Maybe people don’t talk about German Rubtsov much because it’s a challenge to talk to him. That’s not his fault. He’s 19 and from Russia, and he hasn’t learned enough English yet to speak comfortably without an interpreter. Take Tuesday. The Flyers held the second day of their preseason rookie camp, and Rubtsov, who was the Flyers’ first-round pick last year, was again skating on a line with another promising prospect, Swede Oskar Lindblom. After practice, most of the players mingled around the locker room, chatting with reporters, chatting with each other, but Rubtsov was in and out, quick. There was no interpreter available, so he had no reason to stay. Life has been like this for a while for him – his teammates, his coaches, most everyone around him speaking in unfamiliar voices, saying words that thud against his inner ear and that his brain can’t catch on the rebound.
Maybe people don’t talk about Rubstov much because so many people who follow or care about the Flyers would have to travel so far to try to talk to him, or just to see him play. After the Flyers selected him with the No. 22 overall pick in the 2016 draft, he played 15 games in the Kontinental Hockey League, then last winter joined the Chicoutimi Sagueneens of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Even if you’re a crazy-loyal Flyers fan, how often are you firing up your web browser to watch KHL or QMJHL video, just to glimpse a flicker of a Rubtsov highlight? Are you traveling the 725 miles from, say, the Skate Zone in Voorhees to the Centre Georges-Vezina, the Sagueneens’ home arena, in southeastern Quebec, the heart of French-speaking Canada?
Ron Hextall, the Flyers’ general manager, and Chris Pryor, their director of player personnel, did in January, for Rubtsov’s first home game with Chicoutimi. There, they met Rubtsov’s billet family, who told them not to worry, that they would speak English and only English in their house while Rubtsov lived there. Did that gesture help Rubtsov adjust to North America? He had played in those bigger rinks in Europe, and in those 15 KHL games he hadn’t registered a point, and the Flyers’ brass had wished he would assert himself more offensively. In 16 games with the Sagueneens, he scored nine goals and had 22 points, moving from his natural position, center, to left wing and handling the transition without a problem. He showed the Flyers something there.
“We don’t think about a young kid coming over here at 18 years old,” Hextall said Tuesday. “It’s new hockey. It’s a small rink. It’s new teammates. It’s a new team. It’s a new town. It’s a new language. It’s new everything. It’s new culture. We only think about the hockey part. We don’t think about how this is a human being who’s going to a new home with new people, and for him to be as successful as he was for that short period of time was terrific.”
Maybe people don’t talk about Rubtsov much for the obvious reason: No one expects him to make the Flyers’ roster this season, and there are other prospects to talk about—Nolan Patrick and Lindblom and all those defensemen. The scouting service McKeen’s Hockey ranks the Flyers’ farm system as the best in the NHL, and it’s natural to look at those other prospects first, because they’re likely to get here before Rubtsov does. He’ll either be back at Chicoutimi or, probably before long, in the AHL with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. He’s not ready to be an NHL player yet, and the Flyers won’t rush him, because Hextall doesn’t believe in rushing any prospect to the NHL.
Still, maybe people should be talking about Rubtsov more. Coach Dave Hakstol, seeing the 6-foot, 190-pouund Rubtsov on the ice this week for the first time, called him a “powerful package.” Just the few shifts with him this week was enough for Lindblom to say of him: “Looks like a real Russian, with his hands. Probably fun to play with him.” It’s easy to focus solely on the Flyers’ 2017-18 season, on the six inches in front of their face. The Flyers did it themselves for the better part of four decades. They acted as if planning for the distant future was a waste of time. But Hextall and his staff are looking ahead, more than this franchise has in years, trying to stagger the assimilation of young players into the lineup over time as contracts expire and veterans decline and new opportunities present themselves.
“He’s been a centerman his whole life,” Hextall said. “He goes to Chicoutimi last season, plays on the left side. He played very well. That type of flexibility with a player is important. We don’t have to sit right now with a guy like German and say, ‘He’s going to be a centerman.’ He can be a center or a left winger. That’s huge for us. We’ve got a lot of centermen, which most teams do. It can [accelerate] the time of period of when he’s ready and when we have a spot.
“People aren’t talking about him, but we certainly do internally. He’s a very good prospect.”