Flyers Weekly Observations: Debuts and possible Philly swan songs

Flyers Weekly Observations: Debuts and possible Philly swan songs

This is it -- the final Flyers Weekly Observations column of the season.

Queue the sad intro music.

But this last go-round does leave us with plenty to chat about, as the Flyers played three eventful games this past week. They fell to the New York Rangers, 4-3, last Sunday at MSG, dropped a 1-0 overtime decision to the New Jersey Devils in Newark on Tuesday and rebounded with a strong 4-2 win over the visiting Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday afternoon.

Let's take a closer look at the week that was for the Flyers.

• Everybody loves talking about the prospects, especially now that the playoff hunt is over, so let's start there. I thought Sam Morin was very solid Tuesday in New Jersey during his debut. He was just getting his feet wet in the first period and it showed, as he was forced to rush a few plays and then absorbed a couple hits. And that's what you would expect early on from a 21-year-old rookie in his debut. During his first intermission interview with Chris Therien, he readily admitted the game was way faster than anything he experienced at the AHL level. But Morin settled in nicely. You have to like the way he used his size to deny puck carriers and rushes at the blue line. To me, the best play he made was when he denied Taylor Hall a clean breakaway in the second period. Hall can turn on the burners with the best of them, but Morin used his speed to get back and disrupt Hall, not allowing the Devils' star to get off a clean shot. Quite impressive. He almost scored himself when he ripped a one-timer from the slot in the second period, but Jersey goalie Keith Kinkaid had the answer. All in all, a nice showing from Morin to whet the appetite of Flyers fans.

• Say what you want about Steve Mason, but you can't deny these numbers -- 103 wins in 230 games as a Flyer, both third-most in team history in the respective categories behind just Bernie Parent and Ron Hextall. Saturday marked his 200th NHL win, a pretty impressive milestone. Yes, consistency has been an issue over the years, but he's been a pretty damn good goalie in a city that's been starved for one. Remember when he carried the Flyers on his back to the playoffs at the end of last season? That may have been the best stretch of his 10-year career. His honesty in the locker room after games is always refreshing, too. If Saturday's win was indeed his swan song in Philadelphia, Mason left his mark here. Of course, the Flyers' goalie situation is still very much unsettled heading into the summer.

• Another week, another Travis Konecny benching to talk about. After taking a bad tripping penalty in the first period Tuesday against New Jersey, the 20-year-old rookie was benched by Dave Hakstol for the entire second period. I get the need to teach lessons in development, but what is this proving anymore? These are important minutes for Konecny as he continues to grow into a possible prime scoring role next year. It's only natural for a kid to keep thinking about this kind of stuff. I like what Flyers Insider Tim Panaccio said last week when he wrote about Konecny: "Both Konecny and Shayne Gostisbehere were Hakstol's poster boys for discipline this season while certain veterans, who committed far more egregious errors, or simply disappeared for games on end, skated off without discipline. No benchings, no cut in ice time." Straight to the point.

• What is it about Kinkaid that makes him like kryptonite to the Flyers? This year against the Flyers, Kinkaid is 3-0-0 with a 1.00 goals-against average, a .967 save percentage and a shutout. Against everyone else, he's got a 5-13-3 record. He's been a red-and-black brick wall against the Flyers this year.

• Valtteri Filppula's shuffle with the puck to end Sunday's playoff-eliminating loss to the Rangers definitely looked odd. But his explanation afterward did make some sense. The Rangers had a wall set up in front of him and he didn't want to just fire into it and have the rejected puck bounce right back to him. That would have been useless and would have wasted even more time. He was just trying to make a play rather than waste time or turn it over. Another thing about that deflating loss at The Garden -- give the Flyers some credit there. They were down 4-1 and could have just rolled over. They fought to the bitter end and brought the house. The Rangers were just better.

• Good to see the refs overturn the goalie interference call on Sean Couturier Saturday after a video review and rightfully give Michael Del Zotto his goal. That one would have been just brutal to not have. Seth Jones, not Couturier, clipped Sergei Bobrovsky. Earlier in the year, the Flyers had a similar goal taken away in Columbus when it was determined Michael Raffl clipped Bobrovsky and it proved costly in that game.

• See the way Ivan Provorov delayed slightly, repositioned the puck to change the angle and then fired away on that second-period goal Saturday against the Jackets? It may not seem like a lot, but that is such a skillful move that can totally throw off both defenders and goaltenders. And the 20-year-old Barry Ashbee Trophy winner makes it look so easy. The goal was eventually given to Couturier Sunday as the puck nicked off Couturier's sweater before going in, but the point stands.

• One final observation -- thanks for reading these all season. The goal with these isn't to force you to agree or disagree with me or shove my viewpoint down your throat. And the goal isn't to just regurgitate stats as anyone can read a stat sheet and do that. The goal is twofold -- to generate compelling conversation about the Flyers and to try and give context and perspective to the things you see and why they're happening. So that's what I try to do here and I appreciate you reading along. There's no more Flyers hockey this season, but, hey, at least the weather is nicer out.

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.