Center Morgan Frost was the Flyers’ best prospect who played a majority of games with the AHL’s Phantoms this season.
The center, a first-round selection three years ago, was Lehigh Valley’s lone All-Star representative, and showed enough scoring ability and hockey smarts to twice get recalled by the Flyers during the season. Frost needs to add a little more strength and improve his defensive game to remain with the Flyers permanently.
For Isaac Ratcliffe, the 6-foot-6, 208-pound left winger who was chosen eight picks after Frost in the 2017 draft, the transition to the NHL is going to take longer. He had a disappointing first pro season with the Phantoms, though Lehigh Valley coach Scott Gordon doesn’t seem concerned.
Ratcliffe struggled at the outset. He had problems controlling the puck, had a slew of turnovers, and was demoted in the lineup, reducing his ice time.
No longer was he playing against younger players he could dominate with his strength and size.
“Physically, he could skate up and down the ice and not get as much resistance on the junior level," Gordon said Monday after the AHL canceled its season because of the coronavirus pandemic. “Now he’s going against bigger, stronger, and more mature players. That was tough on him. On top of that, he made some modifications with his stick because it was so long and the puck was so far away from him. He was getting the puck poked away from him because it was so far away from him."
Gradually, he improved his puck handling by going with a shorter stick. Gradually, he got better in corner battles.
“In late January, things started to click for him," Gordon said. “He started to be a force down low and his puck protection got better. He was taking hits and giving hits. He didn’t have a lot of offensive production, but he started to get some really good chances that he probably scored on in junior.”
Gordon still believes in Ratcliffe.
“You’re talking about a guy who is 6-6. Where’s he going to be in two years when he gains some weight and gets more familiar with being able to use his body more? I’m excited for him," Gordon said. "Disappointed he didn’t have a lot of offense? I understand why he didn’t after going through the season and the adjustments he had to make.”
Three years ago, then-general manager Ron Hextall considered drafting Ratcliffe with the 27th overall pick in the first round. Instead, he chose Frost, then dealt three draft selections (Nos. 44, 75, and 108) to Arizona to move up nine spots and draft Ratcliffe early in the second round, 35th overall.
Ratcliffe continued to blossom. Playing in the Ontario Hockey League, he scored 41 and 50 goals, respectively, in his next two seasons after the draft.
Then came a reality check: Just six goals and 15 points in 53 games with the Phantoms, his first full season in the AHL.
Gordon said there are no guarantees Ratcliffe becomes an impact player in the NHL down the road, "but he has lot of tools as far as size and skills.”
Ratcliffe tries to model his game after that of former NHL star Rick Nash, a 6-4, 211-pound left winger who was drafted No. 1 overall in 2002. Nash had more speed and better hands and made a quick transition to the pro game.
He had 32 goals in the OHL before being drafted by Columbus and going straight to the NHL the next season, scoring 17 goals before erupting for 41 in his sophomore year with the Blue Jackets.
The jury is still out on Ratcliffe and the Flyers’ 2017 draft. On paper, the players they selected in that draft look promising, but it will take a few more years before a proper evaluation can be made. By then, the health of their top pick (No. 2 overall) that year, Nolan Patrick, will be in focus. Ditto the development of such players as Frost, Ratcliffe, and promising goalie Kirill Ustimenko, among others.
Hextall may have found some diamonds in the rough that year with sturdy left winger Noah Cates (fifth round) and highly mobile defenseman Wyatt Kalynuk.
In his first two collegiate seasons, Cates made an impact at Minnesota Duluth, helping the Bulldogs win a national title as a freshman and finishing as their second-leading scorer as a sophomore. He will probably turn pro in 2021-22.
The slick-skating Kalynuk, an offensive-minded defenseman, is still undecided about whether he will return to the University of Wisconsin for his senior season or turn pro, Flyers assistant general manager Brent Flahr said Friday.
Kalynuk and Cates look like steals in a 2017 draft class that, provided Patrick develops into his projected form, has a chance to be very special for the Flyers.