Flyers

Ron Hextall talks Claude Giroux's move to LW, Oskar Lindblom's disappointing start

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NBC Sports Philadelphia

Ron Hextall talks Claude Giroux's move to LW, Oskar Lindblom's disappointing start

VOORHEES, N.J. — With the Flyers off to a hot 4-2 start, there’s a lot to like about the team. There's been the resurgence of Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek and the immediate impact of rookies like Nolan Patrick and Robert Hagg.

It’s all part of general manager Ron Hextall’s plan, and through six games, it seems to be working.

After Thursday’s morning skate, Hextall spoke at length about the team’s success, the development of the rookies and what to make of Sam Morin and Oskar Lindblom — two young players penciled into the lineup at the start of camp who failed to make the final cut.

Here’s what Hextall had to say about the state of the team:

Giroux's success at left wing
Having an abundance of quality centers forced the Flyers to move one to the wing. And Giroux seemed to be the top option because of his playmaking ability. So far, so good as Giroux is tied for third on the team with nine points (four goals, five assists). 

“It’s pretty obvious that we’d be happy (with Giroux’s success),” Hextall said. “When you’re a smart player, you can play all three forward positions. But G’s a smart player. He has skill, he sees the ice well, he’s gritty, he’s smart with the puck. He’s got all the attributes that he can play all three positions and obviously, that’s a valuable guy because we’re a little loaded up in the middle this year. And then you go, ‘OK, who do we want to move? Who can move? Who’s the best fit?’ There’s a lot of things that go into a decision like that and quite frankly, G had never played left wing in all his life and all of a sudden he’s playing left wing and he’s made a real quick transition. So it’s a credit to him first of all for his buy-in. There was no ‘I want to play the middle’ stuff. Second of all, he’s worked at it and set his mind to it so credit to G.”

Sean Couturier’s hot start
Couturier has long been maligned for his offensive abilities, but the scoring has always been there somewhere. He was the eighth-overall pick in 2011 and scored 96 points in each of his final two seasons in junior. Now that he is finally playing with talent, like Giroux and Voracek — what an upgrade over Dale Weise and Matt Read — Couturier is starting to reach his potential with four goals and three assists this season.

“You never know until you try it, whether it’s going to work, but just the vision and the thought of it, you say, ‘Hey, you’ve got a real stable guy in the middle with two guys on the wings that love to make plays,” Hextall said of the top line. “It’s not like Coots is a poor offensive player. He’s a good offensive player. He’s been in different roles over the years and some of his role hasn’t changed. He’s going to match up against top players, which he’s very good at. Now he’s got two dynamic players on his wings and again, he’s a stabilizer in the middle. So far, so good.”

Balanced lines
Perhaps the biggest upgrade over last year’s club is the depth. The Flyers can now roll four potent, speedy lines to compete with almost any team. Give credit to Hextall for addressing the team’s biggest need by getting rid of guys like Read and Chris Vandevelde and allowing the young guns to come up.

“It helps a lot,” Hextall said of the balanced lines. “There were points last year where — in terms of matchups — we had to be very fine in terms of who you’re going to matchup against another team’s top line or even their second line. Now, I think we all feel comfortable whoever’s out there is not going to get buried by whatever line and that’s a good feeling for obviously the coaches and us, but the players as well. We can put anybody out there on the road and we don’t choose the matchups and feel some comfort.”

Nolan Patrick
One of the reasons Giroux had to make the move to wing was the Flyers’ drafting of Nolan Patrick No. 2 overall. Playing on the third line with Dale Weise and Travis Konecny, Patrick has shown his two-way prowess and oh yeah, he can make plays like this.

“I think he’s been good. I think he’s been real solid, all three zones. I think some people, you expect too much — second overall and all this hype and everything else,” Hextall said. “This is the NHL. And it’s a huge step so I think he’s done a good job for us. He plays a very poised game, he’s not an erratic player, very methodical in his thinking and predictable in a good way. He makes the right reads, the right plays, he’s typically in the right part of the ice. It comes down to maturity, but it also comes down to hockey sense.”

Benching Travis Sanheim
Sick of seeing Sanheim in the press box? You’ll get your chance to see him against the Predators on Thursday, as he rejoins the lineup after watching the past two games. Sanheim has played in three of the Flyers’ six games, but don’t worry, he’s going to play this year, but how short is his leash? Are Hextall and head coach Dave Hakstol on the same page with benching young players?

“I think it’s not going to continue, he’s not going to sit on the bench and continue here for long-term, things are going to change so that’s something that I said at the start of the year,” Hextall said. “I don’t believe in young players sitting, nor having a really small role. … But Travis has played well for us and we’ll see where it goes and we’ll evaluate on a day-to-day basis."

