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Quick Hits: All-Star Game, Flyers, Phantoms, Prospects and More

February 4, 2023, 3:34 PM ET [26 Comments]
Bill Meltzer
Philadelphia Flyers Blogger •NHL.com • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Quick Hits: February 4, 2023

1) Flyers forward Kevin Hayes placed 6th in the first round Accuracy Shooting event at the NHL All-Star Skills competition on Friday night at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise. It took Hayes 22.377 seconds to hit all four targets from 30 feet. New York Islanders' forward Brock Nelson won the event, defeating Edmonton Oilers' superstar Connor McDavid in the final round after Nelson, McDavid, New York Rangers' star Artemi Panarin and Calgary Flames forward Nazem Kadri competed in the semis. McDavid had the fastest overall time in the first stage, needing a mere 9.497 seconds to go a perfect 4-for-4 with no misses.

2) While I had the Skills Competition on the television set last night, I half-watched most of it on mute. Most of my attention was on the stream of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms game or, during intermissions, checking for updates on how the games involving the Flyers' collegiate prospects were going.

3) Drafted by the Flyers in the 3rd round (69th overall) of the 2022 NHL Entry Draft, Boston University freshman power forward Devin Kaplan has surged as his role has expanded for the Terriers. His first period goal in Friday night's 5-3 win over Maine gave the 19-year-old Kaplan 11 points in his last 10 games. Overall, Kaplan has eight goals and 19 points in 26 games in his first year of NCAA hockey. Kaplan plays a physical brand of north-south hockey and has good straight-line speed although other aspects of his skating are works in progress.

Senior BU center Jay O'Brien, drafted by the Flyers in the first round (19th overall) back in 2018, got off to a very slow start this season after coming back from off-season hip surgery. He's now back to the form he showed around the same time last during before and during the Beanpot. O'Brien hasn't been scoring much with his one-timer this year but he's setting up a lot more plays for teammates.

On Friday night against Maine, O'Brien was the main playmaker on a Wilmer Skoog power play goal in the middle stages of the third period. O'Brien has points in seven of the last eight games (2g, 9a, 11 points). His overall production this season is virtually identical to last year: 23 points in 25 games in 2022-23 after posting 22 points in 24 games a season ago. However, last season, had 10 goals whereas 19 of his points this season have come via assists.

O'Brien has had significant injury issues in four of the last five seasons: his disastrous freshman year at Providence (including a significant shoulder injury and a concussion with post-concussion effects) before he entered the NCAA transfer protocol, his BCHL season in 2019-20 while in transfer protocol, his 2021-22 junior year at BU (early season upper-body injury that kept him out from mid-October to mid-November, an injury in the Nov. 27 game against Cornell that kept him until after the Christmas break, and then playing through the hip issue in the second half of the season), and the half-season ramp up it took him this year as a senior to look like himself on the ice again after the hip surgery. His one truly healthy season? That was in 2020-21 as a sophomore (eight goals and 16 points in 16 games) but that season started late and was greatly shortened due to the pandemic.

O'Brien's problem has NEVER been that he can't play. This is a player who performed every bit as a well in a third-line role as fellow Flyers' 2018 first-rounder Joel Farabee did on the first line for Team USA at the World Junior Showcase in the summer of 2018. That was why O'Brien made the Team USA roster for the 2018-19 WJC (a tourney in which he'd skate 3 or 4 shifts per game) despite having an injury-marred, ineffective and unhappy year at Providence. O'Brien got a lesson in humility during his season at Providence after coming to Flyers Development Camp with an ultra self-confidence (nearly cocky) manner about him. Since then, he's been effective when healthy but either injured or in the process of recovering his game from injury far too often.

At any rate, the Flyers have a decision to make about whether or not to sign O'Brien after this season or relinquish the former 1st rounder's rights in favor of a compensatory Draft pick sandwiched between the end of the second round and start of the third. I personally think O'Brien could still be either a very good AHL player or a late-blooming bottom-six NHL player -- again, with the caveat "if healthy".

Any chance of being an impact NHL player is likely gone but the now 23-year-old is no less skilled even now with all the lost time than Phantoms' leading scorer Olle Lycksell (who is roughly two-and-a-half months older than O'Brien).

