Dave Hakstol: 'Not the plan right now' for Mike Vecchione to play this weekend

Dave Hakstol: 'Not the plan right now' for Mike Vecchione to play this weekend

The Flyers signed Mike Vecchione, Shayne Gostisbehere's old teammate at Union College, Friday to a one-year contract worth $925,000 (see story.)

After signing his contract, Vecchione said he gave his parents a big hug filled with tears of joy.

"It's been a long time coming, you wait your whole life for this," he said after Saturday's morning skate at the Wells Fargo Center.

But Vecchione won't be on the ice with his former teammate yet. The 24-year-old center hasn't skated in a week and will not be in the lineup Saturday night against the Devils (see game notes). It's unclear when he'll get into the lineup. Saturday was his first practice with the team.

Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said Vecchione won't play Sunday against the New York Rangers, either.

"There's always a chance but that's not the plan right now," Hakstol said. "He's gotta practice, he's got to get a little bit of time in, give us an opportunity to get to know him a little bit better, give him an opportunity to get settled in a little bit."

Vecchione said he wants to be a "sponge" in the upcoming days and learn the system, talk to the coach and figure out what role he'll be playing.

Since he doesn't have a place in Philadelphia, Vecchione has been staying at Gostisbehere's spot.

When asked if he was paying rent or doing dishes to stay with Gostisbehere, he said he's thankful Ghost took him in.

"We haven't worked out the logistics of things," Vecchione said with a smirk on his face. "We'll see what happens. I'm only going to be here a couple of weeks, so I'll try to keep it clean over at his house."

Livin' on a prayer
The Flyers are hanging on by a limb in the NHL playoff race.

They currently sit six points out of the Eastern Conference's final wild-card spot, and every game has turned into a must-win scenario.

But Hakstol doesn't think there's anything different about this game.

"We've been in the same mode," Hakstol said. "I think our focus is on exactly what it's been -- taking care of our own backyard, taking care of our own business, and that's what we've done. And that's the opportunity that we have again today. It's no different today than it was two days ago or a week ago."

For Hakstol's sake, he better hope his guys are in the same mode they were Thursday night when they unloaded six goals against the New York Islanders on 30 shots.

If the Flyers lose in regulation against the Devils on Saturday, the Bruins beat the Panthers and the Maple Leafs pick up at least one point against the Red Wings, the Flyers are eliminated from the playoffs.

Michal Neuvirth will get the start over Steve Mason on Saturday against the Devils. Neuvirth has better career numbers against the Devils (6-3-5, 2.23 GAA) compared to Mason's (0-9-0, 3.93 GAA) record.

But Hakstol claimed that wasn't the reason Neuvirth will be starting.

"There's a lot of factors, the biggest factor is the back to back," Hakstol said. "Neuvy has a had a great week here in terms of practice and readiness, so we felt like this is the start that Neuvy will get it and Mason will go tomorrow."

Next man up
With Matt Read out for the rest of the season with a broken right arm, Colin McDonald has been called up from the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.

At the age of 32, McDonald isn't new to the NHL by any means. He's played for four different teams in the NHL and a total of 145 games, including five with the Flyers last season.

"You're waiting a long time and you're just really excited to get this opportunity as the year goes on," McDonald said. "You kind of start doubting if you're going to get a chance and sure enough, here it is. I'm excited to go out and do that."

McDonald was also called up during last season's playoff run with the Flyers, so he knows what to expect heading into the final games of the season. In three playoff games against the Washington Capitals last season, he took four shots and had 13 hits.

"The fact that they called me up in the middle of their playoff run last year and stepped right in, I think they know I can step into a similar situation," McDonald said. "And maybe that's part of the reason why they called me up, even though I haven't been here all year, they felt confident that I'm going to be able to do my job, so that's my mindset."

