Finally. After months of media speculation – albeit mainly by yours truly – it has happened. Mikhail Vorobyov is officially a Flyer. Up until December – even amongst those who closely follow “Future Flyers” – the Center from Russia was in many Flyers fans eyes simply a name amongst the vast swathes of prospects the Philadelphia Flyers had accrued until the guidance of Ron Hextall.
That all changed with the World Junior Championship. Vorobyov thrust himself into the limelight as a facilitator for the tournament’s best forward and teammate Kirill Kaprizov. The role he played was not particular flashy as the ‘lesser’ part of the double act, but was nevertheless extremely important.
His large frame won board battles, his defensive prowess allowed his diminutive countryman freedom of expression and his great vision meant pucks gravitated towards Kaprizov’s dangerous stick with abandon. In other words, he did everything you expect from a quality young center. The results was that he set his nations record for assists in tournament history with ten.
Eighteen months earlier Flyers scout Todd Hearty had raised eyebrows when he bluntly stated that the Flyers had identified Vorobyov as not only similar stylistically to Minnesota Wild first round pick Joel Eriksson Ek, but that the Bashkortostan native was also not dissimilar talent-wise. While no one would argue that Vorobyov was at the Swede’s level even know the dissertation is no longer so preposterous. At the World Juniors it was the Russian forward who shone brighter.
It might be clichéd to say, but despite his Eastern Bloc ancestry the big pivot plays a North American style game. If he had been born in Saskatoon and went by the name of Michael Vernon, experts would be singing a different tune. His junior international team coach compared his style of play to the great Igor Larionov – gritty, thoughtful and hard-working – to use another cliché, “he does all the little things right.”
If you want a current NHL comparable there is one sitting right in front of you on the Flyers in Sean Couturier. Vorobyov plays a heavier game, and seems more settled running a power play, while Couturier is more inclined to get to the net-front and shoot the puck. But despite these differences they are not a million miles apart stylistically. Both are big, two-way, “facilitators” who excel on the cycle; they make everyone around them better, make positive plays every shift that go unnoticed until you review the tape.
Maybe I am setting him up to fail here; he will almost certainly not be Larionov, or even Couturier. But what can we expect from him down the line? Realistically we could see the man from Ufa develop into a good third line center. He has almost the ideal skill-set to excel in such a role if he continues to develop. In fact, he played such a role for parts of the previous KHL season, and while he did not “excel” he certainly held his own despite being one of the younger regular players in the world’s second best league.
While specific benchmarks are difficult to ascribe to developing prospects I would confidently say that Vorobyov has the potential to be a 40 points, two-way forward at NHL level, who could match up against top sixes, be used on the penalty kill and possibly run a second power-play unit from the right half-boards.
Over the last month he has further expanded his retinue as he was playing for the Russian ‘B’ senior international team amongst a host of KHL stars as they took on South Korea and Latvia. Vorobyov more than held his own despite his limited playing role in the bottom six. He set up multiple goals across the four games – picking up two assists in that time – the second of which was a beautiful, feathered backhand pass to his winger. It showed that even on an international stage he had some offensive chops to go alongside his impressive defensive and physical game.
One thing not to expect form Vorobyov though? Goals. Well, not too many at least. He is a pass first – and pass second – player. It can be frustrating at times. Especially as he showed at the World Juniors he has a solid wrist-shot, sniping home in the shoot-out with a great release. Going off the recent international games he has tried to do something about this though, for example in his last game against Belarus he thrice shot when in 2-on-1 and 2-on-2 situations.
He showed off this great shot last week with a goal, and then a dab celebration against Norway.
It should be interesting to see how Vorobyov adapts to the North American game next year. On paper he has all the attributes to shine, and while unlikely it would not be unrealistic to imagine him challenging for a spot on the Flyers in autumn. However, more than likely he will be centring a top-six line in Allentown with the Phantoms; a team that should be even more prospect heavy next year than it was this year.
Center is arguably the Flyers weakest position in the prospect pool, even after the addition of Mike Vecchione out of Union College – but Vorobyov (along with compatriot Rubtsov) is one of the few that certainly has middle six potential going forward. With Valtteri Filppula’s contract being up in summer 2018 it is quite likely that Flyers fans will be seeing Vorobyov with a winged P on his chest in the not so distant future.
It really does seem like Hextall’s grand plan for the franchises youth is finally coming together – and it should only get better from here on out.