Flyers fans clamored for a diminutive scoring machine named Cole Caufield when the 2019 NHL draft was held in Vancouver.
Instead, general manager Chuck Fletcher made a pair of deals and got two players early in that draft, including a smallish right winger who is regarded as Cole Caufield Lite.
One year later, how do those draft moves look?
Oh, Caufield, a 5-foot-7, 165-pound right winger, was sensational, as expected, as a University of Wisconsin freshman this season. He was the Big Ten’s most prolific scorer (19 goals in 36 overall games ) and was a first-team all-league selection.
Caufield will return to college for his sophomore year, as will the two players the Flyers chose in the first two rounds in 2019 — defenseman Cam York and right winger Bobby Orr Brink.
Like Caufield, they had terrific freshman collegiate seasons.
“Both had very positive years,” assistant Flyers general manager Brent Flahr, who heads the team’s draft, said the other day. “Both were impactful players as freshmen. They were both young guys coming into college hockey, and, with the exception of a couple minor injuries to both guys, they played very well.”
Playing another year in college will be a benefit for both of them, Flahr said. “They’re both in good programs, and hopefully they can benefit and be part of the World Juniors again next year. Hopefully, there is [a tournament]. I think they’ll have big years and they’re both getting physically stronger; it just takes time.”
The Flyers could have picked the highly touted Caufield. Twice.
Instead, they traded down three spots in the first round and chose York at No. 14 overall -- one pick before the dynamic Caufield was selected by the Montreal Canadiens.
Was it popular with Flyers fans?
Not at the time. The Twitterverse was not kind to the Flyers’ decision. Caufield, the best pure scorer in the draft, was viewed as a player who will one day thrive in the NHL despite his size. He had erupted for a ridiculous 72 goals in 64 games for the U.S. National Team Development Program in his final season before the draft,
But the sting of not taking Caufield was lessened when Fletcher used a second-round pick -- he had acquired it from Arizona in the deal to move down three spots and still get York in the first round -- to make another trade. The second deal, with Nashville, enabled the Flyers to move up 11 spots in the second round and nab Brink. (Nashville got the Flyers’ second-rounder acquired from Arizona and a third-round selection.)
In other words, Fletcher is gambling that York + Brink > Caufield.
At Michigan, the 5-11½, 175-pound York was sidelined for three early-season games by a high ankle sprain, which slowed his progress for a short time after he returned. He also battled a shoulder injury early in the season.
A mobile defenseman, York finished with 16 points, including five goals, in 30 games. He also played solid defense, had a plus-9 rating, and was third on the Wolverines with 54 blocked shots
“Once Cam got healthy, he played very well in the games I was at,” Flahr said. “He obviously played a ton and was a big part of that team.”
“I thought my first year was pretty good, but I’m never satisfied. I’ll never be satisfied,” York said Sunday. “I dealt with a few injuries that kind of set me back a little bit, but other than that, I felt comfortable in a new setting.”
York, 19, a Southern California native who will head back to Michigan and participate in small-group, on-ice workouts starting June 15, needs to fill out physically, Flahr said.
Flahr called York an “elite skater” who needs to improve his strength before he’s ready to turn pro.
“He’s very smart. He’s good moving the puck, and he’s got a strong offensive dimension," he said. "For him, it’s just being able to handle the bigger, stronger guys at the pro level and being able to handle the rigors of the NHL’s 82-game schedule.”
York said he is also focusing on “closing on guys quicker in the defensive zone. I’m just trying to be a little more defensively sharp.”
Brink, who doesn’t turn 19 until July 8, was coming off a phenomenal season in the USHL (35 goals in 43 games) when the Flyers drafted him. This season, he looked comfortable at the University of Denver, an NCAA powerhouse. Brink had 11 goals and 24 points in 28 games.
The 5-8½, 165-pound Brink missed the last seven games with a sprained MCL in his left knee but is now totally healthy. He, too, needs to put on some weight and get stronger.
There were some questions about Brink’s skating ability when he was drafted, but Flahr isn’t overly concerned.
“With him, he’s a different skater,” Flahr said. “He’s actually got some deceptive speed; he’s strong on his skates and really slippery. His best asset, aside from his skills, is his hockey sense and his ability to find small [open] areas. He’s such a smart, competitive player and he just seems to find ways to make plays and generate offense.”
Brink said that as the season progressed, “I got more and more comfortable with the college level.”
Though Flahr wants Brink to put on some weight, he doesn’t believe Brink’s size will limit his effectiveness at the next level.
Brink, known as a Travis Konecny-type agitator, agreed.
“I don’t think that’s really an issue anymore in the NHL, especially the way it’s played now,” said Brink, who grew up in a suburban area about 50 miles outside Minneapolis and used to be teammates with Fletcher’s son, Keith.
The GM stressed the scouts were the ones who pushed for drafting Brink. “[The NHL game is] just so fast and so skilled. You see guys like Brad Marchand and Johnny Gaudreau and others have so much success, and they’re small guys. Right now, your size doesn’t really matter.”
Fair or not, as Brink and York develop, many fans will compare them with Caufield. York will be compared because of where he was drafted. Brink will be compared because he plays the same position as Caufield and, in a way, is part of the package the Flyers drafted instead of Caufield.
The Flyers had Brink rated as the No. 20 overall prospect in the 2019, not far behind where they ranked Caufield.
Brink and Caufield have been teammates in the past.
“Obviously I watch what he’s doing," Brink said, “but we have more of a friendship and not really a rivalry.”