The Next Steps: Cam York
It’s the dog days of summer, which means hockey is pretty much dead. I’ve honored the time tested tradition by not writing an article since the aftermath of draft day, but now is the perfect time to start winding back into hockey posts with something of a longer term project. A series of posts that will carry us, likely, right into training camp.
The Next Steps.
Each iteration of the series will put the spotlight on one particular Flyer. At first, we’ll be focusing on the signed players who are still young and in their “rapid development” phase. Or at least just now coming out of it. Time permitting, we’ll get to the unsigned prospects.
I did a Twitter poll and allowed you guys to tell me who would be the first entry in the series. You all chose Cam York.
I might be the world’s foremost York propagandist, so that someone else told me to write about Cam York is a really interesting and surprising plot twist. But here we are.
Every iteration in this series will follow a specific structure. First, we’ll outline what makes them special. And I don’t necessarily mean that every player is special by NHL standards. I mean that you have to be a pretty damn special hockey player to even be in consideration for an NHL roster spot.
To start, we’ll go into those special traits and just how “special” they really are.
Then, we’ll move into what I call “natural development.”
These are things that have to happen as he takes the next steps as a hockey player, but also things that I fully expect to happen. Simple things that don’t require too much concentrated effort and will just occur organically through the player’s development process.
Finally, we’ll move into what I call “structural development.”
These are things that both the player and the development staff will likely have to spend a lot of time honing in on. Areas of the player’s game that need to be totally re-engineered for the player to realize their NHL ceiling.
In general, the best prospects who are most likely to hit their NHL ceilings have a ton of natural development but limited structured development. It’s also what everyone always seems to talk about when they talk about prospects. The things that will correct themselves over time are posited as long-term projects.
In reality, if you have to do a ton of structural development with a prospect, they’re generally a bad bet. Not always. And sometimes, those projects have a pot of gold at the end. But the prospects who you should have faith in? A lot of their development is boring and organic with limited intervention by teams.
First off, let’s talk about: the special traits.
The hockey sense.
When talking about what defines Cam York as a hockey player, his hockey sense has to be at the top of the list. That’s a nebulous term. It can be used to mean a lot of different things, so it’s generally a bad description. But not always.
In some cases, some players have games that are so intelligent in so many different areas that it’s really best to just describe them with the broad term of “excellent hockey sense.”
York is one of those players who meets pretty much any definition of hockey sense that you’d like to use, and he uses this in-game intellect as a weapon in every area of hockey.
He defends with his hockey sense, and his defending starts early. He’s excellent at realizing when a puck is lost in the offensive zone and the opposing team will at least start a breakout attempt.
He’ll detach in those situations and become the last man back. Teams that want to dump pucks or try long stretch passes are going to have to deal with him, because he’s already back there, covering the deepest parts of the ice like a safety would in football.
But he’s equally adept at realizing when an offensive zone sequence can be kept alive and he times his pinches excellently. Even at the NHL with few games at that pace of play, York already has a knack for effective pinches that keep plays alive in the offensive zone.
His entire game is about controlling the neutral zone for his team, and tilting the ice in their favor. And it’s his intelligence as a player that’s created this style of play.
When he has the puck, his panic threshold is seemingly nonexistent. Even right now, he’s a very safe bet to make a good play when the puck is on his stick. Sometimes, there’s meat left on the bone. And we’ll get into that later. But in general, when York touches the puck, something good happens. Even if it’s only moderately good.
That is a testament to his poise and his ability to identify outlets when he needs to escape pressure.
The passing (and puck skills in general, really)
The statement accompanying this tweet was thought of as mildly controversial or an exaggeration. It was neither.
York’s accuracy while passing the puck is already high-end. He has a feel for the right velocity and the right trajectory in much the same way that a quarterback would in the NFL. They call it “ball placement” in that world.
Following the logic, York’s “puck placement” is excellent. He can hit his forwards in stride seemingly at will, be it with stretch passes down the ice (which he loves to try whenever the slightest window presents itself)
And I mean really loves to try them.
