When 5-foot-9 winger Bobby Brink took the ice for his first day of practice Monday at the Flyers Training Center, he skated alongside 5-foot-8 winger Cam Atkinson, taking a look into the mirror of what his future could hold.
No, Atkinson wasn’t a second-round pick like Brink was in 2019 (34th overall). The Columbus Blue Jackets selected Atkinson in the sixth round, 157th overall in the 2008 NHL draft. But both players have excelled at their respective levels — Brink being a 2022 Hobey Baker Award finalist and a national champion — regardless of their height.
Atkinson, 32, is approaching his 700th career game through 11 seasons in the NHL during which he has registered 236 goals and 216 assists.
“He’s been doing it for a lot of years in the league,” interim coach Mike Yeo said. “So there’s a lot of time between now and then for a young player like Bobby Brink. But certainly a good role model for him. And no question, we’re really excited about his potential.”
The 20-year-old Brink, who signed an entry-level contract on Sunday to turn pro after three years at Denver, is slated to make his NHL debut against Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals on Tuesday. Brink said Ovechkin was one of his favorite players to watch growing up.
In practice, Brink slotted in on the second line at right wing alongside center Scott Laughton and winger Travis Konecny, although Yeo acknowledged that Brink may play on the third line with winger James van Riemsdyk and center Morgan Frost.
After a whirlwind weekend, Brink is still coming down from the high of winning the Frozen Four with Denver. It was the perfect ending to a near-perfect season in which Brink led the nation in scoring with 57 points (14 goals, 43 assists) in 41 games.
“I think it’s the best way you can go out,” Brink said. “Obviously, winning with your best friends and guys you’ve grown so close to over the years, it was awesome. It was one of the best moments of my life.”
While Brink is a ways from making an Atkinson-like impact at the NHL level, Yeo already can tell Brink has the right hockey IQ and work ethic to set himself up for success.
“For smaller players, you have to be able to think the game,” Yeo said. “And you have to be competitive. And he’s, from what I’ve heard and what I’ve seen so far, he seems to have those two qualities.”
In addition to putting Brink in a middle-six role Tuesday, Yeo also placed him on the Flyers’ top power-play unit. That group in practice was comprised of Brink, Konecny, Joel Farabee, and Kevin Hayes, with defensemen Travis Sanheim and Ivan Provorov taking reps running the point.
When Brink steps into the spotlight Tuesday, Yeo has one message for his newest Flyer — “Don’t defer.”
“Sometimes for younger players, it can be a little bit intimidating when you’re playing out there with older players,” Yeo said. “Instead of doing what’s instinctual or even what you should be or, more importantly, taking what the other team’s giving you, you start to force things and try to make plays that you think that your teammates may want you to do. So go out there and do the things that come naturally to you.”
Different defensive pairings
In practice, Yeo shook up the defensive pairings slightly, with Provorov and Sanheim on the top pairing and Cam York and Rasmus Ristolainen on the second pairing. Yeo wouldn’t guarantee that he will roll with those exact duos against the Capitals, but it’s an experiment he was interested in taking a look at in practice.
The Flyers have utilized Provorov and Sanheim on the same pairing this season twice, once against the Boston Bruins on Jan. 13 and against the New York Islanders on Jan. 17.
“I think that Provy and Sandy at different points have had success together and at different times, maybe it hasn’t clicked quite as well,” Yeo said. “Both guys are such important players to us, sometimes you put them together and maybe we’re not quite as strong in other positions as well. So there’s a lot of things that go into it here.”
Playing York with Ristolainen would allow York to play on his natural left side instead of playing on his off side as he does with Provorov. However, Yeo acknowledged that forcing York to play on his off side is valuable experience, too.
“If you can add that to your skill set, that’s good for our organization,” Yeo said. “That’s good for him as a player.”
Farabee returned to practice after missing Saturday’s loss to the Anaheim Ducks with the flu. ... Carter Hart (44 games, 3.11 goals-against average, .906 save percentage) will start in goal against the Capitals.