. 

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The Seattle Kraken will likely have James van Riemsdyk, Jakub Voracek, and Shayne Gostisbehere to choose from in the 2021 Expansion Draft because of the Flyers’ intention to shed higher salaries. However, there is some possibility that the Kraken will choose Aube-Kubel if they decide to conserve cap space with a cheap, younger player.

The Flyers are otherwise likely to keep him in the organization this offseason, given his affordability and minimal trade value. However, the late-season emergence of Wade Allison and the competition of developing prospects crowds the available bottom-six forward spots. The down year in 2020-21 has erased the benefit of Aube-Kubel’s strong play in 2019-20 being taken into consideration when Vigneault makes lineup decisions next season. He will have to show much more than he did this season in order to earn consistent ice time in 2021-22.

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