Rookies from the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Rangers faced off on Friday and Saturdays night at the PPL Center, home of Philadelphia’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. The Flyers won the exhibition matchups 2-1 and 5-1, respectively. They also showcased some of their top prospects during on-ice sessions at the team’s training facilities on Thursday and Sunday.
Noah Cates plays the type of hockey that coaches love, and his maturity on and off the ice deserves recognition in an organization trying to refocus its priorities. He brings the type of intensity and discipline perfect for a role in the bottom six. Phantoms head coach Ian Laperriere acknowledged Cates’ fit as an example for younger players by slapping the “A” on his sweater for the weekend’s games.
The 23-year-old showed off the seasoning from his career at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where he won a National Championship as a freshman and wore the “C” for his final two seasons. While playing on a line with his older brother Jackson this weekend, he looked like one of the most capable players on the ice, especially in winning board battles and maintaining possession of the puck on the stick. He scored a shorthanded goal assisted by Jackson on Saturday.
The Flyers have gotten away from a disciplined game that includes the proper attention to small details. The need to become “harder to play against” has become a redundant and subjective point of focus within the organization, but Cates gave an objective answer when asked in April about how he can contribute to the effort.
“I think that’s a big part of my game. It’s little things. It’s stopping on pucks. It’s having a good stick, being physical. Not blowing guys up but kind of the little things that you don’t like when players do to you, you’ve got to do to them. So I think that’s a huge part of my game and just the kind of things I need to bring to the table with stopping on pucks and little stick details.”
Cates scored five goals and added four assists in the first 16 games of his NHL career at the end of 2021-22. He demonstrated over the weekend that he is a step ahead of the organization’s prospect pool. A good camp should land him in the lineup on opening night.
“I don’t think I’ll see him,” Laperriere said on Sunday about the possibility of coaching Cates in the AHL.
Tyson Foerster falls into the unusually large group of Flyers prospects that have faced serious injury concerns during their development. The 2020 first-round pick is fully recovered from a shoulder injury that kept him out for a large portion of last season, and he appears ready to take the next step in his professional development.
He scored the overtime goal against the Rangers at the PPL Center on Friday night. Although he failed to capitalize on a few opportunities earlier in the evening, he showcased the highly-touted shot that puts him at the top of Philadelphia’s prospect pool when he kept the puck for himself on a 2-on-1 and fired low on the far side for the winner. General manager (GM) Chuck Fletcher selected Foerster with the hope that he would become a weapon on the power play.
“There’s no question, the most successful power plays in the league are teams that shoot the puck well from the flank. We don’t have a lot of natural scorers from that area, nor have we for a long time.”-Chuck Fletcher
While the 20-year-old might not get the opportunity to prove himself at the NHL level early in the season, a fast start in the AHL might put him on the short list of call-ups to the big club. The Flyers lack exciting offensive skill players in their lineup, and the organization will be eager to groom Foerster into a building block with any chance they get. Look for him to get opportunities to shine during the preseason and make his NHL debut in 2022-23.
Former undrafted free agent Egor Zamula will enter training camp with long odds to make the NHL roster with at least five veteran defensemen and Cam York and Ronnie Attard presumably ahead of him on the depth chart. However, he is moving in the right direction toward becoming a useful piece on the Philadelphia blue line in the future. The Flyers will likely utilize the younger defensemen this season based on the need for a righty or a lefty in a given circumstance. If York becomes a full-time NHL player, Zamula should be the first option to step in on the left side.
The biggest concern about Zamula within the organization during the 2021-22 season was about his weight and ability to withstand the physical demands of the NHL at 6-foot-3 and just 177 pounds. However, the Russian defenseman said on Thursday that he bulked up in the offseason to 192 pounds. While he could still use some seasoning at the AHL level, his capable puck-moving skills and raw ability make for a bright future.
Attard debuted in the NHL for 15 games at the end of 2021-22 after his final NCAA season at Western Michigan ended. After getting brutally exposed in his first game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on April 2, he took noticeable strides in his defensive awareness. The 6-foot-3 defenseman showcased the raw ability that led the Flyers to take a chance on him as an overage prospect in the third round of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. He kept the momentum by firing a one-timer from Foerster for a power-play goal in his first game action in months on Saturday night.
Attard’s quick improvement in his short stint in the NHL matches his positive demeanor off the ice. He spoke glowingly on Saturday night about Zamula, his defensive partner in rookie camp, and shared the elements of his game he’d like to improve in 2022-23.
“Just being more physical, being hard to play against, not letting anyone get behind me. There’s a couple times tonight where I lost a couple puck battles, and at the next level it’s going to be in the back of our net,” Attard said.
The Flyers should gush over the opportunity for a big, right-handed defenseman with the skill set of Attard. While his professional career has only just started, the 23-year-old should aim for a fast track to the NHL. He’s unlikely to make the lineup over a veteran right-handed defenseman on opening night, but one injury along the blue line could give him the chance to showcase his continued improvement.
Goaltender Samuel Ersson stole the show against the Rangers on Saturday night after sitting out for Friday’s matchup. The 22-year-old Swede stopped 36 of 37 New York shots on goal in the 5-1 victory. He withstood a barrage of early chances before the Flyers could get their legs under them offensively. He was the first star of the game.
“My main focus was just to get through the game really but also I’ve been thinking all summer that I want to come back with a statement to show that I’m able to handle adversity and come back strong,” he said after the win.
Fletcher spoke in July about an open competition for the backup role during training camp with Ersson in the mix coming off an injury-riddled season in 2021-22. The Flyers will enter the season without a proven option for the backup goaltender position behind Carter Hart. Felix Sandström enters camp as the favorite to make the NHL roster with veteran journeyman Troy Grosenick also expected to compete. The two netminders have nine NHL starts between them. If Ersson is fully healthy in 2022-23, it’s not outrageous to think he can jump underwhelming competition and steal the role as the backup goaltender.
Wrapping Up Rookie Camp
Olle Lycksell also turned some heads with his performance in the two rookie games, the first games he’s played since coming to North America. The Swedish winger scored Philadelphia’s only goal in regulation on Friday and added another goal and two assists on Saturday. His performance will once again attract the attention of the big club five years after he was drafted. Prospects Cutter Gauthier, Bobby Brink, and Emil Andrae did not participate this weekend.
The completion of rookie camp means that the official beginning of training camp is only days away. The Flyers will convene on Wednesday and hit the ice Thursday. All eyes will shift to John Tortorella and his high expectations for the performance of the veterans before the season begins.
Colin Newby is a freelance journalist from Delaware County, PA covering the Philadelphia Flyers for The Hockey Writers. He is an encyclopedia of useless sports knowledge with an uncanny ability to rattle off Flyers goaltending stats from 2004 and every Stanley Cup winner during his lifetime. The depths of his knowledge stem from spending his entire life following the Flyers and the NHL, from fan favorites like the “Legion of Doom” and Claude Giroux to forgotten journeymen like Andy Delmore and Branko Radivojevič. He joined the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association (PHWA) in 2022.
Colin also covers the Philadelphia Eagles and works for 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia.