Flyers

Buried by Flyers' depth, Jori Lehtera may soon finally crack lineup

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Buried by Flyers' depth, Jori Lehtera may soon finally crack lineup

On the first day he was officially a member of the Flyers, Jori Lehtera was literally pumped. So much so, the weight room warrior hit the gym that morning and slapped on a few extra plates on each side of the barbell.

“My wife woke me up and said, ‘Do you know we’re going to Philadelphia?’” Lehtera said Sept. 11, after the first day he skated with his new teammates in Voorhees, New Jersey.

"I said, 'That's good.' I went to the gym and had a little bit bigger weights than normal. It was good. I needed some change because my game wasn't that good there."

Lehtera was acquired by the Flyers from the Blues at the 2017 NHL draft in the Brayden Schenn trade. In the span of one year, Lehtera’s status has plunged from a top-line center on a playoff team to the 13th forward on a non-playoff team.

That’s not to say the Flyers have failed to recognize Lehtera’s skill set and utilize him effectively, he just didn’t show enough in the preseason to warrant playing time.

The fourth-highest paid forward on the Flyers’ roster has started the first six games of the season as a healthy scratch. Dave Hakstol has opted for the speedier Dale Weise, who’s earning roughly half of Lehtera, who has a $4.7 million cap hit for the next two seasons.

Lehtera's opportunity could come as early as Thursday against the Predators. Wayne Simmonds left Tuesday's game for precautionary reasons with a lower-body injury.

If Simmonds can't go — the Flyers will have an update on Simmonds Thursday — Lehtera is the next guy up as Hakstol would have to shuffle his lines.

“I’m still excited,” Lehtera said recently. “Camp wasn’t good. I wouldn’t say terrible, it was OK. I’m kind of still looking to find my spot. When I get my opportunity, I’m going to take my spot. Where it is, I don’t know.”

Lehtera bolted St. Louis, the city he spent his first NHL seasons, in a cloud of dust. His "Spirit of St. Louis" was completely sucked dry during his time there, as he finished the 2016-17 season with just seven goals and 22 points in 64 games.

“The whole season was a struggle,” Lehtera said. “I just couldn’t get everything out of myself. It wasn’t just a couple of things. It was a lot of big things, and a lot of small things together.”

Playing for Ken Hitchcock, who just passed Al Arbour for third on the NHL’s all-time wins list, has a way of wearing down a player’s psyche.

According to Hitchcock, who rejoined the Dallas Stars this summer after he was fired by the Blues back in February, Lehtera’s struggles were partly a result of centering the team’s top line with superstar winger Vladimir Tarasenko.

“First couple of years there was no attention being paid [to Lehtera]," Hitchcock said in the summer, "and last year, there was a lot of attention of being paid. He lost his confidence because he was in and out of the lineup, so the line wasn’t that effective. The line got special attention for the first time. Because of the way our lineup was built, we were really able to take advantage of matchups.”

Lehtera and Tarasenko developed a lethal chemistry as teammates for Novosibirsk in the KHL, but it didn’t translate to the smaller NHL rink, where time and space to operate with the puck are at a premium. Tarasenko’s reputation quickly earned the attention of the NHL opposition and its top defensive players.

“You saw that chemistry right away,” said Brian Elliott, a teammate of Lehtera’s for two seasons in St. Louis. “They were a dynamic duo and then they were split up, and I think he was looking for that guy to pass to and things like that.”

Compounding Lehtera’s struggles was a concussion he suffered that knocked him out of the lineup for several weeks in February. Once Lehtera returned, he was never quite the same, as he struggled with the speed of the game.

“We played him at wing after he came back from being injured, but his natural position is at center, and that’s where he played his best hockey,” Hitchcock said. “He’s a guy strong on the puck, good down-low player, he protects the puck well.” 

Interestingly for a guy listed at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds and lacking quickness, Lehtera would appear to be more suited at the wing position.

And the potential opportunity Thursday alone may have Lehtera pounding out a few more extra reps in the gym.

Why Nolan Patrick is such a power-play fit

Why Nolan Patrick is such a power-play fit

Replacing Wayne Simmonds on the power play may be one of the toughest assignments in the NHL.

After all, the guy is second to only Alex Ovechkin with 85 man-advantage goals since the 2011-12 season.

So when the predicament actually faced Dave Hakstol this week, the Flyers' head coach turned to … a 19-year-old rookie.

Why Nolan Patrick?

Three components of the decision stand out:

Intelligence factor
Leading up the NHL draft, the overwhelming strength of Patrick's scouting report was his hockey sense.

