Flyers

Happy with rotation, Mason eager for next start

stevemason-slideshow-ap.jpg

Happy with rotation, Mason eager for next start

Ray Emery played a game. Then Steve Mason did. Then Emery played in another.

It’s finally Mason’s turn again tonight against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center. As far as he’s concerned, it’s about time.

Mason -- like Emery -- is content with the Flyers’ strict one-on, one-off preseason rotation, but definitely wants to spend more time in net before the team’s Oct. 2 opener.

“I think the same goes for anybody,” Mason said. “Whether it’s goalie, defense or forwards, you want to play as much as you can to make sure that, come puck drop on opening night, everything feels good.”

So far, Mason says, everything does feel good. While his in-game performances haven’t been perfect, Mason remains encouraged by how things have gone for him so far this September.

“Right now in practice, I feel really, really strong,” he said. “It’s just a matter of carrying that into the games. I’ve only played one and a half games right now, so I’ll utilize my next start and make sure that if I can get into another one as well, that I’ll make the most of it.”

The Flyers’ exhibition games have played out exactly as expected, with the team’s two netminders splitting time as close to 50-50 as is possible. Emery had the last start, a 2-1 loss Tuesday to the Devils at the Wells Fargo Center.

The Flyers’ goalie tandem, of course, has received plenty of attention through training camp. The team’s goalie strategy this season is arguably the NHL’s most radical (and certainly its least expensive), especially considering what their situation in net looked like this time last year.

“People are making such a big deal out of it,” Mason said. “Razor (Emery) and I are both competitive guys, we both want to play, and only one can play at a time. Regardless of who’s in the net, we want to be supportive of one another and for the team.

"If Razor wins his next start, it’s great, it’s good for our team. If I win my next, it’s great. We’re not going to put any negative spin on it. It’s nice having two guys that are hungry to play.”

What has been a challenge for Mason, though, is getting accustomed to the Flyers’ current defense. When he came to the team last spring, its blue line was in bad shape. The Flyers went through 13 D-men in just 48 games in 2013, with Mason never having had a chance to play behind some key members of the defense while learning how to play with some who likely won't suit up in orange and black at all this season.

There's been a definite learning curve for him this preseason.

“You find that in the first couple games of preseason that you’re playing with guys that you’ve never played with before,” he said. “And trying to figure that out -- it’s such a short period of time. … Because when I did get here last year, key guys were out with injuries. So now that they’re all back and healthy, we really have to make sure that we’re taking advantage of this time.”

The Flyers enter this season with no clear-cut No. 1 goalie, the first time in years the position has been free for the taking. For Mason, and for Emery too, that helps feed the already-present competition. But plenty of analysts, still, lack faith in the Flyers' setup.

And like the team's current goalie rotation, that, too, is OK with Mason.

“Everybody’s entitled to their opinion,” he said. “I’m not sure where they’re having Razor and myself ranked, but if it’s a low position, it would be a great feeling when you get to prove them wrong.”

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.