Flyers prospect Morgan Frost on NHL path thanks to intelligence, feel for the game

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The Philadelphia Flyers selected Morgan Frost with the 27th overall pick in this years NHL draft.

TORONTO — Respect the game.

Respect the tunes.

Sometimes, it’s difficult to figure just which they’re talking about, Andy Frost and his 18-year-old son. Morgan Frost spent a lot of his adolescence sitting in the press box of the Air Canada Center watching his dad work as an announcer and watching the ice below, and listening to the comments of whatever scouts he sat next to that night. And he spent some “Psychedelic Sundays” with him, too, at Toronto’s Q107-FM, watching and listening as the massive jukebox that takes up a significant portion of his father’s roaming brain flipped through two decades of classic rock.

“When did we last play ‘Eli’s Coming?’ ” Andy Frost asked his producer, Michael Stringer, on this particular Psychedelic Sunday, referencing a forgotten hit from an equally forgotten band, Three Dog Night.

“February, 2003,” came Stringer’s response after a quick search.

“Play that,” Andy Frost says.

At 61, he is a legendary Canadian DJ with a son who runs through hockey plays in his mind the way his old man flips through the decades of classic rock music stored in his head.

“There’s not too many people who can do what Morgan can do in the way he sees the ice and slows it down in the offensive zone,” said Drew Bannister, Morgan’s coach of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the Ontario Hockey League. “He is just so smart with the puck. … Quite a special player in what he can do.”

It’s why Flyers general manager Ron Hextall traded 25-goal scorer Brayden Schenn to jump a few spots ahead of the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of last June’s draft to select Frost with the 27th overall pick. Hextall and his scouts saw what Bannister sees daily, what caught the eye of Morgan’s Bantam coach, John MacArthur, when Frost was, at age 13, already at a crossroads in his career.

It’s the same thing that caught his old man by surprise shortly after he bought his kid his first set of equipment and sent him out to play.

“He would do some stuff, and I would be like, ‘How did he do … How did he make that play?’ ” Andy Frost recalled that day in the radio station. “How did he see that guy? He would just do really intelligent things.”

There is no genetic lineage to this, unless you want to trace it to the old man’s jukebox of a mind. Dana, his mother, who was divorced from Andy when Morgan was 10, is a physical trainer who owns a yoga and cycle studio in the Toronto suburb of Aurora. Morgan’s 12-year-old sister, Marley, is athletic, but not in a savant way.

“From a young age, Morgan has played with any ball,” Dana said. “If it rolled, if it bounced, if it went sideways — if he only had a certain amount of equipment — he could make a game out of anything. Like he had a Frisbee once, and the next thing, it’s ‘Let’s play Frisbee golf.’ And he would be flicking it toward a tree stump. … It wasn’t always hockey, hockey, hockey. And maybe you see different things when you create and play different sports.”

That’s one thought. Another is that the kid, exposed to the musings of the NHL scouts he often sat next to at Leafs games, stored what he saw and heard the way his father stored what he saw and heard.

“I would like to think so,” Morgan Frost said from Sault Ste. Marie, where his team had just returned after a typically long bus ride. “A lot of it has to do with how much I studied the game when I was younger. I feel like I read the ice well, and that can be attributed to all the games I watched live. It’s faster when it’s live. Even having already played so many games in my life, you feel it. On TV, it looks like you can make those decisions, and you say, ‘Why didn’t he make that play? It’s so much quicker on the ice. It feels like half-as-much time as what you’re seeing.’ ”

These intangibles prompted Hextall to say on draft day, “There are very few guys who your whole staff likes, and our whole staff liked this guy.” The Flyers general manager then reeled off a list of reasons — deft touch, two-way player, scored well in NHL scouting combine — but at the top was an observation similar to the one his father made years earlier.

“Extremely intelligent player,” Hextall said. “It’s his No.1 asset … . We believe he’s a kid with an awful lot of upside.”

