Willman Earned First Flyers Opportunity Through Gradual Growth

When the Philadelphia Flyers took the ice for their first game in the 2021-22 season against the Vancouver Canucks, while there were many first-time faces in Orange and Black, most previously had NHL playing experience. In fact, of the 19 players who suited up in the first two contests this year, 18 of them had prior games in the NHL coming in. The only one who made his league debut is 26-year-old forward, Max Willman. The Barnstable, Massachusetts native had a long road of development in order to get to his opening-night moment, one that included proving some doubters wrong. Now, he is going to take the next step and try to grow into an NHL regular who can help establish that Flyers offense even more so than where they currently stand.

Surpassing Draft Spot and Minor Leagues

Willman was originally drafted by the Buffalo Sabres as a fifth-round selection (121st overall) in 2014. He committed to Brown University, where he played in four campaigns for the Bears. For the most part, his offensive numbers did not jump off the page. His most successful run with the team occurred in 2016-17 when he posted 11 goals and 15 assists for 26 points in 31 games. Overall, during the course of his time at Brown, he accumulated the following stats:

  • 2014-15: 1 goal and 2 assists for 3 points in 30 games
  • 2015-16: 3 goals and 8 assists for 11 points in 29 games
  • 2016-17: 11 goals and 15 assists for 26 points in 31 games
  • 2017-18: 1 goal and 4 assists for 5 points in 9 games
Max Willman Lehigh Valley Phantoms
Max Willman, shown above with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, played four seasons with the Brown University Bears before suiting up in one campaign for Boston University. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Brown University was not the only college Willman attended or played hockey with. In the 2018-19 hockey year, he donned the Boston University sweater. He played in 36 regular-season matchups, where he potted one goal and contributed five assists as well.

The Sabres decided not to sign Willman to a contract and he found himself looking for his next opportunity in the sport. The ECHL came calling for him and he inked a deal with the Reading Royals who are tied in with the Flyers and their American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate Lehigh Valley Phantoms. Willman split his 2019-20 season between the Royals and the Phantoms. During his time in the ECHL, he produced 25 points in 20 games (nine goals and 16 assists). While with the Phantoms, he tallied three goals and six assists for nine points in 24 games.

Related Link: 10 Flyers’ Must-Watch Games in 2021-22

2020-21 saw Willman as a regular with Lehigh Valley. He played in 30 regular-season contests for them and notched nine goals and seven helpers for 16 points. That was good enough to be fifth on the team in scoring. Only Cal O’Reilly (23 points), Ryan Fitzgerald (21), Zayde Wisdom (18), and Tyson Foerster (17) had more points than Willman. The skillset Willman showed impressed Flyers’ general manager Chuck Fletcher enough that he signed him to an NHL contract back in March 2021. He was moving up the hockey ladder.

At this point in his young career, Willman did not let his draft status or a team rejection turn him away from his hockey dream. Many hockey people might have dismissed him because he was a fifth-round pick. The Sabres walked away from the idea of giving him a contract. Despite these setbacks, he continued to work hard and continually further establish his gameplay. He also could have given up when he was suiting up in the ECHL. He didn’t though; he kept grinding, eventually became a regular on the Phantoms in the AHL, and earned his NHL deal with Philadelphia. Willman’s story is just one of many about never giving up and overcoming obstacles in order to achieve your dreams.

Willman Receives First NHL Opportunity

Heading into the 2021-22 campaign, Willman was originally sent back from Philadelphia to Lehigh Valley to continue to prosper his game. However, the Flyers were put in tough circumstances with their roster. Rasmus Ristolainen, who was acquired from the Sabres in the offseason via trade, did not play in the opening night game against Vancouver. This led to the squad giving a blueline chance to Nick Seeler, who has formerly donned the sweaters of the Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks. Another unfortunate instance involved newly-added forward Patrick Brown, who the franchise claimed off waivers from the Vegas Golden Knights, being put on the COVID-19 protocol list. With Philly being down a forward, the decision was made to bring Willman up to the big club to make his NHL debut.

Nick Seeler Chicago Blackhawks
Defender Nick Seeler, shown here with the Chicago Blackhawks, also was added into the Flyers’ lineup like was the case with Willman for opening night. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Willman entered an NHL lineup for the first time against the Canucks in their season opener. He played in 13 shifts, racking up nine and a half minutes of ice time throughout. He did not register a point, had one shot, received a penalty, and finished the match with a +/- of -1. The team itself lost against Vancouver 5-4 in a shootout. He was able to play in a second game against the new expansion club Seattle Kraken but finished with almost identical stats to his first contest. He went pointless again, finished a minus-1, had a shot, received a penalty, but finished with almost eleven and a half minutes of ice time. The Flyers got their first victory by defeating Seattle by a final score of 6-1.

More NHL Chances in the Future for Willman

After his games versus the Canucks and Kraken, the Flyers announced Willman was loaned back to the Phantoms. Despite the short stint, both contests were valuable takeaways for the forward. He received his first taste of NHL action, and now has a better understanding of how the gameplay is in the league. He can take the two-game experience with him to Lehigh Valley and execute the necessary steps to continue his development into a potential impactful NHL regular down the road with the Flyers. Willman was also able to share a locker room with Philly’s leaders like longtime captain Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, and James van Riemsdyk. They are leaders and can help show younger talents the way to prepare both on and off the ice, and give some solid insight and advice. Willman might not have been in Philly long, but there was value in the entire experience.

Willman may be 26 years old and some may say he might not be able to get a lot better, but I think it is still very possible. There is a chance he has not hit his ceiling yet, and there have been enough examples throughout this league’s history of late bloomers. He has proven many wrongs already by making the jump from the ECHL as a fifth-round draft choice all the way to being in the top-five scorers for Lehigh Valley in the 2020-21 AHL season. I do not think this will be the last time Willman plays in the NHL, and there is potential he may be able to prove himself and become a regular in the lineup, either in Philly or even perhaps elsewhere in the league. Time will tell.

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