Projected Flyers Lineup
F: Travis Konecny-Claude Giroux-Jakub Voracek

Jordan Weal-Valtteri Filppula-Wayne Simmonds

Dale Weise-Sean Couturier-Brayden Schenn

Chris VandeVelde-Pierre-Edouard Bellemare-Colin McDonald

D: Ivan Provorov-Andrew MacDonald

Micheal Del Zotto-Shayne Gostisbehere

Brandon Manning-Radko Gudas

G: Michal Neuvirth

At this point, Brandon Manning appears to have advantage over Travis Sanheim

At this point, Brandon Manning appears to have advantage over Travis Sanheim

VOORHEES, N.J. — Brandon Manning won’t have to wait another 10 days for his shot in the lineup.

Manning was paired with Radko Gudas during Monday’s practice while Travis Sanheim put in extra work, suggesting that Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol will lean on the Manning-Gudas combination as his third pairing for Tuesday’s game against the visiting Florida Panthers.  

“To be honest, I think I have good chemistry with both guys, “Gudas said. “Playing with Manning, I’m a little more used to it. We played together for awhile the last two years. It’s a little more that we know each other already. And with Travis, he’s getting better every game he plays. It was fun playing with him and we’re getting used to each other.”

Manning started the season as the sixth defenseman in San Jose and was surprised his number wasn’t called again until the home opener this past Saturday.

“You start off the first game of the season and you pick up the win. To come out of the lineup is obviously tough,” Manning said. “I understand the situation. I understand the direction the team’s going, the value of the young kids and their development. You look at the Washington game and it’s a bit of a blowout. But after sitting around for 10 days, I felt pretty good out there. It’s a home opener, so it’s an easy game to get up for.”

Manning can see the writing on the wall. Sanheim, Robert Hagg and Samuel Morin are the future of the Flyers' defense. On a handful of other teams, including the Capitals team the Flyers demolished on Saturday, around the league, Manning would be a mainstay on the blue line.

The numbers back up Hakstol’s thought process. Through the first five games this season, the Flyers are 2-0 with a plus-8 goal differential with Manning in the lineup, compared to the games Sanheim has played in which the Flyers are 1-2 and a minus-2 differential. With Sanheim, the Flyers' even-strength save percentage is 73.3 percent (last on the team) compared to that of Manning’s 88.9 percent, which is currently ranked fifth out of the seven Flyers defensemen.

“I think Travis has played well,” Hakstol said. “I think his play in games and his practices have been good. We're trying to build our lineup each night to what we think gives us the best opportunity to win that night. Travis' play has been good and I’ve been very happy with his performance.”

It's not unexpected that Manning has served as the Flyers' steadier option in the opening month as Sanheim continues to acclimate himself to the NHL game, which has come at a different speed than the level of play during the preseason.

“That’s part of being professional,” Manning said. “That’s something I’ve learned in my couple of years here in the NHL. The situations I’ve been in, I think it’s all about how you react and how you handle them. You can sit there and be pissed off about it, but at the end of the day, there’s going to be decisions that [GM Ron Hextall] and Hak make that you can’t control. What you can control is how hard you work in practice and how well you play, and you prepare for those situations you’re going to be in.”

It’s a unique paradox right now. The Flyers need wins and Sanheim needs to play. At some point this season, everyone’s needs will be met.

Flyers finding their top-line center and 'Answer' in Sean Couturier

Flyers finding their top-line center and 'Answer' in Sean Couturier

VOORHEES, N.J. — Can Philadelphia accept two Answers?

The nickname so passionately attached to superstar Hall of Famer Allen Iverson, who had a bulldog tattooed on his left arm with “The Answer” inscription above it, has now been adopted by the Flyers for their top-line center Sean Couturier, but for far different reasons.

“We call him ‘The Answer’ because we feel he always has the answer for whatever you say,” linemate Jakub Voracek said. “We just make fun of him a lot.”

While players and media members were digging for the answer to a certain trivia question following Monday’s practice, Claude Giroux looked around for Couturier’s “wisdom” since, as the captain jokingly put it, “he knows everything,” including all the rules to whatever games the team play on road trips.

However, if the question posed coming into this season was about how to get Voracek and Giroux back to playing at an elite level again, especially at even strength? Well, Couturier has been that answer.

