On Jan. 25, Isaac Ratcliffe was a third-line left wing on an AHL team just starting to find its identity after a terrible start to a season.

Like the Phantoms, Ratcliffe was trying to bounce back from a rough 2020-2021 where he suffered multiple injuries. Meanwhile, the Flyers called up seven different forwards to help out with injuries and COVID absences. Nothing worked, and they lost one game after another.

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On Jan. 26, the Flyers decided to give Ratcliffe a chance. Three days later, they won their first game of 2022. Twenty-six days later, Ratcliffe played on the first line with Claude Giroux against Carolina and 35 days later, he remains in the lineup despite multiple players making their returns from injury.

Ratcliffe is one of the first to say that he’s playing better at the NHL level than he ever has during his time with the Phantoms.

“I would agree, honestly, I think there’s a long time there — I think there’s probably 2 1/2 years where I was just trying to find my stride,” Ratcliffe said. “I just kept getting better and better, and I finally got an opportunity up here when I was kind of at my peak down there.”

More than just size

The Flyers drafted Ratcliffe in 2017 in the second round, 35th overall, from the OHL’s Guelph Storm.

At the time, Ratcliffe was a 6-foot-6, 18-year-old wing. He had tallied 28 goals and 54 points in 67 games the previous season. Although he was tall, he was thin (200 lbs.), but scouts projected he would add weight as he got older. While he had the size of a defenseman, Ratcliffe had the skills of a forward. Hockeyprospects.com described him as having speed, good hands, an accurate shot and creativity that sets up chances for his teammates.

After being drafted, he continued to play for the Storm and upped his production to 68 points in 67 games the following season (41 goals, 27 assists), his 41 goals ranking sixth-best in the league. His team awarded him the Glad Mowatt Most Valuable Player Award and Fay Scott Memorial Award. Ratcliffe also played two games with the Phantoms after his season ended, scoring in one of them.

Helped by lessons learned at Flyers development camp, Ratcliffe’s numbers continued to trend up, and he scored 82 points (50 goals, 32 assists) in 65 games in 2018-19. The 50 goals were the fifth-most in the OHL that year. Ratcliffe helped his team win the OHL that season and qualify for the Memorial Cup. He was also awarded the Mickey Renaud Captain’s Trophy for leadership, a league-wide honor given to “the captain that best exemplifies leadership on and off the ice, with a passion and dedication to the game of hockey and his community.”

Ratcliffe made the permanent move to the AHL for the 2019-2020 season, well aware there would be an adjustment period. Before the season started, he said he’d have to “get out of some of the junior habits that I still have creeping into my game a little bit.” He described those as holding onto the puck too long or too short and not making quick enough plays.

Those habits plagued him through the entire season. In 53 games, he had six goals and nine assists, and he struggled with turnovers. However, Scott Gordon, his coach at the time, felt he was making progress.

That progress was halted in the 2020-2021 season. Ratcliffe dealt with multiple injuries, including a fractured rib, collapsed lung and an ankle injury. He played in just 22 games and had two goals and six assists.

Ahead of this season, Ratcliffe came into Flyers training camp feeling “100 percent” but without much to show he was ready for the NHL level. Ratcliffe said himself that his offensive game “fell apart a little bit” over the past seasons.

“I think I was going into games down there with, I mean, not really knowing what to expect of myself each night,” Ratcliffe said. “I couldn’t really find my own game within our systematic game.”

Despite being healthy again, it took a while for Ratcliffe to get going. Phantoms coach Ian Laperrière said it can take taller players longer to find their feet after injury, and that was clearly evident with Ratcliffe. His biggest issue was staying on his feet, and Laperrière scratched him at one point.

The following day, Ratcliffe came into Laperrière’s office and told him he planned to be the hardest worker and would get better every day.

“And you know what, I’ve heard that many times in my career, you know, as a player and as a coach,” Laperrière said. “Guys talk, talk, talk and never really walk the walk. But I got to give him credit. When he did say that, he did come to work after that, and he was one of the hardest working guys in practice.”

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While Ratcliffe’s production almost mirrored the season before, 0.39 points per game clip (5 goals and 8 assists in 33 games) compared to 0.36 points per game the previous season, Laperrière said he was doing the little things right. To Laperriére, that was more important than producing a large volume of points, so when the Flyers came calling and asked who should come up, Laperrière recommended Ratcliffe.

“It might have taken a little bit longer for Rat to get his legs under him,” Laperrière said. “But just the fact that he was doing everything we were asking him. And I think it’s a great message for the organization to reward the guys that do what we’re asking them to do.”

When Laperrière told Ratcliffe he was ecstatic to finally get his chance. However, Laperrière said Ratcliffe’s never doubted that chance would come, and he was ready to seize it.

With most of his family sitting in the crowd, Ratcliffe played nine minutes, took three shots, made nine hits and helped the Flyers win their first game of 2022 on Jan. 29. He stayed up for the following game, helping them win another, and remained with the team post-All Star.

In addition to learning to play the physical game with the fourth line, in recent games, Ratcliffe’s shown some signs of the play-making ability he was known for in junior. He’s scored one goal and added three assists, including one where he used his hands and reach to set up Patrick Brown’s goal against the Hurricanes on Feb. 21.

Laperrière doesn’t see this as a sign of Ratcliffe being better suited to the NHL level but rather a natural progression, and the fruits of hard work. Ratcliffe also attributed his own improved performance to the skill and experience of having players like Giroux around him.

If Ratcliffe remains with the Flyers for the rest of the season, it would not surprise Laperriére. But if he does return to the Phantoms, Laperrière expects him to return with some more “swagger.” And Ratcliffe still has a lot more growing to do, both physically and as a player.

“He’s going to get thicker,” Laperriére said. “He’s going to get man-strong a little bit more, that maturity is going to kick in. That’s scary to think about it because he’s already a big presence out there. He does have great hands for a big man. And for his size and the way he skates and his hands, the sky’s the limit.”