‘He kind of saved me’

He — they — would not have believed a few years earlier. At 13, Morgan Frost did not make the cut for the AAA York-Simcoe Bantams, the elite-level team for his area and age. At odds with a coach who wanted the diminutive player to be more physical, his confidence and game waned.

“He wasn’t lazy, he was smart,” his mother said.

MacArthur, head coach of the AAA Barrie team about 40 miles away, observed some of that tryout, and agreed. He called the kid after he was cut and offered a spot on his team.

“He said, ‘Here’s your job, and I’m defining it,’ ” Dana said. “When that happened, Morgan flourished. It wasn’t this pressure of trying to make him something he wasn’t.”

Frost scored more than 50 goals that first season with Barre. The following year, Sault Ste. Marie picked him in the fourth round of the OHL draft.

“I’ve worked very hard to get where I am,” Morgan Frost said. “But he kind of saved me.”

Morgan attended his first camp with little expectation of being one of the few 16-year-olds to make Sault Ste. Marie. Neither did Andy, who bought two round-trip flights to avoid the eight-hour drive each way. But when the Vancouver Canucks unexpectedly decided to keep 19-year-old Jared McCann, the Greyhounds suddenly needed a center.

“Within about an hour-and-a-half, he signs his contract … and he’s gone,” Andy Frost said. “I fly home by myself. I can’t even tell you how that felt.”

The kid, too, was overwhelmed at first. Two years removed from playing for fun with his buddies, Frost had a lot of growing up to do, Bannister said. Balancing daily practice, games, and weekend bus rides that could consume 20 hours or more, the kid soon fell behind on his schoolwork and was benched.

“There’s a massive adjustment for these kids,” Bannister said. “He had poor work habits in practice. He didn’t play with a lot of pace through the neutral zone. Didn’t defend well. Those were all things we were working on the first half of the season.

“That’s not uncommon for a 16-year-old, or for kids who are high-end like Morgan. … A lot of those kids come to us entitled. But the one thing you saw about Morgan — he had a very good support staff with his mother and father.”

Bannister saw this, he said, when he gave Morgan a short Christmas break to finish “15 or 16 homework assignments” or be benched. Frost came back with all but one done. When the coach remained true to his word and benched him, Frost handed in the last one the very next day.

“His turning point happened off the ice,” his coach said.

“I’m not saying that he didn’t make gains from the beginning of the year until then,” Bannister said. “But, quite honestly, as a 16-year-old, he probably became one of my most-responsible forwards by the end of the year. He bought into playing away from the puck. His pace picked up, especially through the neutral zone. You have to give him a lot of credit, because a lot of kids go the opposite way. Morgan trusted in the staff and what we were saying to him and took it to heart and wanted to become a better player.”

As a 16-year-old, Frost recorded a minus-6, and it would have been worse without a strong finish. At this point last season, he was a minus-10, but he finished plus-15.

A 200-foot game

When the Flyers sent him back to Sault Ste. Marie in September, near the end of training camp, his instructions, he said, were specific:

“Get stronger. Be more physical. Be a little harder on the puck.”

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Morgan Frost during a Flyers preseason game in September. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer

“Going into my draft year, that was kind of the knock on me,” Frost said. “Can he play a 200-foot game? I worked a lot on that last year, and I got it up to what I felt was a good level.”

This season, he plays on the penalty kill and the power play and routinely attracts that night’s toughest matchup, Bannister said. And he is plus-18 for the 17-3-2 Greyhounds, who are one point behind first-place Sarnia in the OHL West Division. He has 11 goals and 17 assists, about the same as his 20-goal, 62-point pace over 67 games of a year ago.

But with a far different look to it.

“He’s a more-mature player,” Bannister said. “More mature person to talk to. More mature on the ice. As of late, Morgan’s probably played his best hockey for us.”

“I’m just a little bit more comfortable I think,” Frost said. “It’s all kind of coming together these days.”