Only time will tell how many future NHL players the Flyers produce from their 2017 NHL Draft crop. What we do know at present is that, among the nine picks that Philly made last year, five have been signed to NHL entry-level contracts: Nolan Patrick, Morgan Frost, Isaac Ratcliffe, Matthew Strome and Maksim Sushko.

The four 2017 draftees who are not yet under NHL entry-level contracts all made significant strides in their development during their draft-plus-one year, flying under the mainstream radar while advancing their potential to eventually sign NHL deals. None are currently ready to play North American pro hockey, but all four are names worth watching over the next year or two.

LW – Noah Cates (FRESHMAN: University of Minnesota-Duluth)

A high school hockey star in his native Stillwater, Minnesota, Cates was drafted by the Flyers in the fifth round (137th overall) of the 2017 NHL Draft. It took Cates a couple months this season to adapt to the rigors of his first full USHL campaign – he’d played parts of two previous seasons in the USHL after his high school season was over. Once he got fully acclimated, however, Cates came on like gangbusters as the season progressed.

The USHL is a low-scoring league in general. A feeder circuit primarily geared toward NCAA-bound players (both of traditional freshman age but also players in their early 20s), USHL players often find the level of competition at this level to be rather tough. Cates handled the transition admirably and went on after a slow offensive production start (two goals, three assists through 13 games) to finish with 18 goals and 46 points in 50 games. That was good enough to rank tied for 11th on the leaguewide scoring leaderboard. Cates also turned around his minus-four through 13 games to finish the season as a plus-15 by the end of the season.

Cates, who turned 19 on Feb. 5, still has considerable physical development to work on as he continues to climb the hockey ladder. His skating was fine for the high school level but will need refinement to become pro-caliber. Some of this should naturally occur as his body (165 pounds last year on a listed 6-foot frame) continues to fill out, and the rest can come through coaching and hard work. 

Cates, who scored two goals in the 3-on-3 tournament at the end of Flyers Development Camp this year, will be a freshman next season at the University of Minnesota – Duluth; the defending NCAA champion. Although he may not immediately see a lot of ice time, Cates has the potential to develop into an impact player for the Bulldogs as he gains experience. The Flyers hold his NHL signing rights until Aug. 15, 2022.

D – Wyatt Kalynuk (SOPHOMORE: University of Wisconsin)

The offensively skilled and late-blooming Kalynuk, who turned 21 on April 14, enjoyed a strong freshman season for the Wisconsin Badgers in 2017-18. Drafted by the Flyers from the USHL last summer in the seventh round (196th overall) of the 2017 NHL Draft, Kalynuk made an immediate offensive impact as a freshman. He showed himself quickly to be a mobile defenseman with good puck skills, who can trigger a breakout and also make plays up-ice.

Flyers general manager Ron Hextall identified Kalynuk as one of the pleasant surprises at Development Camp this year in his post-camp media availability. 

Wyatt Kalynuk, you guys probably don’t know much about him. He’s a smooth skating defenseman at Wisconsin. He’s a late round pick and he’s taken a step. He’s a very good player at Wisconsin last year. But you watch the way he skates and the way he reads the game and the way he passes the puck,” Hextall said.  

Overall, Kalynuk posted 25 points (three goals and 22 assists) in 37 games as a freshman. While other parts of his game and physical development are a work in progress and there is always room to further improve his strengths, there is no rush with three remaining seasons of collegiate eligibility. He’s already a rising talent among collegiate defensemen nationally. 

Wisconsin (14-19-4 overall, 8-13-8 within its conference) finished in sixth-place in the Big 10. The club yielded a conference-worst 124 goals this season, which was in line with Kalynuk’s individual minus-11 stat at even strength. 

LW/RW – Olle Lycksell (SHL: Linköpings HC)

Chosen by the Flyers in the sixth round, 168th overall, of the 2017 Draft, Lycksell opened eyes last season when he hit the ground running at Sweden’s top pro level, the SHL, after being called up from the Linköping J20 team to the men’s team. In 26 games, Lycksell scored a very respectable five goals and seven points and held his own overall.

Lycksell is not big (5-foot-11, 178 pounds) but he is a smart and skilled player. The youngster, who will turn 19 on Aug. 24, is a strong candidate to earn a spot on Team Sweden’s roster for the 2018-19 World Junior Championships. He even got a look on Sweden’s national men’s team this past year.

I played lots of games especially played games at a really good level, World Championship and World Juniors. Every time when you play the games the best forwards are your age, but it really helps when you grow up. I feel so much better right now than last year. I think I have more skill, I think I trust in myself more and I think I grew up pretty much,” Lycksell said of his development over the past year.

It was really, really good experience for me. I can’t say I played lots but even when I played eleven, twelve minutes I think every shoot was so useful. I can learn even when I sit on the bench, I can watch the best forwards and best D, how they play and learn something every shift.”

Although his name rarely gets mentioned among the Flyers’ top forward prospects, the organization is very encouraged by Lycksell’s development over the past year. He figures to play an expanded role at the SHL level in the near future. 

Along with Flyers 2018 second-round pick Adam Ginning (Lycksell’s teammate on Linköping) and goalie prospect Samuel Ersson, Lycksell are attending the national team’s development camp currently in progress and vie for a WJC spot in the months that follow. 

G – Kirill Ustimenko (MHL: MHK Dynamo St. Petersburg)

Selected by the Flyers in the third round, 80th overall, of the 2017 Draft, Ustimenko enjoyed a stellar season in Russia’s junior league, the MHL. Playing for MHK Dynamo St. Petersburg (one of the league’s top teams), Ustimenko was a workhorse starter for his team. He appeared in 53 games, posting a 1.81 goals against average and .929 save percentage during the regular season.

For his efforts, Ustimenko was selected to play in the MHL All-Star Game and was named Goaltender of the Month for the Western Conference in October of last season. 

Although born in Belarus, Ustimenko represents Russia internationally. He impressed in two appearances for bronze medalist Team Russia at the 2017 Under-18 World Championships. Now 19 years old, the 6-foot-3, 187-pound netminder will vie this fall for a spot on Team Russia’s squad at the 2018-19 World Junior Championships.

Ustimenko attended the Flyers’ Development Camp in Voorhees in July, where he worked with Flyers goaltending development coach Brady Robinson (who also visited him in Russia last season) and participated in the annual end-of-camp 3-on-3 tournament.

According to Hextall, Ustimenko does not yet speak more than the most rudimentary of English. The language of hockey has to suffice for now.

Ustimenko says ‘hi’ like where German [Rubtsov] was a year and a half ago. All these kids, the sooner they learn the language, the [easier the transition]. We’ve got goalie coaches working with Ustimenko and we got to have Slava [Kouznetsov, the Flyers’ skating coach] there to translate it. Brady goes to see Ustimenko over there and our scout [Ken Hoodikoff] has to be there to translate,” Hextall said.  

Ustimenko’s KHL rights belong to Admiral Vladivostok; one of the weaker teams in the league. Come next season, he could potentially serve as a backup for some KHL games while apprenticing to make his KHL debut, play at the minor league (VHL) level or remain in the MHL.–philadelphia-flyers/c-299675604

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