Give him a reason. No, really, even the slightest reason is enough for him to pull the trigger. But he’s equally adept at shorter range plays and passes in a small area that have big rewards.
Getting enough sauce on this pass and still leaving it on a tee for the deflection is really great stuff, and exactly demonstrative of his passing accuracy.
The move to free himself there is the key to York’s play. He has all the requisite tools to beat pressure, both with his hands and his feet. He’s very good at understanding when players have set themselves on a bad track and moving around them.
But it isn’t just something he recognizes. He can create these situations.
It’s the way York moves when he receives this pass that sets up the entire move and the ensuing goal. He’s moving as soon as the pass is received and taking the middle of the ice. He draws the Avalanche player in with that first move, then shifts the other way and beats him.
Those are Cale Makar-like setups. Moves that the Colorado blueliner has used to become the greatest offensive defenseman of this generation. Does he have the same lateral explosion that Makar does? Well, no. Nobody does, really.
But he can pull off the same moves, albeit with less frequency. A little more has to go right for him. The fake has to be even more convincing. The setup has to be even more perfectly executed.
He can bait poke checks and maneuver around the exposed defenders with ease.
He plays with his footwork to step around defenders. There, he feints taking the lane to the middle and gets Chychrun to bite, which gives York all the room he needs to step around him to the outside and drive the middle.
Chychrun is a very good defender, too. He isn’t exclusively picking on scrubs, and hunting obvious mismatches.
He can chain moves together. There, he beats Maccelli initially with the same move he used on Chychrun but he didn’t give himself enough space to drive the net or to finish the wraparound. Realizing this, he comes out of the wraparound and draws Maccelli to him again. He throws about 3 red herrings before finally spinning off of him and driving the net again.
York’s offensive play isn’t where it needs to be, yet. But at this stage, the flashes are indicative of future success. That he can both try these things and execute them in NHL games is important.
The key for York is increasing the volume at which he creates these plays. Going from once every two games to twice every one game will turn him from a 30 point defenseman to a 60 point defenseman without even considering an improved power-play.
He doesn’t have the same explosive skating as Cale Makar or Quinn Hughes, but his smooth edgework combined with his excellent puck skills is more than enough to create loads of offense at the NHL level.
And the most exciting thing about him is that he’s hardly an all-offense defenseman.
1 on 1 Defense
The other trait that stands out with York is his ability to defend in 1 on 1 situations. He specializes in shutting down rush attacks, but he’s also shown a penchant for shutting down passing lanes and ending cycles.
He uses both of those skills to kill a play from Kirill Kaprizov here. Staying in front of Kaprizov is not easy, and actually dislodging the puck in the process is even harder. York does both.
When Kaprizov recovers the puck, York knows where he’s passing it as soon as Kaprizov does and swats away the attempt with his skate.
He’s not overly physical, but he does understand time and space. More to the point, he understands how to take those things away.
Even Connor McDavid is not immune from running into the brick wall that is Cam York defending the rush.
York isn’t the perfect prospect, just an extremely gifted one. The most encouraging thing about him is that much of his necessary development falls here. It’s not about ability or about vision or processing. he has all the tools, and he has the hockey sense required to put those tools to use. Rather, on every side of the puck, York just has to improve some of his reads and his decisions.
For most players, making better decisions is about taking fewer risks or playing less hero-puck. For York, it’s the exact opposite. It’s about taking more risk in targeted areas, and about finding some areas in which he should be the guy who makes the play.
It isn’t that he doesn’t make good decisions. He does, effortlessly. It’s one of this strengths. But if you want to be a great defenseman in the NHL, which I think he has the potential to be, then you can’t just make good decisions. You have to pass on good decisions sometimes, and find great decisions in the process.
York is the equivalent of an NFL quarterback defaulting too fast to the check down. Sure, it prevented a sack. Sure, you got positive yardage. But over time, the opportunity cost of all the yardage you could have had–and didn’t–starts to add up.