Last season, defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere and rookie winger Travis Konecny each served multiple stints in the press box for poor defensive play. Hextall didn’t seem to mind.

“People made a big deal when a couple young players last year were sat out and those young players have shown an awful lot of growth this year. With the little things that they help along the way, to realize that you know what, ‘I don’t have a secure spot in the lineup, necessarily for 82 games. I gotta be on the edge, I gotta work out, I gotta play well every night.’ There’s little messages that come out of things like that, which is why a young player — I’m not opposed to a young player sitting, especially for development reasons. Sometimes it just needs to happen an that’s not the case with Travis, but along the way, it is so a young player sits out the odd game. There’s things they learn, they realize that, ‘You know what, I can’t be complacent, I can’t do this, I can’t do that.’ You learn lessons in life and again, I don’t want you players sitting out a lot and certainly not for the wrong reasons. I mean, if they’re making that many mistakes they’re not going to be here.”

Is Lindblom sulking in the minors?
Lindblom, a fifth-round pick in 2014, had such an impressive 2016-17 playing in Sweden’s top league that many penciled him in as a lock to make the team this year. But after an uninspiring training camp, Lindblom was sent to the Phantoms, where he is off to a slow start this season. Hextall doesn’t seem worried, though. 

“Big Sam (Morin) was real good, Philippe (Myers) was real good, Oskar did some good things, probably not quite at the level that we want him to get to or that he’s hoping to get to, but he was fine. Those kids are doing well.

“Training camp, it was pretty obvious that, not early but as we got along, that he wasn’t quite ready for this level. That’s OK. He didn’t fail. Oskar is going to be a good player. We like Oskar as much as we did a month ago, two months ago, three months ago. Yeah, he comes in, you say, 'OK, well he’s gonna be one of the guys we look at here’ and he’s just not ready for it. And that’s OK. It’s not a setback. It’s nothing. It’s like, ‘OK, Oskar, go down, play hard’ — and he’s playing hard. … Is he to the level that he can play? No, he’s not but that’s going to come. He’s a young kid, he’s a young player, he’s adjusting to life, the pressure. Everybody’s talking about him, he comes here, there’s all this hype on him. It’s unfair, quite frankly what the expectations that some of these kids come in with.”

It's time to give Dave Hakstol credit

It's time to give Dave Hakstol credit

It wasn't long ago when some fans filled the Wells Fargo Center with chants to fire Dave Hakstol.

Back on Nov. 28, the displeasure was bubbling amid a confounding 10-game losing streak. The Flyers were wrapping up a 3-1 defeat to the Sharks as the skid apathetically hit nine.

That's when the boo birds came out in full flock.

The scene, so ugly, forced Ron Hextall into the Flyers' dressing room postgame to deliver what felt like a state of the union address in front of cameras and recorders. Over the next handful of days, on multiple occasions, the general manager had to defend his head coach's job security, and at times vehemently.

Oh, how things have changed.

Since Dec. 4, when the free fall was halted, the Flyers have gone 23-8-3 with 49 points, third most in the NHL behind only the Bruins and Golden Knights. Hakstol's bunch has climbed into playoff position, sitting in third place of the Metropolitan Division and only three games behind the first-place Capitals. 

When the losing streak was at its worst, the Flyers were in dead last of the eight-team Metro. At the time, things looked troubling.

But give credit where credit is due. 

Hakstol deserves plenty of it this season, especially for his constant maneuvering of personnel, which has proved wise time and time again.

First, it was shifting Claude Giroux from center to left wing during training camp. That was not an easy decision when asking a player as decorated as Giroux, on the verge of turning 30, to make a position change. The result has been a career resurgence for the Flyers' captain. After 58 points (14 goals, 44 assists) and a minus-15 rating in 82 games last season, Giroux has 70 points (20 goals, 50 assists), tied for the NHL's second most, and a plus-15 mark through 60 games this season.

Not only has the move behooved Giroux, but it has also allowed for Sean Couturier's anticipated breakout. With Hakstol entrusting the 25-year-old to be his first-line center, the do-it-all Couturier is blossoming into the team's most valuable player, already shattering his career highs in goals (29), assists (31) and points (60).

This was all before the curtain even opened for the 2017-18 season.

To date, Hakstol's adjustments have only continued throughout the season — and they've worked. 

Despite topflight production early from his first line of Giroux, Couturier and Jakub Voracek, the Flyers struggled, so the third-year coach broke up the trio in order for more balance within the forwards group.

The split created room for Travis Konecny to eventually make his way onto the top unit — and so far, so good would be an understatement. The 20-year-old has discovered his first-round potential with 24 points (11 goals, 13 assists) in as many games since Dec. 28, a stretch in which the Flyers are 16-6-2.

To squeeze out even more ability, Hakstol has plugged in Konecny on the first 3-on-3 overtime grouping. In their last six games decided in OT, the Flyers are 6-0.

