“He’s an impact player”: Taking stock of Syracuse native Joel Farabee’s first NHL season
Taking stock of Syracuse native Joel Farabee’s first NHL season
Joel Farabee’s rookie season in the National Hockey League is over…for now. The coronavirus and related public health measures have put the 2019-2020 NHL regular season on ice, though team and league officials continue exploring the feasibility of safely completing some kind of abbreviated season and Stanley Cup playoffs in summer months.
The Cicero native, drafted in 2018’s first round by the Philadelphia Flyers, isn’t the first Syracuse area product to compete in the world’s top hockey league. Defenseman Alex Levinsky blazed the trail for Onondaga County natives in 1930, but it took more than fifty years for the next Syracuse skater, Max Middendorf, to log meaningful ice time in the big leagues. More recently, Baldwinsville neighbors Tim Connolly and Alex Tuch have become the leading Syracuse-born point scorers in NHL history.
But Farabee is making his case to chase Connolly and Tuch through his first 52 NHL games.
He’s breaking into the league in the modern, post-lockout era, a time when the game favors speed and skill over brawn and bullying — something his Philadelphia Flyers franchise hung its hat on decades ago. Fight-first, ask-questions-later bruisers don’t even populate third and fourth lines nowadays, let alone starting lineups, if they can crack NHL rosters at all.
More often than not, crafty veterans who find ways to modernize their skill sets and talented youngsters fighting to make an impression, like Farabee, flesh out the bottom six of NHL teams’ forward groups.
“I’ve been impressed with his ability to play on all four lines and change his game depending on where in the lineup he’s placed,” Colby Cohen, a broadcast and studio analyst for NBC Sports Philadelphia, ESPN and Westwood One, told The NewsHouse. “He also plays with some bite in his game…his speed and offensive ability are some of his best assets, and for a young player, he plays very heavy on the puck.”
Fifteen other rookies around the NHL have tallied more points than the 20-year-old Farabee so far in 2019-20, but what makes his performance stand out is how quickly he’s been able to find a way to produce at the top level.
Once he became Flyers property, Farabee spent the 2018-19 season at Boston University, where he tallied 57 points in 37 games. He was the last forward cut from the Flyers roster in training camp last October, but he collected four points in four games with Philly’s AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley in the ensuing weeks. The Flyers called him back up, and he’s spent the majority of the 2019-20 season in the NHL since then.
Compare that timetable against Chicago’s Alexander Nylander, taken eighth overall by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2016 draft after an eye-popping 75-point season in the OHL. The winger struggled to live up to his potential in the Sabres’ system, never topping 31 points in any of three AHL seasons and only registering six points in 19 NHL games. Three summers after drafting him, Buffalo traded the 22-year-old Nylander to Chicago, and he’s scored just five more points than Farabee this season through fourteen more games. (Yes, Nylander still qualifies as a rookie despite his previous NHL experience.) Flyers prospect Jay O’Brien, selected just five picks after Farabee in 2018, has yet to even make it to the AHL.
“The Flyers, in general, have a tremendous prospect pool and Farabee is a centerpiece of that,” ESPN National NHL Reporter Emily Kaplan told The NewsHouse. “It’s typically an adjustment for players to make the jump from college hockey to pro hockey, especially in the NHL. The fact that the Flyers—who are in all-in this season going for the playoffs–have given Farabee so much time in the NHL and not the AHL, just speaks volumes of what they think of him.”
Some of the NHL’s Billy Beane equivalents have been figuring out that NHL skaters are peaking at younger ages than previously thought, around 24 or 25. It can make more sense for general managers in the salary cap era to squeeze the most value out of younger, rapidly-improving players approaching their peaks on cheaper, entry-level contracts than to “overpay” for slightly older players who (statistics suggest) may be in decline or primed for a decline in the final years of a heftier contract.
But knowing which teenager from the corners of North America or Europe is going to turn into the next reliable starter or superstar is, well…a betting man’s game, at best. How quickly can a player go from draft day to dressing and producing in the NHL consistently? Scouting staffs are paid to do that research, make those educated guesses and help general managers make decisions to constantly replenish their prospect pools.
“The Flyers get an A for drafting Joel,” Cohen added. “You hope a guy drafted that high turns into a high skilled top six forward, but you never really know at that age…I look at his draft class, and [Carolina’s Andre] Svechnikov and [Ottawa’s Brady] Tkachuk are probably the only forwards who have been better than Joel so far.”
“Farabee has already outperformed some of the forwards selected ahead of him in the 2018 Draft,” Kaplan explained. “I look at a guy like Filip Zadina (No. 6 overall) who really struggled with the Red Wings in his first season and needed more seasoning in the AHL to get his confidence up, or Oliver Wahlstrom (No. 11 overall) who has only gotten his feet wet with the Islanders, and Farabee already has been given a bigger role.”
He just turned 20 last month, and Farabee has already skated in more games and scored more points than eight of the 13 players drafted ahead of him in 2018 and every player drafted after him. His 21 points (8g, 13a) rank eighth among Flyers forwards and eleventh among all Flyers skaters this season, and he’s scored 19 of those points at even strength. Farabee isn’t simply padding his stats with goals and assists in more favorable man-advantage situations.
To be sure, some experts see costs associated with his fast track to the big leagues.
“I wish Joel would have played two years of college hockey to build up his body, develop leadership skills and play in all the important situations,” ESPN’s John Buccigross told The NewsHouse. “He’s a little light for the pro game and I’m sure that’s his priority; gaining strength and horsepower and to continue to slowly improve.”
Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher did send the 164-pound Farabee back down to Lehigh Valley at the NHL’s trade deadline with the intent of giving him more top-of-the-lineup reps with the Phantoms.
“We are only carrying 12 forwards,” Fletcher said in a February 24 press conference. “For him to go down and get first line minutes, first line power play, not always have to be the responsible one on the line, be maybe the guy to drive the play, get more puck touches and we can’t forget he is only 19 years old. Joel has been a real big part of our team this year, and he is even a much bigger part of our future.”
Little did Fletcher know that veteran winger James van Riemsdyk would break his hand days later, forcing Fletcher to recall Farabee after just one game with the Phantoms.
Cohen believes Farabee can become a first-line, first power play and even penalty kill contributor for the Flyers.
“Someone like Claude Giroux: an offensively gifted player who can really do everything for your team,” Cohen said.
That’s one heck of a comparison for the youngster. Giroux, a six-time NHL All-Star, has 815 points through 889 career games and was a more prolific scorer during his rookie campaign.
“After his three-year entry-level contract, I assume Joel will sign a contract that has player-friendly term and a team-friendly cap hit to get him to his unrestricted free agent days,” Cohen said, referencing the six-year, $33 million deal Flyers winger Travis Konecny inked in September. “After then, who knows, but I expect him to be a Flyer for a long time.”
When the NHL suspended regular season play, Farabee’s Flyers held the Metropolitan Division’s second of three playoff spots. Though no one knows if or when this season will resume, the prolonged intermission gives more time for injured teammates like van Riemsdyk to work back to full strength.
“You need to be able to get to the net and that was lacking before he was sent down,” Cohen added. “He will be on the team all year next season and he will learn these things as he gets older and stronger.”
“Farabee’s ceiling is absolutely as a top six forward,” Kaplan predicted in her correspondence with The NewsHouse. “He’s an impact player.”