Chuck Fletcher’s internal options to improve Flyers

Internal improvements are a staple of every NHL franchise, and for the Flyers, almost all will have come through Lehigh Valley. In recent years we have seen Oskar Lindblom, Travis Sanheim, and Philippe Myers, among others, graduate from the AHL and become the key contributors that they are today.

The question is, who’s next?

The Phantoms had a … rough … season to put it lightly, finishing with a record of 24-28-10. If by some chance the AHL would have been able to adopt the NHL’s return to play format, they still would not have qualified for the postseason. But that does not mean that individuals didn’t continue to take positive steps forward, and have good seasons in their own right. We’ll be looking at two Phantoms who are the most NHL-ready, and who seemingly also have a path to be a part of the opening night roster.

Whenever that may be.

A potential replacement for Braun

If the Flyers choose to not re-sign Justin Braun, an upcoming unrestricted free agent, Mark Friedman has to be seen as next in line to fill the ensuing void. Friedman, 24, has spent the last three seasons with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, and recorded his first NHL assist this past season.

Friedman’s role with the Phantoms has grown steadily over his three seasons, with him taking the reins as the team’s top defensemen prior to the season’s cancellation. Facing other AHL team’s top lines, Friedman still had some of the best shot impacts on the team, with a +2.77 relative Corsi-For percentage and +4.21 relative high-danger Corsi-For percentage at five-on-five. In a season where goals were hard to come by for the Phantoms, Friedman managed to stay on pace to match his offensive production from a year ago, while his play without the puck improved.

The biggest weakness that the Flyers’ third defensive pair, consisting of Braun and Robert Hagg, had this past season was their inability to cleanly exit the defensive zone. This is an area of the game that Friedman should be of help. The Phantoms leaned heavily on him to generate zone exits this season, and he delivered, as Maddie Campbell pointed out in her season review of Friedman.

But it’s not all flash and skill plays when it comes to Friedman’s game. He’s the type of player that brings a little bit of everything to the table. If you value mobile, fast-skating defenders who can move the puck up the ice, you’ll get what you’re looking for in him. If you want that steady defender who blocks shots and plays a physical brand of hockey, you will also get what you want. Of course, this is all under the assumption that his game does in fact translate well at the NHL level, which is almost never guaranteed. To me, he’s NHL ready, and has been for some time now. But I did also feel that way about Mikhail Vorobyev, and well, that didn’t exactly work out.

Just for fun, here’s who I would’ve included in this post had it been written one, and two off-seasons ago;

2018: Vorobyev, Nicolas Aube-Kubel
2019: Aube-Kubel, Myers

It is also important to note that Friedman is no longer waiver-exempt, meaning that if the Flyers wanted to assign him to the Phantoms again next season, the rest of the league would be able to claim him. At the very least you can expect to see him start the season on the NHL roster as the seventh defenseman, but there’s a decent chance that he’ll be a starter, on the right side of their third defensive pair.

Is there actually a spot up front?

While Friedman was an easy choice, this selection proved tough. It feels likely that Connor Bunnaman reprises his role as the Flyers’ fourth line center next season — if not at the start, at some point — but he’s an interesting case. In the NHL, he played the role of a capable fourth liner whose presence doesn’t hurt the team at all. But in the AHL, Bunnaman’s play took a step back from where it was a season prior, and the Phantoms were totally outplayed with him on the ice at five-on-five, with the the team owning just 31 percent of the high-danger scoring chances, and being out-scored 21 to 8.

Bunnaman cannot be the pick if we’re leaning heavily on AHL performance to judge these skaters.

David Kase has a strong case (ha) for consideration, but unlike our eventual pick, doesn’t have a clear path to the opening night roster. The Flyers have a lot of quality NHL wingers, and with Linus Sandin added to the mix, it’s hard to envision a scenario where Kase spends a significant amount of time with the Flyers this season. However, there’s one question mark in the middle-six: third line center.

While it’s possible that Scott Laughton is tasked with centering the third line, they decided against that path for the 2020 playoff run, opting to go with deadline addition Derek Grant instead. But by the end, Laughton was back in the middle. One would hope that in an ideal world, Nolan Patrick would make his return and lock down the spot, but unless something changes from now until then, that hope is just that; hope. All of this leads us to, you probably guessed it, Morgan Frost.

Frost, a first round pick in 2017, experienced his first season of professional hockey, splitting time between the Phantoms and Flyers in 2019-2020. While brief, Frost flashed NHL ability in his time with the Flyers, and in the AHL he was a first line caliber player, earning himself a trip to the 2020 AHL All-Star Classic.

With 29 points in 41 games, Frost finished one point shy of Greg Carey — who appeared in 16 more games than Frost — for the team lead in points. At five-on-five Frost had a positive shot impacts across the board, and was their most impactful forward this past season. His vision and passing ability made him an offensive threat every time he took to the ice, and like Friedman, was a key cog in the team’s transition game.

Frost was the Phantoms’ single most effective generator of Controlled Entries, Possession Entries, and Controlled Exits (among regulars in the lineup), not just out of all forwards, but out of all skaters. His impact in transition is pretty well unmatched, and it was a real treat to see. (x)

Of course, Frost’s game isn’t perfect, nor should that be the expectation placed on him. There’s going to be defensive lapses with any young player finding their place in the league, Frost is no different. Still, his play without the puck does need cleaned up a bit for him to stay. It’s not as if he made AHL competition look silly like Joel Farabee had during his brief stay, but he was still very good.

With defensively reliable forwards in Laughton, Aube-Kubel, and Michael Raffl around as potential linemates, Frost’s weaknesses can be made up for, all while he improves the team’s offensive attack. And, to be clear, this “problem” that always comes up with Frost’s defensive game is not that he’s terrible defensively — that’s not the case at all. It certainly is the weak spot in his game, but it can be a bit overblown at times.

The Flyers will have a lot of forwards vying for roster spots, and Frost will need to have a great showing to start the season in the NHL. But if he doesn’t, it’s not hard to picture him having a Farabee-like impact in the AHL if/when the 2020-2021 season takes place, and quickly getting the call.

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