by Bob Rotruck | AHL On The Beat
Bobby Brink was true to his name entering this season.
Not at all a lock to make the Philadelphia Flyers out of training camp, the talented young prospect was very much on the brink of breaking through as a full-fledged NHL player.
It looked like he had successfully done so when he cracked Philadelphia’s opening-night roster. A two-goal performance against Minnesota on Oct. 26 had everyone even more excited.
But it’s a long season and things can change.
With Brink’s ice time diminishing, and then his eventually sitting out for three consecutive games, Flyers general manager Daniel Briere opted to have Brink return to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, where he can log plenty of ice time and continue to develop his game. That’s something that isn’t going to happen in the press box in Philadelphia.
“He leveled out here,” Flyers head coach John Tortorella said. “Wasn’t receiving much ice time. In and out of the lineup. It’s not good for his development so he goes down there and plays a ton of minutes.”
Tortorella has raved about the caliber of play in the American Hockey League. He knows from personal experience, having led the Rochester Americans to the 1996 Calder Cup. He fully understands the benefits a prospect like Brink can receive by returning to the AHL.
“I don’t consider this a negative,” Tortorella said. “This is a good thing. We have Lehigh right down the street and he gets to put in a lot more minutes and develop playing minutes there on a team that’s fighting to get in (to the playoffs). And go through the process that way. It’s not always going to be all NHL games when you’re going through the process. Sometimes that great American League is a very good place to be in developing.”
Brink’s skillset is undeniable, as evidenced by his national championship season at the University of Denver in 2021-22 when he led all NCAA hockey players in scoring with 57 points (14g, 43a) in just 41 games. After making his NHL debut with the Philadelphia Flyers and playing in 10 games at the end of the 2021-22 season, he seemed to be on the brink of potentially making a big splash in his first full professional season.
But misfortune got in the way for the 34th overall selection of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. Brink’s hip continued to bother him following that NHL stint, and at just 22 years old, he would require surgery to repair a torn labrum. That would put his promise and possibilities on hold and prevent him from joining the Flyers the following season. Instead of competing at training camp and trying to fight his way onto the Flyers’ roster, Brink would spend the autumn mostly away from the ice while in rehab and recovery.
Brink eventually joined the Lehigh Valley Phantoms roster in January 2023 as he continued to gain strength and recover from his surgery. But certainly he wasn’t going to be at full speed right from the beginning. He did score goals in his first two AHL games but there was still work to be done.
Phantoms head coach Ian Laperriere knew the return of Brink to his team this season would be noticeably different from the version of Brink he saw last year. Brink had performed reasonably well for Lehigh Valley with 12 goals and 16 assists for 28 points in barely more than a half-season of action with 41 games played in 2022-23. But there was definitely more to be had out once he gained even greater strength and had truly reached a full recovery. Laperriere was excited to see it.
“He’s got great hands. He’s got speed,” Laperriere said. “He’s moving well and way better than when he played for us last year. And I knew that last year. I said that I can’t wait to see him next year, whether with the Flyers or us. I had that injury. It takes you a full year to recover.”
In his first games back with the Phantoms on Jan. 26 and 27, Brink popped in three goals including an absolute missile cutting across the high slot and connecting to the upper-left corner. On a line with fellow young prospect Samu Tuomaala and experienced center Rhett Gardner, he had the freedom to create and buzz and generate chances all over the place.
But it seems unlikely that Brink will simply be able to score his way back up to the Flyers. There’s more work to be done. Tortorella says he wants to see greater progress and accountability in other areas of Brink’s game as well.
“Everything,” Tortorella said. “Practice habits. How he handles himself. Away from the puck. Everything a young man that has to go through the process does. The part for me is to get out of the way of the offensive skill that he has and teach him plays away from the puck. He has been inconsistent enough to the point where we think other guys are playing better and that we cannot afford to have him sitting.
“He needs to go down and play a ton of minutes in a great league.”
Also key for Brink’s development is a willingness to embrace the challenge and overcome the understandable emotions that any player can feel when they are removed from an NHL roster.
“You can’t take it as a disappointment or else it’s just going to affect the way you play down here,” Brink said. “I mean, you get some adversity and it’s all about how you face that adversity. I’m coming down here and I’m trying to have a good attitude and be a part of this team and help this team win. It’s a great group of guys in there. You come to the rink and everyone’s having fun so that helps you come in with a good attitude.
“And I don’t have a choice. I have to come in and play well.”
Brink has received the message and he’s going to get repeated opportunities from Laperriere, who says he is going to continue to play him a lot for as long as he has him on the Phantoms roster.
“Just play your game,” Laperriere said. “Play hard and make plays. That’s what we want him to do. That’s what they want him to do, the organization.
“Bobby’s a great kid. He wants to get back to the next level and I can’t blame him. That’s the best league in the world. But Bobby is Bobby. He’s going to be fine. I’m not expecting to have him too long because he’s so talented. The message is he needs to play. And he will play.”
How long will it be before he returns to the Flyers? Nobody knows the answer to that of course. But ask some of his teammates and they will quickly tell you what they think of Brink’s potential time frame with the Phantoms – as well as his incredible playmaking abilities.
“He’s incredible with the puck,” Wade Allison said. “Just the way he sees the ice is something else. He won’t be here for long.”
For Brink to even make the NHL opening-night roster in the first place was a bit of a surprise to some. He had to earn his spot. And entering the team’s training camp in September nobody knew if he was going to have that extra pop in his game that would be necessary to impress the Flyers’ management. Similar to Brink excelling and perhaps exceeding expectations, so has the team he joined in his first full professional season.
“It’s a strong, determined group up there,” Brink said. “I think guys get along well and there’s a lot of belief in the locker room. Every day we showed up and gave everything we had and did all the little things. If you’re going to sacrifice the way the team has up there you’re going to end up with wins. It was a really fun environment.”
That situation was the perfect way for Brink to gain knowledge and experience in the NHL.
“A lot of guys helping me. A lot of good veteran guys,” he said. “I think that’s why the team has been having success. They were good to me and showed me a lot and I learned a lot there. Playing and practicing with those guys just makes you a better player.”
The next step for Brink is to put it all together via 22 to 25 minutes of ice time per game in the American Hockey League. His time in the NHL has given him an even better understanding of what it takes. One might even say that he’s on the brink of making it back up … for good.
“You got to do everything if you want to play in the NHL and be effective up there and stick in the league,” Brink said. “Come down here and do what you can with a good attitude and play with confidence and try to give it your best. And that’s all you can really do.”