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‘Every game’s huge’: How the Flyers’ youth is maximizing what’s left of this season

As the Flyers head toward a busy offseason with big decisions to make, newcomers Noah Cates and Ronnie Attard begin building trust with the coaches and front office.

Ronnie Attard looks to move the puck away from the New York Rangers' Tyler Motte.
Ronnie Attard looks to move the puck away from the New York Rangers' Tyler Motte.Read moreFrank Franklin II / AP

In the first period of his NHL debut against the Minnesota Wild, Flyers winger Noah Cates put his first deposits in the bank of trust to set himself up for future success with the franchise.

Seconds after he jumped off the bench for his fifth shift of the night as the Wild reloaded in their own zone, a forechecking Cates pounced on center Tyson Jost along the wall of the neutral zone to strip him of the puck. Cates entered the Wild’s zone and put a backhander on goalie Marc-André Fleury, who cleared the puck from the crease.

But Cates stuck with the play, winning the puck battle behind the net against defenseman Jonas Brodin and passing to defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen at the blue line. Ristolainen’s denied wrist shot sparked a transition rush the other way for the Wild, with Cates making a goal-saving play on winger Kirill Kaprizov in front of goalie Carter Hart.

“For a first game, it’s a game that builds trust from a coach and obviously from his teammates as well,” interim coach Mike Yeo said of Cates’ play in the Flyers’ 4-1 loss to the Wild.

With the Flyers officially out of playoff contention, the team is putting its sights on the future by providing opportunity for young players and prospects to show what they can contribute. Every game, win or lose, serves as a chance to show how they can be part of the solution next season as general manager Chuck Fletcher looks to “aggressively retool” the roster this summer.

Cates, 23, has now played three NHL games since the conclusion of his Minnesota-Duluth career and got a look in the Flyers’ top six on a line with Joel Farabee and Cam Atkinson.

“Every situation, no matter when in the period, when in the game, if you have that trust and you can be out there and be relied upon, it’s huge for the coaching staff in a young player. Every game’s huge. Every shift’s huge, for me personally,” Cates said.

Attard’s debut

Former Western Michigan defenseman Ronnie Attard, 23, made his NHL debut on Saturday against the Toronto Maple Leafs. He slotted in the lineup on the third defensive pairing over 35-year-old Keith Yandle, who saw his historic ironman streak broken at 989 games as a result.

Attard finished the night minus-four and Yeo acknowledged that “he wants to make sure he’s on the right side of things a little more often.” But at this point in the season, the Flyers are committed to letting their prospects play, especially their young, promising defenseman.

“He’s a guy that we want to get a real good look at here,” Yeo said of Attard. “It’s not gonna be one of those situations where he goes out, makes a mistake, and doesn’t get back on the ice. We’re gonna give him a good opportunity to play.”

Despite the box score in his debut, Attard showed flashes of promise in both the offensive and defensive aspects of his game. Seven minutes into the second period after the Flyers killed a penalty, Attard worked the puck down low in the offensive zone and set 23-year-old winger Owen Tippett up for a one-timer in the slot. Tippett’s shot was blocked up front and the center Alex Kerfoot gained possession of the puck.

Attard, caught low in the Leafs’ zone, backchecked to neutral ice and cut Kerfoot off to help Tippett recoup the puck.

Power-play, penalty-kill roles

In addition to giving the young players five-on-five ice time, Yeo is also putting them in prominent special-teams roles. Cates and 22-year-old winger Morgan Frost are killing penalties, Attard is on the power-play flank alongside Frost, and Tippett is on the other power-play unit with 21-year-old defenseman Cam York running point.

Some of those responsibilities were amplified in their 4-3 overtime victory against the New York Rangers on Sunday night, when the Flyers went on a critical penalty kill late in the third period with the game tied, 3-3. Cates received 18 seconds of shorthanded ice time to help send the Flyers to overtime. Tippett, Frost and York were utilized in the three-on-three overtime against the likes of NHL ninth-ranked scorer Artemi Panarin (82 points this season) and 2020-21 Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox.

While those roles are important, the situation was even more so — the young players got a taste of what it takes to win in a pressure-packed environment against a playoff contender.

“You want them to gain experience winning, playing in moments when you have to go out and perform, whether it’s pressure or you have to have poise,” Yeo said. “You have to continue to execute. You have to continue to have the details. You can’t freeze in the moment.”

For Cates, experiencing the speed and intensity of the NHL game for the first time is especially meaningful alongside another college prospect in Attard.

“We’re kind of going through this together,” Cates said. “This next month, we’re gonna be living together, sharing a car and whatnot. Definitely a good guy to lean on and go through some of this stuff with. If we have questions, just to be there for each other.”

Soon enough, they won’t be the only new fresh faces out of college on the Flyers — 20-year-old winger Bobby Brink could be on his way to Philadelphia once Frozen Four semifinalist Denver wraps up its season.

While Cates and Attard’s collegiate careers may be over, their NHL education has only just begun.