Eventually, you have to make the blitzer miss and find the 30 yard shot that other quarterbacks would have never hit.
On breakouts, he’s too fast to make a play up the wall. His passing touch shows up here, and the wingers often get better pucks from him than they would from other defensemen. But throwing the puck up to the wingers or off the glass is still a check down. It’s the good play. Not the great play.
With his ability, he can beat the first forechecker and find a play up the middle or to a streaking winger who’s in space rather than hemmed into the wall. He’s done it, including on his first NHL game. (This pass to Deslauriers may actually be bad by his standards!)
The play still went through the wall here, but that’s okay. The wall player had space to work with, and that created both an exit and an offensive zone entry.
This might be the pinnacle of what I need from him at 5v5 more frequently. He beats, in this case, the lone forechecker and creates a boatload of time and space for himself. It’s an extreme example, because Detroit was camping out at the blueline since it was a PK sequence.
It didn’t even amount to anything that time, because the Flyers are awful at finding space and getting open. But York did his job here. And if he does that ten times, he’s going to find more plays than if he rushes a pass.
Tortorella talked a lot about wanting to see York carry the puck a lot more. I wouldn’t complain if he did start becoming Quinn Hughes and wheeling the puck himself through the neutral zone. But I don’t think that needs to happen. For as great as his edgework is, I don’t think he has the speed to carry that playstyle with him. But maybe I’m wrong.
Either way, I think Torts is directionally correct. I just want him to hang onto pucks, beat pressure by making plays 1 on 1 against forecheckers if the need arises. Don’t immediately settle for the good play or the okay play. Find a great one.
Now, I realize there’s a level of game management here. If the Flyers are up 1-0 in the 3rd period, there’s no real reason for York to pass up a good play and risk a brutal turnover by failing to beat a forechecker 1 on 1. And that will happen from time to time.
But on a general basis, the Flyers are a team that’s starving for offense. They can’t create a damn thing. And because they can create so little, they often give up goals by virtue of never playing offense and rarely possessing the puck for long.
Cam York can make an immediate difference there, if he wants to. And that’s where Tortorella is right. It’s a mindset thing.
In some ways, I’m glad that he considers risk. I’m glad that he weighs the right and wrong time to make a play and take a risk. Those are the kind of things you need from your 1D in the playoffs. More than goals or points or being 6’3″. You need someone who can manage the game during their minutes. And York does that exceptionally well, on the whole.
But managing the game means knowing when it’s time to take a risk and make a play. In this case, the easiest way to do that is to beat F1 when he’s picking up pucks on retrieval sequences.
It isn’t limited to just that, though. The offensive flair in his game ends up coming and going, at times. While the flashes are plentiful enough to suggest it’s a real weapon at his disposal, he has to do these things at a greater volume if he’s going to be a point producer at the NHL level.
His activations from the blueline are sometimes infrequent. He leaves too much offense on the table, too much opportunity passes him by from the blueline in.
Off the puck, he attempts to activate and slip into plays frequently. The Flyers don’t have a lot of guys who can find him in those spots. That isn’t his fault. Ideally, the team will get better at taking advantage of that desire by York.
With the puck, he defaults too quickly to rimming it around behind the net for his forwards to continue to cycle. That isn’t a bad move. It’s a good play. It would be especially good if the Flyers had forwards who could easily take pucks from the wall and attack middle ice, but the people who can do that on this team are not plentiful.
All the same, it isn’t a great play. A great play would be taking that puck and beating his man then creating offense while he’s attacking downhill. That’s a great play. He’s made those great plays before. He can do it. He has to do it more.
I don’t ever expect York to be the most aggressive creator of offense the league has ever seen. The true elites of offense creation fall into one of two categories.
- They’re extreme gamblers, which York is not.
- They get a lot of help from their forwards, which York will not for a couple years.
