VOORHEES, N.J. — Not many people knew who Mikhail Vorobyev was when the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championships began last December.
They found out quick who he was by the end.
Vorobyev led the tournament with 10 assists in seven games for Team Russia, which captured the bronze medal. He didn’t register a goal but his 10 points were third most.
“Vorobyev popped at the world juniors when he’s playing with his peers,” Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said recently during development camp at Flyers Skate Zone.
“Our guys really liked him his draft year. We got him in the fourth round probably because he was in Russia. He was hidden a little bit.”
After one full season playing in the KHL for Salavat Yulaev Ufa, Vorobyev signed his entry-level contract with the Flyers in late April. The 20-year-old center will spend the 2017-18 season with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms as part of an interesting forward group.
Lehigh Valley finished as the second-best AHL team last season with 101 points in the regular season, but it lost to the Hershey Bears in five games during the first round of the playoffs.
This season, Vorobyev figures to have a spot in the regular lineup, but the forward competition in the AHL could be as competitive as it will be with the Flyers.
Still, Vorobyev believed coming overseas was for his best interests.
“If you want to continue development,” Vorobyev said through an interpreter, Flyers skating coach Slava Kouznetsov, “this is a good opportunity to get better. In Russia, I think I reached up. That’s why I’m switching to North America to get better than I already am.”
It may take Vorobyev a while to get accumulated to the North American lifestyle, especially since he doesn’t speak English, but having Radel Fazleev at Lehigh Valley should help.
Fazleev is entering his second season in the AHL. He’s been in North America full-time since 2013-14, his first season in the WHL.
At development camp, Vorobyev had three other Russians — Fazleev, German Rubtsov and camp invite Ivan Kosorenkov — and Maksim Sushko, who’s from Belarus but speaks Russian, to lean on. Fazleev was the only development camp veteran of the bunch.
Like Rubtsov last summer, Vorobyev wasn’t able to attend development camp in 2015 and 2016 because of his contract obligations in the KHL. Having Kouznetsov around also helps.
"It is a big help,” Vorobyev said. “I'm feeling much more comfortable. The guys are helpful. It's easier to have conversation. They explain the rules, especially the guys who were here the previous years.”
The adjustment for Vorobyev will come largely off the ice. The Salavat, Russia, native doesn’t view the smaller rink as an obstacle, but it usually is for Europeans and Russians.
"When I traveled with the Russian team, I always liked to play on the smaller surface,” Vorobyev said. “I like it. There's no adjustment, basically."
Vorobyev isn’t the only player coming overseas this season for the Flyers. Oskar Lindblom, a 2014 fifth-round pick, believes the biggest transition for him will be the rink size.
“That’s the big thing,” he said. “It’s a little bit faster over here, so you have to think a little faster and be ready out there. Otherwise, you're going to get hit or not make the play."
Both Vorobyev and Lindblom were middle-round picks. Lindblom’s ascension has caught the eyes of the Flyers and their fans. Lindblom is expected to be a Flyer in 2017-18.
While Lindblom has earned the hype, Vorobyev’s progression has been interesting too. Both are examples of how far the Flyers’ scouting department has come in recent years.
Vorobyev earned a steady role in the KHL last season after splitting the 2015-16 season with Salavat Yulaev and Tolpar Ufa of the MHL.
For the average folk, Vorobyev’s numbers last season will not turn any heads. He had just three goals and 11 points in 44 games for Salavat Yulaev, but with young players in the KHL, it’s hard to judge strictly on statistics. What should be of note is the ice time.
During the regular season, Vorobyev averaged 9:47. That number shot up to 13:29 per game in five postseason contests. That signals his Salavat Yulaev coaches trusted him enough to play him.
It's easy to see the difference with Vorobyev and Rubtsov. Vorobyev carved out a spot on his team at 19 and 20 years old. Rubtsov couldn’t crack his KHL lineup.
Both are now in North America. The Flyers have three options with Rubtsov: QMJHL, AHL and NHL. They technically have two choices with Vorobyev, but he’ll be in the AHL.
“The Russians are a little bit of a different animal because if you’re playing in the KHL,” Hextall said, “you got a young kid playing against men in a top league and keep them down on the fourth line and give him seven minutes. It’s hard to show a whole lot in seven minutes.”
Vorobyev has added at least 13 pounds since the Flyers drafted him in the fourth round of the 2015 NHL draft. He’s currently listed at 6-foot-2, 207 pounds.
“If you look at his weight, his body makeup, it’s changed quite a bit since we drafted him,” Hextall said, “and again, he popped at the world juniors last year. Quite honestly, if you asked our scouts, I don’t think they’d be too surprised.”
The world junior performance was Vorobyev’s coming out party in North America. He was exciting to watch on a Russian team that also featured Rubtsov, who struggled in the tournament. Vorobyev displayed playmaking and vision not many ever he knew he had.
Vorobyev did most of his damage setting his teammates up from behind the net and said at development camp behind the net is an area he’s comfortable.
“Behind the net, I felt comfortable and got points off feeding the puck to the slot,” Vorobyev said. “If my partners did not score, I wouldn’t get assists. It is pride [to lead the tournament in assists], but the partners, that’s who I relied on.”