|Radel Fazleev (center #19) is mobbed by teammates after scoring his 1st pro goal Saturday night. Photo: Nina Weiss/Highland Park Hockey|
Written by: Tim Riday - Twitter
In some extremely rare cases, that prospect will turn out to be a superstar.
Need an example? How about Pavel Datsyuk? The former Red Wing great went undrafted - somehow twice - before Detroit made him its 171st-overall pick at the 1998 NHL Draft.
That’s right. Datsyuk, a two-time Stanley Cup champion, three-time Selke Trophy winner as the league’s top defensive forward and four-time NHL All-Star, was a sixth-round choice.Unfathomable, right?
Nowadays, the chances of the Philadelphia Flyers - or any NHL team - finding a player of Datsyuk’s caliber that late in a draft are astronomical.
But - there is always a but - maybe, just maybe, the Flyers have unearthed a gem of their own in Radel Fazleev.
Now let me make this as clear as humanly possible: Radel Fazleev is no Pavel Datsyuk. Fazleev knows that. The Flyers know that. But there are some similarities. Why else would I use Datsyuk as my example a few graphs above?
For one, Fazleev and Datsyuk are both Russian. They were also sixth-round picks - the Flyers grabbed Fazleev at 168th-overall in 2014. And, most importantly, they are known to be exceptional defensive-minded forwards with sound and reliable two-way ability.
You know about Datsyuk. He was also an offensive wizard. It’s time to meet Fazleev.
After steadily improving in each year since he was drafted, the 20-year-old native of Kazan is 12 games into his first tour as a professional. The Lehigh Valley Phantoms are happy to have him, too.
Fazleev spent the last three seasons with the Western Hockey League's Calgary Hitmen. All told, he registered 42 goals and 105 assists in 168 games at the junior ranks.
The 6-foot-1, 176-pounder also represented his country in several international tournaments. Most notably, he was an instrumental cog in helping Russia to a silver medal at the 2016 World Junior Championship. He tallied four points, was unbeatable in the faceoff circle and killed penalties.
The Flyers had a feeling Fazleev could be a crucial piece of the future long before that, however. General manager Ron Hextall inked the winger/center to an entry-level contract in May of 2015, knowing he wouldn't be eligible to play in the AHL until 2016-17 anyway.
So that's a short resume. But what exactly does Fazleev bring to the Phantoms? Glad you asked.
Fazleev is lauded for his play in the defensive zone and his penalty-killing acumen. He's not all defense, though. He's an underrated playmaker with some impressive tools.
The kid can skate and has no problems getting into the dirty areas. You can count on him finishing his checks and crashing the net hard.
“I’ll do whatever the coach wants,” Fazleev said after the Phantoms’ 7-2 thrashing of the Toronto Marlies at PPL Center on Saturday night. “I enjoy helping the team win games. It doesn’t matter to me what I do on the ice. If I have to kill a penalty, I’ll kill it and then our boys will go on the power play and score goals. That feels great. Five-on-five, I always work hard and build off of simple plays.”
That's exactly what management, the coaching staff and fans should want to hear from a young and developing hockey mind.
Fazleev gets it. He sees the big picture. He understands he's not going to be relied on to be the guy.
That's not going to stop him from carving out his own niche. His junior days are over. Now, his career is in the all-important transition phase. No more kiddie games. Welcome to adulthood.
“I think I’m getting better every game," Fazleev, a confident speaker, said. "It was really hard and it was extremely fast the first couple games for me. I was getting tired too fast. But now I’ve kinda gotten into a rhythm. I’m trying to make plays or get it out of the zone or control the puck. Play smart, ya know? I feel like I’m getting more comfortable in this league, especially with such a great team.”
That last sentence was important. The Phantoms are well on their way to becoming a great team. And, right now, they are rolling.
After dispatching Toronto on Saturday, Lehigh Valley extended its winning streak to five games. More impressively, Scott Gordon's group traveled to Hershey and took down the Bears a night later to make it six in a row and a clean three-in-three sweep.
There were a lot of new faces when the season began. Hextall brought in veterans Greg Carey, Andy Miele, T.J. Brennan and Will O'Neill to bolster his AHL affiliate's lineup.
There was a bit of a figuring out to do in the beginning but Gordon has the Phantoms on the top of their game after some early-season hiccups. And that's even with a few unexpected forwards on the roster.
I don't think Hextall or Gordon anticipated Jordan Weal and Scott Laughton to both be in the minors at the same time. But that gives Lehigh Valley some scary depth even if there is some serious rotating to do.
"That makes your team hard to defend," Gordon said. "Every night it’s been a different group for us. It’s not one guy getting four goals, it’s a lot of guys getting one goal. We’ll take that. That balanced scoring is tough to defend.”
So with guys like Carey, Miele, Weal and Laughton at the top of the offensive chart, some players have to slide to the bottom-six.
That's been beneficial for Fazleev, who is currently centering Corban Knight and fellow first-year pro Nicolas Aube-Kubel. The pressure isn't on them to produce. But they're doing it anyway.
“We have good chemistry with me, Kubel and the young guys," Fazleev said. "Knighter helps us a lot. Tells us what to do. When I’m confused in a game, I ask him and he always tells me his opinion. We’re having fun.”
This isn't your prototypical fourth line. On any other team, they are the top checking unit or even part of a potential second-scoring group.
Gordon has done a terrific job of utilizing all 12 of his forwards to their maximum ability. Everybody has a role. And Fazleev's game hasn't been lost on the second-year Phantoms head coach.
“For a rookie to come in, he’s actually been given a pretty good role as a centerman to be able to kill penalties," Gordon said of his rookie forward. "He’s the first one over the boards for us. We’ve used him and Corban and they’ve done a great job, especially with both of them being new to our system. It’s been good for us because we haven’t had to overextend some of our other players who get minutes on the power play. That’s been impactful, to be able to use our depth that way.”
From top to bottom, Lehigh Valley has the ability to light the lamp on any given shift.
On Friday in Utica, the Phantoms had four different goal scorers in a 4-1 win over the Comets. Six out of the seven goals against the Marlies were off the sticks of different players. And, to wrap it all up, three separate skaters notched goals in Sunday's 3-1 win at Hershey.
Let that sink in.
Now the combination of Knight, Fazleev and Aube-Kubel was relatively quiet against Toronto but you can't sleep on them. That's when they'll pounce.
Knight made an unbelievable cross-ice pass off the rush in the third period versus the Marlies to set up Fazleev's first career AHL marker. It made for a memorable moment.
"It always feels great to score," Fazleev said after the game. "But for me, especially my first pro goal, to score at home with such a great crowd, it was awesome. We’re enjoying our game and having fun out there every game. We keep trying to get better and better.”
That’s the key: Getting better and better.
It won’t make Fazleev the next Datsyuk. But it increases the odds of him turning into a damn good Flyer.
Edited by: Tony Androckitis
Edited by: Tony Androckitis