Those close to him, as well as draft experts, lauded Patrick for comprehending plays before they even happen and being above the ice in understanding spacing.

Those characteristics are crucial when having an extra man.

Patrick has two goals over two games filling in for the injured Simmonds on the Flyers' top power-play unit. Patrick exhibited his IQ with Thursday's game-winner, where he quickly planted himself right in front of the net, had the presence of mind to find the puck and then bury it past Sergei Bobrovsky.

"We told him, just stand in front, if you see a puck, bring it home," Shayne Gostisbehere said. "We tried to simplify it for him and he's going to take care of it himself, he's a great hockey player. It's paying off for him."

All about the touch
Patrick has excellent hands.

Put him around the net, and he'll know how to deflect pucks and find holes in a goalie. His vision, skill and finesse are why he's regarded as such an all-around playmaker.

In Tuesday's win, Patrick found immediate success with the first power-play group. Making his way to the middle, Patrick took a Claude Giroux pass and showed off that touch, adeptly going top shelf as Carey Price went low.

Studying Simmonds' net-front proficiency hasn't hurt, either.

"I watch him every game, he's unbelievable there and good at tipping pucks and making plays," Patrick said. "You learn from just watching every day."

Building up the kid
With time, Hakstol and the Flyers have allowed for Patrick to become comfortable instead of putting the world on his shoulders from the get-go.

That's part of Patrick's makeup.

"He almost always wants to be comfortable and then he really starts to exert himself," Patrick's uncle, James, said to NBC Sports Philadelphia last June

We're starting to see Patrick let loose.

As the Flyers have gradually upped his opportunity and responsibility, Patrick has eight points (five goals, three assists) in his last 12 games after putting up six (two goals, four assists) over his previous 34.

Placing Patrick among the team's best talent on the man advantage will only help with his confidence moving forward, in all situations.

The Flyers' power play entered Friday with the NHL's sixth-best percentage at 21.6.

It'll need more of Patrick — but the Flyers couldn't have asked for a much better start to life without Simmonds over the next two to three weeks.

Streaking Penguins move atop Metro Division

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Streaking Penguins move atop Metro Division

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin each had two goals and an assist and the Pittsburgh Penguins routed the Carolina Hurricanes 6-1 on Friday night for their season-best sixth straight victory.

Jake Guentzel had a goal and two assists, Sidney Crosby scored a late goal and Olli Maatta also scored. The Penguins took control with three goals -- two by Kessel -- in a 7:39 span in the second period.

Matt Murray made 27 saves for Pittsburgh, which has won 11 of 13 to overtake idle Washington for first place in the Metropolitan Division. Since the Penguins were shut out by Carolina on Jan. 4, they are 16-3-1.

They were just as busy off the ice, completing a mid-game trade in which they picked up center Derick Brassard from the Ottawa Senators. As part of the complicated three-team deal, they sent defenseman Ian Cole to Ottawa and forward Ryan Reaves to the Vegas Golden Knights.

Teuvo Teravainen scored and Cam Ward stopped 33 shots for the short-handed Hurricanes, who have gone 0-3-1 during a four-game slide that's keeping them outside the Eastern Conference playoff race (see full recap).

Wild dominate skidding Rangers for New York sweep
NEW YORK -- Mikael Granlund and Eric Staal each scored twice and Devan Dubnyk made 22 saves in the Minnesota Wild's 4-1 victory over the free-falling New York Rangers on Friday night.

The Wild completed a three-game sweep of New York-area teams after beating the Monday night and New Jersey on Thursday night.

The Rangers lost for the sixth straight time in regulation. New York is 6-17-0 since beating Buffalo in the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 (see full recap).

Blackhawks’ Berube dominant in 1st Chicago start
CHICAGO -- Jean-Francois Berube made 42 saves in his first start for Chicago to help the Blackhawks beat the San Jose Sharks 3-1 on Friday night.

Defenseman Jan Rutta, activated from injured reserve Friday, and Nick Schmaltz scored, and Artem Anisimov added an empty-netter with 30.5 seconds left.

Anthony Duclair had two assists for the Blackhawks. They won their second straight and third in four games following an eight-game losing streak that dropped them to last place in the Central Division.

Berube lost a bid for this first NHL shutout when Timo Meier scored his 15th goal on a screened shot with 7:51 left in the third period.

Martin Jones stopped 33 shots for the Sharks, coming off a 7-1 loss at Nashville on Thursday night (see full recap).