That’s fine. York doesn’t need to gamble as much as Erik Karlsson to be useful to this team. He needs to gamble as much as Charlie McAvoy does, which is a much more attainable goal.
In general, I look at York and I see a lot of the same tools that McAvoy brings to the table. The only glaring omission is that McAvoy plays around 215 and York plays around 195 (as of last year)
Unless York puts on 20 pounds, that is a meaningful difference between the two. And York won’t have the defensive utility that McAvoy brings. Conversely, if York reaches his offensive ceiling, I think there’s a level of offense that can surpass what McAvoy brings.
Which brings me to the point: the ceiling is enormous. The ceiling is a big minutes eating, playdriving, two-way defenseman who puts up sterling analytical results and somewhere around 65 points a year.
It will not be easy to reach that ceiling. That’s why it’s a ceiling. It isn’t supposed to be easy to hit. But it doesn’t require fantastical developments of skills that he’s never shown, either. All he has to do is make the most of the abilities he’s shown.
There isn’t a whole lot here. It’s part of York’s appeal. There’s no glaring physical issue. He isn’t egregiously small at this point, and his skating has always been an asset. Never a hinderance. He sees the ice tremendously well, and there’s no evidence of any significant mental hurdles.
It’s about sharpening reads, gaining experience, and maximizing the abilities that he’s already displayed. There’s nothing in his game that stands out for needing a major overhaul.
I will leave you with this, though. There is something that you could consider structural development.
What if you didn’t want a two-way guy? What if you didn’t want McAvoy with a bit less defense and a bit more offense? What if you wanted an honest-to-goodness elite offensive defenseman in the NHL?
Well, that would require a near total rewiring of York’s decision making process. Whenever he thinks about making the best play for the situation he’s in, he needs to think about one thing: creating offense.
He needs to go from being relatively risk-averse to being addicted to risk. Technically, this is possible. But I don’t know why someone would embark on this journey.
Besides being incredibly arduous, I’m not convinced that the payoff is much grander than the ceiling of York if he takes his ideal natural development path.
Would it actually make York any better if he scored 80 points instead of 65, but traded those extra points for being significantly worse defensively by constantly compromising his position? I don’t think so. And that leads me into my conclusion.
If Cam York were bigger with the same career trajectory, he’d be treated as top prospect material.
For defenseman, there has always been this idea that you can only be good at defense if you’re big. Even when York was drafted, there were major concerns about him not producing enough offense and not being big enough to be used in a shutdown role.
If York was a one-way player, he wouldn’t have actually been any better at helping his team win hockey games. But he would make more sense to the average hockey evaluator. His spot in the lineup would be more obvious to the unimaginative.
I’m not here to say that size has no effect on defensive acumen. It does. The best play-stoppers, 9 times out of 10, are going to be around 6’4″.
But York doesn’t need to be among the best play-stoppers. He has the feet and the mind to be an excellent one.
The best offensive play-creators are elite skaters, handle the puck like a forward, and take more risks than a man wit cash to burn in Vegas.
But what if York is just an excellent play creator offensively?
Take those two things in aggregate, and you have an incredible defenseman.
I think one salient point that someone could make is this: “Wasn’t this the hope for Ivan Provorov?”
To which I’d say: yes. That never quite worked out for Provorov, but I aslo think that we’re dealing with two different sets of tools.
With Provorov, the evaluation was done largely based on tools. He was big, an above average skater, and had an elite shot. He was supposed to put those tools together to become a high-end 1D, but never quite did. Even in 19-20, the hope was that this would serve as the springboard towards something greater.
With York, it’s always been different. he doesn’t have those same tools. He just keeps producing results regardless. In spite of his tools, he constantly provides more than he ought to be able to.
Analytically, it’s been no different in the NHL.
So by betting on York, you aren’t hoping that he “puts it all together.”
You’re betting that he keeps doing what he’s been doing, on a grander scale.
And that seems readily attainable whenever I watch his tape.
Mandatory Credit: Len Redkoles / Getty Images