“One hundred percent, 100 percent,” Voracek said. “He’s a very responsible guy that plays very good on both sides of the puck and it shows. He creates more space for me and 'G' to go in the offense and that’s what we’ve been doing.”

Saturday against the Capitals, the line of Giroux-Couturier-Voracek resembled something from the Legion of Doom era. After a pair of lackluster shifts to begin the game, the trio quickly shifted into overdrive and took over the game as it combined for four goals, six assists and a plus-10 rating against the top-ranked defensive team from last season.

Couturier scored twice against the Caps, including the game's opening tally, when he finished off a slick passing play between him, Voracek and Giroux by slamming home a rebound. He now has three goals and three assists on the young season through five games with his new linemates.

“I think they can bring a lot to my game and I can bring something to their game,” Couturier said. “So far, it’s been working pretty good. I think we still can get better — have more of a shooting mentality. My minutes aren’t changing. The quality of players I’m playing with are. Playing with two great guys, two great players.”

If the organizational philosophy was to establish a better 5-on-5, even-strength presence by inserting Couturier as the top-line center, then the Flyers came to the right place. In the last 24 games he's played dating back to last season, Couturier has eight goals and 15 assists for 23 points. Couturier is a whopping plus-27 over his last 26 games dating back to Feb. 28 of last season. Not only does he lead the NHL by a wide margin, but as the chart suggests, no one else is even close to Couturier's dominance:

Plus/minus leaders since Feb. 28

1. Sean Couturier (PHI) +27
2. Jaden Schwartz (STL) +15
2. David Savard (CBJ)
2. Brett Pesce (CAR)
5. Five players at +14

“It’s nice. I try to take pride in being a solid 200-foot player,” Couturier said. “I’m reliable defensively and offensively I can produce and help out, and so far, it’s been clicking. As much as they can bring a lot to me, I think I can bring a lot to their 5-on-5 game here.”

In a game where speed, skill and shot-creating ability are the dominant traits for a top-line center, Couturier is unique in that he doesn’t possess those exceptional attributes. He’s in sound position, defensively responsible and, when provided with skilled wingers, can generate occasional offense as a result of strong puck possession. If you’re looking for another No. 1 center with a similar game, then perhaps Carolina’s Jordan Staal would serve as Couturier’s closest comparison.

In the two-plus seasons he’s been in Philadelphia, head coach Dave Hakstol has seen steady improvement out of Couturier.

“I think he just continues to grow as a player,” Hakstol said. “He’s got a lot of games played in the league, no question, so he’s very much a veteran in that sense. I think he’s continued to improve his faceoffs. That’s one area where I think he’s continued to improve and has done a very good job, and I know he’s hungry offensively.”    

From the moment Couturier was drafted eighth overall in 2011 following back-to-back 96-point seasons with an average of nearly 40 goals a year in the QMJHL, the Flyers anticipated having a bona-fide goal-scorer on their hands for years to come. However, those numbers should have been locked up in a time capsule and buried in the bowels of the Wells Fargo Center because Couturier was never asked to be that type of player.

Until Nolan Patrick arrived on the scene, Couturier was the last Flyer to earn a spot on the team in the same year he was drafted. Like most 18-year-olds who show up for boot camp, Couturier never questioned his assignments and took whatever duties and responsibilities he was given with an understood, “Sir, yes sir” approach, but in the back of his mind, he was always capable of so much more.

“I always believed I could produce offensively at this level, but it was more just the situations I was put in I think,” said Couturier, who began his NHL career as a fourth-line checking center. “Coming into the league, there wasn’t much room for me in the top six or top nine. I was taking whatever role I could to help the team and I think I did pretty good in a shutdown role.

“It did get pretty frustrating at times. People see you as a shutdown guy. That can be most frustrating at times. I don’t want to complain about ice time and stuff, but like I say, it’s always been the situation I’ve been put in.”

Now Couturier finds himself in a situation even Philadelphia’s original “Answer” could envy.

The opportunity to score more working alongside a very high-caliber supporting cast.