I'm reading tea leaves here because Flyers assistant general manager Brent Flahr keeps such things close to the vest, but I nevertheless have a feeling that he is inclined not to sign O'Brien and take the pick instead. O'Brien's name never comes up except when asked specifically about him. That's usually pretty telling.

If so, I get it. The player has lost multiple years' worth of precious development time due to the sheer number of games missed. Given his lengthy injury history accumulated over four-plus years, there are no guarantees he'll stay healthy from now on. Perhaps it might just be best to add another pick and kick the can down the road on someone else's development. But if the question is "do you still think this kid has enough game to have a pro career?" I'd still answer yes.

3) I didn't initially intend to devote this much blog space to O'Brien but I have a bit more I'd like to say since the Flyers are still in their schedule hiatus.

Pierre McGuire was NOT wrong in 2018 when he said O'Brien wasn't going to make it to the second round of the Draft. It was a very high upside pick at the time of a player whose only two knocks were a need to physically mature and lack of games against more suitable opposition than the New England prep school level offered. It was a swing for the fences.

Well, swinging for the fences doesn't always produce home runs. There's a big risk of striking out, too.

My own preferred pick at the time was defenseman K'Andre Miller (whom I had as my Flyers pick at No. 14 -- with Farabee off the board one selection earlier -- in my 2018 mock draft on PhiladelphiaFlyers.com). Nonetheless, I totally understood why the Flyers took O'Brien at the time.

Farabee with a very safe pick; if healthy, a player with fairly easily projectable top-six upside and some two-way game. Taking Miller (tremendous athlete but very raw after being converted from forward to D just a year earlier) or O'Brien (low-level opposition, considerable need to add strength) involved a risk/reward judgment.

I'd have loved to see Miller as Philly's choice, but either guy would have been a gutsy call. Actually, in my mock Draft that year -- taking Miller at 14th on the projection that Farabee didn't make it quite to that spot -- I went very conservative at 17th with Swedish forward Isac Lundeström: high floor as a two-way center, relatively modest ceiling. He's in the NHL now, too,
and has roughly developed along the expected lines. As it looks today, a Farabee/Miller or even Farabee/Lundeström yield would look better.

Nevertheless, I will never criticize a scout for stepping up and advocating for a player he believes in. Former Flyers AGM Chris Pryor believed in the pick, and not only because his son, Nick, was scouting the NCAA and USHL for the org at the time (today, Nick is the Penguins' director of amateur scouting and his dad is Ron Hextall's AGM just as he was here).

My Hockeybuzz colleague, Paul Stewart -- who just as easily could have been a highly successful NHL scout or player personnel director had he not not turned to officiating after his playing days -- tipped me off of O'Brien a half season before he was drafted. Admitting he had personal interest in the player because O'Brien's grandfather had been Stewy's own coach and later a close friend, Paul told me that watching O'Brien play reminded him a lot of seeing Jeremy Roenick play at the same age. Actually, Paul subsequently blogged about it after the Flyers selected O'Brien.

Additionally, in the months leading up to the Draft, there were rampant rumors within scouting circles -- a realm in which I have no direct experience except as a lay person who watches a lot of hockey but in which I've developed quite a few contacts over the years -- that O'Brien was either going to go in the first round or at the start of the second. There was widespread belief that the Bruins (who had success over the years taking young players from the New England scholastic hockey ranks) were one of the teams on the trail. So were the Rangers, as McGuire noted on television during the Draft.

The "scouting scuttlebutt" is often -- not always, but often -- ahead of where the publicly available rankings such as Central Scouting or The Hockey News Draft Preview has a player being selected. Based on what people in the business told me, when I blogged about potential first-round "sleeper" candidates leading up to the 2018 Draft, I included O'Brien.

The pick has not worked out as hoped; again, that's primarily due to repeated injuries leading to too much lost developmental time and not because the player was a "stiff" or a "massive reach" or whatever other pejoratives get used by people who either have no clue what they're talking about or simply enjoy the selective 20/20 nature of retro-drafting. But it's absolutely untrue that the Flyers were the only team considering O'Brien. They stepped up on him early, but not THAT early.

