Future Flyers Report: Alex Lyon finds footing with Phantoms

Future Flyers Report: Alex Lyon finds footing with Phantoms

Last week featured more of the same uneven play for the Flyers, plus a message being sent to star defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere with a benching (see Weekly Observations).

Before this week begins, it's time for our weekly check-in on the Flyers’ prospects playing in the AHL, overseas and at the junior and college levels.

In this edition, we feature a rookie pro goalie finding his footing in Lehigh Valley, a winger who’s been called up a few times on fire in the AHL and more.

Alex Lyon, G, 6-1/201, Lehigh Valley Phantoms (AHL)
With Anthony Stolarz's call-up to the Flyers last Monday, Lyon was thrust into the starting role with the Phantoms until Stolarz returns when Michal Neuvirth is healthy. Not such a bad week, either, for the first-year pro. Lyon turned away 82 of 90 shots he faced last week, winning two of three games for the Phantoms, who saw their eight-game winning streak snapped in a 5-2 loss in Bridgeport on Saturday night.

On Wednesday, Lyon stopped 30 of 31 shots in the Phantoms’ 4-1 win over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, during which he turned away 13 shots in the final stanza. Afterward, Lyon said, via Highland Park Hockey’s Tim Riday, he’s “much more comfortable as a starter because I’ve spent the last 15 years of my life as a guy who’s played every single game.” Friday, he had a busier night with 33 of 36 saves in a 4-3 overtime win at Providence. Lyon let up two goals on 15 shots in the first period and one on 12 shots in the second but held off the Bruins for a combined nine shots in the third period and OT.

Lyon did give up four goals on 23 shots in Lehigh Valley’s 5-2 loss at Bridgeport on Saturday. Still, Lyon’s progression from his first few games until now is promising. Lyon said it’s easier for him when a team leans on him, and with Stolarz in the NHL, he’ll have his chance to prove that.

Taylor Leier, LW, 5-10/176, Lehigh Valley Phantoms (AHL)
Leier has already had a cup of coffee with the Flyers this season, albeit in a healthy scratch role. He was called up on Oct. 25 as insurance if Sean Couturier was forced to miss the Flyers’ game against Buffalo, but Couturier was able to play. He also received a call-up last season and played in six games with the Flyers, so he’s getting close. Before the season, assistant GM Chris Pryor said: "[Ron Hextall's] been saying patience, and Taylor is a perfect example of that. He has to grow as a pro and took a big step last year. He’s on the cusp from the AHL to playing in the NHL. Needs to get a little bigger.”

So how has Leier fared in his third pro season? Well, he had a big week last week with the Phantoms, registering four points in three games. On Friday, he had his third multi-point game of the season, and now has points in five of his last seven games. Overall, he has 10 assists, 14 points and 33 shots on goal in 15 games — an excellent start.

German Rubtsov, C, 6-0/190, Russian Knights (MHL)
Still no official word on whether Rubtsov will remain in North America. There was speculation the Flyers’ 2016 first-round pick would join Chicoutimi of the QMJHL after the CIBC Canada-Russia Series, which ended last Thursday. Last Monday, general manager Ron Hextall said as far as he knows, nothing has changed with Rubtsov.

The original plan was for the center to stay in Russia for two more years, as he is under contract with HC Vityaz. Chicoutimi owns his CHL rights. Chicoutimi GM Yanick Jean told the Courier-Post that the process to bring Rubtsov over from Russia began in the summer, and “there’s a desire from the kid to come overseas since the beginning.” The KHL contract remains the sticking point as to whether or not Rubtsov can come over.

Rubtsov was in North America for the Canada-Russia Series, playing in five of the six games for Russia during the series. The pivot had a two-goal game on Nov. 10 against Team OHL, but was held pointless in his four other games.

Carter Hart, G, 6-1/181, Everett (WHL)
If you have followed this report this season, you may have noticed Hart has been a mainstay each week, and rightfully so. The netminder continues to be a force in the WHL and continues to give Flyers fans hope they have another goalie to hang their hats on in the future — like Stolarz and Lyon. Last week was no different for the 2016 second-round pick.

Hart denied 70 of 75 shots he saw in three games for the Silvertips, with his best game of the week coming last Tuesday — 27 stops on 28 shots. Following up that effort, Hart surrendered two goals on 23 shots Wednesday in a 2-1 overtime loss to Kamloops, where he flashed some big-save ability late in the game. His .928 save percentage on the season remains atop the WHL’s leaderboards. Last season’s CHL Goaltender of the Year, Hart is playing himself into the conversation to win the award again this season.

Quick hits
• Lehigh Valley assigned forward Tyrell Goulbourne to its ECHL affiliate, Reading, last Wednesday. He had been a healthy scratch for most of the season with the Phantoms.

• Phantoms defenseman Travis Sanheim added two assists in three games, and now has eight assists in his first 15 professional games.

• Brynäs IF’s Oskar Lindblom is in a little bit of a slump, having gone three straight games without a point. Still, he’s tied for the team lead with 17 points in 19 games.

• Toros goalie Ivan Fedotov made his VHL debut last week, stopping 43 of 45 shots in two games.

• Piráti Chomutov’s David Kase remains out with an undisclosed injury. He hasn’t played in an Extraliga game since Oct. 30. He has seven points in 15 games this year.

• Rouyn-Noranda defenseman Philippe Myers had a huge game for the Huskies on Saturday night, recording two goals and an assist in an 8-3 win over Rimouski. He skated twice for Team QJMHL in the Canada-Russia series, but was pointless.

Samuel Dove-McFalls had another two-point week for Saint John’s, this time netting a goal and an assist on Friday in Sea Dogs’ 6-3 win over the Acadie-Bathurst Titan.

• Victoriaville’s Pascal Laberge remains out because of a concussion — hasn’t played since Oct. 15. Laberge was in Philly for the Flyers’ game Thursday against Winnipeg.

• Ohio State’s Tanner Laczynski continued his torrid start to his freshman campaign with back-to-back two-point games Friday and Saturday against Rensselaer. Laczynski now leads the Buckeyes with 18 points (5 goals, 13 assists) in 13 games.

• Another freshman Flyers prospect, Wade Allison, had solid week for Western Michigan with goals in back-to-back games against Air Force. Allison has six goals and nine points in 12 games this season for the Broncos.

Mark Friedman is heating up at Bowling Green. The junior defenseman had a three-assist game Saturday against Alabama-Huntsville and also picked up a helper Friday against the Chargers. He has six points during his current four-game point streak.

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.