ANAHEIM, Calif. — Joel Farabee didn’t hesitate. When asked what message he would relay to his 19-year-old rookie self if he were able to do so, he didn’t take more than a split second to spout out an answer.
“I would just tell myself to relax. I was so stressed all the time,” Farabee, now 23, told The Athletic after a Philadelphia Flyers off-day practice on Thursday in Southern California.
“Obviously when you first get to the NHL you do everything just to stay there, and for me, I was just a super nervous kid. I just wanted my teammates to like me. If I could go back, I would say just relax, and really enjoy it.”
Farabee is relaxed now. It’s showing in his play. Through 14 games, he has six goals and 12 points, including a gorgeous assist to Louie Belpedio for a goal on Friday in the Flyers’ 6-3 win over the Anaheim Ducks at Honda Center on a play that might have been the best pass of their season so far. He added a second assist on Travis Sanheim’s third-period marker.
A decent case can be made that Farabee has been the Flyers’ best forward. All of his points have come at even strength, tying him for the team lead with Sanheim, whose goal and three helpers on Friday all came with both teams at full strength. Farabee hasn’t gone more than two straight games without a point, while five of his six goals this season have been the Flyers’ first of the game, including Tuesday in San Jose when his third-period marker got them back into a game they would go on to lose, 2-1.
There’s more. Per colleague Dom Luszczyszyn’s model, Farabee’s +2.6 net rating (the Flyers’ goal differential because of him) is double Travis Konecny’s +1.3, also ranking him 16th among all NHL forwards. Further, Farabee’s 67.5 expected goals share per Evolving Hockey is five percentage points higher than any of his teammates and is 20th overall in the league.
“I feel really confident with the puck right now, and just with our system, I feel really comfortable,” Farabee said. “I think year two of (coach John Tortorella) has been good for me just knowing what he expects and how to prepare myself for games. I just feel like my preparation and all that stuff before the game is really dialed in. Once I get on the ice I’m just playing, and that’s when I play my best.”
That confidence showed early in the second period on Friday with the Flyers up 2-0. Farabee gathered in a short hand-off from Belpedio in the neutral zone, wheeled around, calmly brought the puck into the offensive zone, and fed a perfect pass through Ducks Pavel Mintyukov and Adam Henrique to a charging Belpedio who finished it off.
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“I think you can tell he’s growing as a player, as a person,” Sean Couturier said after the win. “He’s mentally strong. He’s putting up points and getting limited power play time. It’s nice to see him do well, and he’s a big part of our future.”
Health is playing a role in Farabee’s resurgence, too. Last year, Farabee’s summer training was interrupted by disc replacement surgery in June. He was able to play in all 82 games in 2022-23, but his 15 goals and 24 assists for 39 points was a disappointing total for a fourth-year player averaging more than 17 minutes a game mostly in the top six.
He stayed in Philadelphia this past summer, working with the team training staff.
“I think the biggest thing for me was just getting the strength back in my body. Once I got the surgery I had to retrain everything, especially my upper body,” Farabee said. “I was pretty weak. That was the hardest part for me, especially in-season, just maintaining that strength. It was really tough on me. I feel like I had a really good summer, (and) now my body is just in a lot better place to play every night.”
“Yeah, he’s stronger,” Tortorella said. “He’s playing better. I think sometimes when you go through the summer that he had versus this past summer, just the mental aspect of being ready to play is stronger for him.”
In other words, Farabee is a much different player both in body and mind than he was when he was playing for the Flyers in 2019-20, a little more than a year after they plucked him with the 14th overall pick in the 2018 draft. Even if that doesn’t feel that long ago.
“I’m in my fifth year here and it feels like I just started playing yesterday,” Farabee said.
Tortorella said late last month that he wanted to get Farabee more ice time, presumably as a reward for his strong start. He glaringly hasn’t been used all that much on the power play. Headed into Friday’s game with the Ducks, Farabee was averaging just 1:51 of power play time per game, 10th among Flyers forwards. He is part of one of two new units, though, stationed in front of the net as the Flyers desperately seek more effective play with a man advantage (they went 0-for-3 on Friday, and are now a combined 0-for-21 in the last six games.)
Tortorella has bemoaned that the Flyers have not regularly gotten to the front of the net or redirected any pucks for goals on the power play. So Farabee, who’s been credited with seven goals by tip or deflection in his career, is now getting that chance. He nearly scored a power-play goal on Friday in the first period on a rebound, but the puck jumped over his stick.
It’s been a while since Farabee has scored on a man advantage — more than two years, actually, when he got one against the Boston Bruins on Oct. 20, 2021. In 265 career games, Farabee has just five career power-play goals.
If he’s ever to become a 30-goal scorer in the NHL, whether that be this season or at some point in the future, that’s going to have to change. In his best goal-scoring campaign, the shortened season of 2020-21, he managed 20 goals in just 55 games — including three on the power play.
The way he’s trending one month into the season, hitting 30 doesn’t seem too far-fetched.
“Super proud of him with everything that went on last year and coming back from his injury,” Sanheim said. “Now he’s taking that step this season. … This is the Joel Farabee that everyone knows.”
(Photo of the Flyers’ Joel Farabee controlling the puck against the Ducks: Ashley Landis: Associated Press)