Meanwhile, Voracek hasn't missed a beat since joining the second line as he leads the league in assists with 55, the defensive pairing of Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere has paid dividends, while the team is currently riding a historic stretch of discipline

And, most recently, the important choice of filling Wayne Simmonds' first-unit power-play role saw immediate results. Hakstol on Tuesday used No. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick, who wasted little time rewarding his coach with a man-advantage goal on the team's first chance.

"Hak, first of all, is a very good coach," Hextall reaffirmed on Nov. 29. "He's as hard a working person as I've ever seen in the game.

"We're a young team, we have a lot of young kids coming and we're going to get better. We're going to play better than we're currently playing."

Hextall may be the most prudent general manager in the game.

He sure wasn't about to overreact 26 games into a season — and you can see why that's not his nature. What Hextall adamantly believed is what has transpired — the Flyers are improving under Hakstol.

There's no denying that. 

They were 8-11-7 and scoring 2.69 goals per game with a minus-9 differential (79-70) when the losing streak was at 10. They've been one of hockey's best teams since then with 3.24 goals per game and a plus-20 differential (110-90).

Look at the broader picture: Through 60 games last season, the Flyers were 28-25-7 with 63 points and a minus-29 goal differential (179-150). This season, at the same juncture, the Flyers are 31-19-10 with 72 points and a plus-11 goal differential (180-169).

With two new goalies and no Simmonds (upper-body injury) for two to three weeks, Hakstol has bigger decisions ahead, ones he'll have to get right with a postseason berth in the balance.

But he's already done a lot right — and it's time he gets a little credit for it.

Vegas feeling golden after moving atop NHL standings

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USA Today Images

Vegas feeling golden after moving atop NHL standings

LAS VEGAS -- Alex Tuch scored the tiebreaking goal in the second period and the Vegas Golden Knights pulled away for a 7-3 victory over the Calgary Flames on Wednesday night.

With the win, the Golden Knights moved back atop the NHL standings with 84 points -- one ahead of Eastern Conference-leading Tampa Bay.

Ryan Carpenter, William Karlsson, Reilly Smith, Luca Sbisa, Erik Haula and Cody Eakin also scored for Vegas, which improved to 23-4-2 at home to set the record for home wins by a team in its inaugural season. It topped the previous mark set by the Gordie Howe-lead 1979-80 Whalers (22-12-6).

Tuch also had an assist and his first fight of the season, giving him the so-called Gordie Howe hat trick.

Marc-Andre Fleury, starting his ninth straight game, made 28 saves for the Golden Knights.

TJ Brodie, Dougie Hamilton and Matthew Tkachuk scored for Calgary, which was 8-2-1 in its previous 11 road games. David Rittich finished with 19 saves (see full recap).

Blackhawks need lengthy shootout for win over Sens 
CHICAGO -- Nick Schmaltz scored the deciding goal in the seventh round of the shootout to give Chicago a 3-2 win over the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday night, just the Blackhawks' second victory in 11 games.

Schmaltz fired a wrist shot between the legs of Mike Condon after Patrick Kane and rookie Alex DeBrincat connected earlier in the tiebreaker. Matt Duchene and Mike Hoffman scored in the shootout for the Senators, who lost their second straight.

Kane scored his team-leading 23rd goal and set up Artem Anisimov's 16th in regulation for theBlackhawks. Anton Forsberg stopped 32 shots through overtime and five of seven in the shootout, including final stop on Mark Stone.

Duchene and Zack Smith scored for the Senators in regulation, Stone had two assists, and Condon finished with 36 saves through overtime.

Chicago's Joel Quenneville coached his 1,600th NHL game. Only Scotty Bowman and Al Arbour have coached more.

The Senators and last-place Blackhawks, two teams well out of playoff contention heading into the NHL's trade deadline on Monday, both played their first of three games in four nights (see full recap).

Miller helps streaking Ducks blank Stars
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Ryan Miller couldn't help but crack a smile when remembering the mess the Anaheim Ducks found themselves in.

After two Ducks players put the puck over the glass on back-to-back plays while already on the penalty kill in the third period, Miller just dug in and helped drag Anaheim to its longest winning streak of the season.

Miller stopped 41 shots for his 42nd career shutout as the Ducks beat the Dallas Stars 2-0 Wednesday night for their fourth straight win.

"We can laugh about it now, but when you watch those two float out of the rink you get a little anxious," said Miller, who picked up his third shutout of the season.

Ryan Getzlaf scored short-handed and Hampus Lindholm had a power-play goal for the Ducks, who took sole possession of third place in the Pacific Division.

It was the Ducks' second straight shutout, after Miller came on for the third period in relief of an injured John Gibson in a 2-0 win at Vegas on Monday (see full recap).