4) Sorry, I went off of a tangent. I had initially intended to have a lengthy section on Cutter Gauthier's games for Boston College since the World Junior Championships but I'll save that for after the Beanpot on a Flyers' offday. For now, I will make mention of the comments Brent Flahr made regarding Gauthier recently on the Prospect Pipeline podcast that Brian Smith and I periodically do for the Flyers' Broadcast Network.

The Flyers' organization, rightfully, is extremely high on the skill set and combination of size and skill that Gauthier brings. The organization wants to make absolutely sure that, if Gauthier turns pro after his freshman season at BC that it's the right decision at the right time. Flahr said that Gauthier has barely scratched the surface of his potential and, despite impressive freshman scoring stats (13 goals, 23 points in 21 games), there's another level of both all-around and offensive consistency and dynamic performance he is capable of unlocking as he gains experience.

Gauthier, based on interviews he's given before and since the Flyers Development Camp this past summer, seems pretty eager to get his pro career going as soon as possible. Reading tea leaves here again, however, it seems like the organization is wondering whether the center/left winger might ultimately benefit more from a second collegiate year before he turns pro and recommend erring on the side of not rushing the player. Ultimately, though, if Gauthier himself feels sure he's ready after one college season, it seems like the organization would go along with it and sign him this spring.

Last night, BC tied UMass-Lowell, 2-2 (Mass-Lowell won a shootout, 2-1). Gauthier collected a second period helper on a Trevor Kuntar goal that tied the game at 1-1. Gauthier was held pointless in three of the four previous games but stood out positively in the first game of BC's back-to-back losses (6-3 and 3-1) to traditional rival BU last weekend.

5) Phantoms update: The Lehigh Valley Phantoms (21-17-5) suffered a disappointing 4-2 home loss to the Providence Bruins (26-9-9) at the PPL Center in Allentown on Friday. The Phantoms never really got into a sustained rhythm for much of the game, although they outshot Providence by 32-23 margin overall including a 19-14 margin over the first 40 minutes.

The main turning point of the game happened in the second period at 17:24. A mere 13 seconds after Bobby Brink nicely set up Cooper Marody (6th goal of the season) for a power play tally that tied the score at 2-2, the Bruins' Georgii Merkulov (10th) restored the lead. It was a goal that Samuel Ersson would have wanted back, too; a shot he had the angle on but leaked through the five-hole and trickled over the goal line.

The Phantoms' spent the rest of the game trying in vain to catch up. A Marc McLaughlin power play goal at 17:02 of the third period provided some insurance. The Phantoms had several good chances to tie the game beforehand, but Brandon Bussi slammed the door with 13 saves in the final stanza. The McLaughlin goal sealed the deal.

As has been the case too often this season, the penalty kill was a trouble spot for the Phantoms in Friday's game. The lower end of the Phantoms' lineup produced the game's first goal, as Jordy Bellerive (5th) opened the scoring at 15:28. Unfortunately, Isaac Ratcliffe took a needless hooking penalty at 17:55 and Justin Brazeau cashed it in on the power play with 17 seconds remaining in the opening period.

The first period, more or less, was a dud. Ersson was tested more severely than Bussi, and the Phantoms (actually both teams) seemed a tad off in their passing or reads when there seemed to a promising play emerging. Lehigh Valley was actually a little fortunate the game was tied at 1-1 going to the first intermission despite nearly getting out of the period unscathed.

The game remained tied at 1-1 until the middle stages of the second period. Providence technically did not score during a Kevin Connauton interference penalty but a 5-on-5 go-ahead goal by Oskar Steen (11th) was scored a few ticks after the penalty expired and the P-Bruins were still essentially on the power play. The Phantoms made a push and had back-to-back power plays that culminated in Marody's goal that knotted the score at 2-2. To give up another Providence goal -- a stoppable one at that -- just 13 second later was a kick in the gut.

Ersson finished with 19 saves on 23 shots. He wasn't bad apart from the game-winning goal, but the Phantoms (and Flyers) have come to expect better from him over the course of the season.

On Saturday evening, the Phantoms have a 7:00 p.m. ET road game against the Atlantic Division leading Hershey Bears (29-10-5) at the Giant Center in Hershey. By virtue of the Phantoms losing in regulation last night and the Springfield Thunderbirds (22-17-5) defeating the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (20-18-5) by a 4-2 score, Springfield leapfrogged both W-B/S and the Phantoms into fourth place in the Atlantic Division.
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