Once, not that long ago really, the Flyers were such a big team, that the National Hockey League sort of looked the other way when players grabbed a hold of Eric Lindros, John LeClair, Keith Primeau or even Mikael Renberg as they motored through mid-ice or cycled endlessly in the offensive zone.
But that was then and this is now, and these days the Flyers are among the NHL’s smallest. According to James Mirtle’s annual ranking of teams by size and weight, the Flyers were the shortest, and the third lightest in the entire league when the 2016-2017 season began. Which is one huge reason they had such trouble collecting those “greasy goals” their coach, Dave Hakstol, spoke so frequently about.
In that vein, their lucky bounce in June’s draft might have even been luckier once Nolan Patrick’s surgery made New Jersey’s choice of Nico Hischier a foregone conclusion. At 6-2, Patrick’s not only slightly taller than Hischier, but he’s brawnier too. Even if Hischier proves to be the better player, it’s quite possible that Patrick is a better fit for this team, particularly when you weigh – pun intended – some of the talent projected to play alongside of him in a few years.
German Rubtsov, for example, the Flyers 2016 first-round pick (22nd overall) is listed at 6-0 and 187 pounds, but seeing him at the Flyers Development Camp this week, he must have been carrying a bag of pucks when they weighed him. Morgan Frost, their other first-round pick in addition to Patrick this past June (27th overall), is built almost identically at 5-11, 172 pounds. Mike Vecchione, the free agent signed last spring from Union College, is 5-10. Travis Konecny… the list goes on.
This makes one of their most recently acquired prospects really easy to spot during their on-ice sessions. At 6-6 and 203 pounds, Isaac Ratcliffe almost looks like he’s playing a few age levels down.
“Looking down the roster, I know I would be the biggest guy out there if I got to put on the uniform,” Ratcliffe was saying between sessions the other day. “They don’t really have one of those guys. And obviously being in the position to add that to their future is definitely a positive for me. I think I can really bring something to the table for this hockey club.”
Clearly, Flyers General Manager Ron Hextall agrees. He used up three picks to trade up and draft him with the 35th pick overall this past June, so enamored was he of this big stick. Ratcliffe scored 28 goals and had 54 points playing for the last-place Guelph Storm in the OHL this season, but his 81-inch wing span – the longest measured at this year’s NHL Combine – suggests a fascinating arc to improvement.
“I’ve always been a guy who doesn’t rely on my size alone, but as just one of my positives,” said Ratcliffe. “If the guy is ahead of me in a race I feel like I still have that length and reach to get to those puck battles sooner than them and use that to my advantage.”
Ratcliffe’s natural hockey sense and nice hands have also drawn hopeful comparisons to the Rangers’ 6-4 forward Rick Nash, who is also his role model.
But he isn’t kidding himself. Nash’s impressive overall game as a power play gun and penalty killer, a close-in scorer and mid-range weapon, and some overall physicality is pure projection right now for the Flyers prospect. He will need to add about 20-30 pounds. He will need to add a few strides. He needs core work too, he said.
But he won’t turn 19 until January, and he’s at least a season, probably more, away before even being considered as a piece to the Flyers ambitious rebuild.
Still, that’s what development camp is all about. Projections. Planning.
And for the players, pushing forward.
“A guy my size, you see a lot of those guys playing down on the third or fourth line,” he said. “Energy guys. That power role. But I think I can play both of those roles, as an offensive guy and an energy guy. I think I’m a guy who can fall and jump up in a lineup with what I will bring to the table.”