Jan. 3—Through the dramatics of this Flyers season, Noah Cates has quietly done his thing, focusing on the small details of the game and helping his teammates in little ways.
But despite his quiet demeanor on and off the ice, there's always been some flash to Cates' game. He's still famous in his home state of Minnesota, where high school hockey reigns supreme, for his spin-o-rama goal in the state tournament. He was a top-five scorer last season for the University of Minnesota Duluth despite missing games to play in the 2022 Winter Olympics. Cates even got off to a blazing start to his NHL career, scoring five goals and tallying nine points in 16 games to finish last season.
However, with a new coach in John Tortorella, several new teammates, and a new role playing center, Cates' offensive skill hadn't manifested itself much this season — until the Flyers left for their holiday road trip, a historically difficult stretch.
Before leaving for Toronto on Dec. 22, Cates had just 11 points in 33 games. Only three were goals. The 23-year-old did not score against the Maple Leafs but recorded his 12th point in the following game against Carolina, he and Rasmus Ristolainen setting up Nick Seeler's third-period goal in a 6-5 loss.
Seeler and Ristolainen returned the favor two games later by assisting Cates. Out on the penalty kill late in the third period, Cates carried the puck into the offensive zone, paused, then beat Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick with a seeing-eye shot from just inside the blue line. The game-winner was Cates' first goal in 21 games and just his fourth of the season.
Cates immediately followed that up with an assist on Travis Konecny's empty-net goal six minutes later and then another multi-point game on Monday night against the Anaheim Ducks. Since his assist against the Hurricanes on Dec. 23, Cates has picked up five points in four games. The young forward's play has been integral to the Flyers' current three-game winning streak.
None of Cates' goals or assists have been flashy. They've all been created by smart plays and his attention to detail. And maybe that's the type of player he'll always be at the NHL level.
Either way, five points in four games is a huge uptick in production. In the first 33 games ahead of the road trip, Cates had only had three multi-point games. He's had two in his last five games. He'd recorded points in back-to-back games only once and had never scored in three of four.
Cates' current success coincides with the recent emergence of the Flyers' young players. Until December, they kept providing hints of their potential but couldn't find consistency. However, given time to jell and more skilled linemates, several of the youngsters have started to find their stride.
Owen Tippett and Morgan Frost, who each have five goals and nine points over the last 10 games, kicked off the youth movement when their line with veteran James van Riemsdyk erupted during the road trip in mid-December. Since then, Joel Farabee (two goals, five points in the last six games) has finally gotten back on track, helped by time playing with Cates and Konecny, the team's leading scorer.
But while those three were aided by playing with veterans and getting more time, Cates has played with Konecny and Kevin Hayes for most of the season and has been carrying what Tortorella says are unprecedented minutes for a rookie.
However, unlike the others, Cates was also playing out of position. He's naturally a wing, but Tortorella has decided to develop him as a center. That, as well as his youth, his hockey IQ, and his attention to detail, has earned him more leeway when it comes to his mistakes and his lack of production.
While Cates hasn't consistently produced points, he has shouldered a major defensive load and earned Tortorella's trust in key situations. Tortorella has consistently praised Cates for his 200-foot game and responsible play when checking the opposing team's top lines.
Now, just 54 games into his NHL career, he's starting to find a rhythm offensively and the points are starting to come. It's too early to tell if it will stick, but Cates is also way ahead of schedule.
There's still time for him to add more flash to his game, and even if it never becomes a big part of who he is, his reliability and consistency will always make him a valuable player. If Cates can continue to add this type of production to all the other little things he does well, what a steal he could become as a fifth-round pick.
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