Isaac Ratcliffe vacuumed the puck inside his own blue line and turned up ice. No herk. No jerk. In one fluid motion, the Flyers' 6-foot-6 prospect spun toward the neutral zone, accelerating to the top speed that excited the team's brass so much when it traded up to get him with the 35th pick of the 2017 draft.
"I talked to [Flyers general manager Ron Hextall] a ton about that," Ratcliffe was saying after the Flyers' 3-1 preseason victory over the Islanders on Monday night. "As well as the development guys: to use my speed and not be afraid along the wall. I've got the size, and I feel like I added a lot of strength, too."
Last year at this time, Ratcliffe was a gazelle, his spindly appendages all seemingly headed in opposite directions, often interfering with his acceleration, stability, even his acuity. The idea of playing him alongside pros was a preposterous one, even dangerous.
"He earned a game," coach Dave Hakstol said. "We're not just giving him a game to see what he can do. He earned this game in camp. You talk about his physical difference between this year and last year. He's done a lot of work. He's grown and developed that way."
Ratcliffe took 15 shifts, all but one even-strength, and played almost 12 minutes, mostly on a fourth line with Tyrell Goulbourne and centered by Mike Vecchione – two AHL veterans. They were out there for New York's only goal – a costly turnover by Vecchione that transitioned into an odd-man rush – but Goulbourne's fight against a much bigger Ross Johnston seemed to spark the Flyers. They scored 30 seconds afterward.
In any case, the gazelle was gone Monday night. That was the take from his pivot up ice. The speed that was masked by his late adolescence last summer was clear and present, his improved acceleration accentuating it even more. Twelve pounds — Ratcliffe is now tipping the scales at 210 — have gone a long way to erase the awkwardness.
"That's what I've been working on all summer," said Ratcliffe, a left winger. "To get a chance to show it in a game like this, a pro game, alongside some of the greatest players in the world, it's pretty surreal for me."
Sometimes, there is a wink-and-a-nod discussion about the possibility of a young player such as Ratcliffe cracking the big-boys lineup. There is nothing like that here – from the player or the coach. Yes, Ratcliffe was on the ice Monday night because of his work in development camp, rookie camp and here. And yes, his breakout season in the Ontario Hockey League last year earned a couple of games with the Phantoms at the end of it. But there was no doubt he was headed back to the Guelph Storm for a final season, something the Flyers made official Tuesday when he and fellow 2017 draftee Morgan Frost were returned to their teams for a final season.
Ratcliffe will be looking to build upon his 41-goal, 68-point season of a season ago.
His lineup presence Monday was not only a reward. It was also a message to anyone in camp who might be ahead of him in age and experience, that those things alone are not enough.
"We'll discuss whether there's another one moving forward or not," Hakstol said. "But it's really important to us if a young man has earned that opportunity to give him that opportunity. It gives us a great evaluation of him in terms of where he's at today in his development. You have to earn your way. You have to earn your exhibition games. You have to earn your opportunity if you want to battle for a spot. It's not easy. It's not supposed to be."