Flyers

Michael Raffl, Matt Read healthy and in shape, looking for rebound seasons

usa-michael-raffl-german-rubtsov-matt-read.jpg
USA Today Images

Michael Raffl, Matt Read healthy and in shape, looking for rebound seasons

VOORHEES, N.J. — Their 20-goal seasons seem like an eternity ago, and now Matt Read and Michael Raffl are spending this year’s training camp trying to prove themselves all over again.

“A little bit, yeah,” Read said recently. “I try and tell myself every day to be the hardest-working guy out there, and move your feet as much as you can, win puck battles and the other things will come as we go. Just try and be in a lot better shape than I was, not that I was in bad shape, but just try and play a full game and every shift at a high pace. Just keep working hard and hopefully, things can turn around, opportunities will come, and you just got to bear down on them.

“You've got to have something inside you that drives you through the summer,” Raffl said. “You've got to have a goal in mind. I want to come to camp and be the fittest guy in here. That’s all I can do in terms of how I prepare, especially with last season and all the injuries. I don’t want another year like that.”

From the day Read arrived in 2011, he seized his opportunities by utilizing his speed and relying on his hardest-working-guy attitude. His 24 goals led all rookies and he finished fourth in Calder Trophy voting behind Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog, Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and New Jersey’s Adam Henrique as the league’s top rookie. Read was considered one of the Flyers' most productive even-strength forwards. You may be surprised to know, but during that stretch (2011-14), only Claude Giroux’s 49 and Jakub Voracek’s 47 even-strength goals topped Read’s three-year total of 46. 

Read was rewarded with a four-year, $14.5 million contract and he hasn’t been the same since suffering a high ankle sprain just a month into that new deal. Once the injury became publicized, every time Read went through a scoring drought, questions regarding the ankle would resurface, and yet, he never missed any significant time playing through pain.    

Two years after Read burst onto the scene, Raffl followed suit, earning a roster spot with the Flyers straight out of camp as another undrafted rookie. Raffl’s transition to the NHL was not nearly as impactful as Read’s, as he scored nine goals to go along with 22 points in his rookie season. However, Raffl found his niche during his sophomore season, scoring a career-high 21 goals playing on a line with Giroux and Voracek. The big-bodied Raffl quickly understood that to keep up with highly-skilled players, the best thing to do was crash the net and good things would happen. Like Read, Raffl also benefitted financially by inking a three-year, $7 million extension.

However, last season was Raffl’s worst in orange and black. He never felt right battling through an upper-body injury during the first month of the season and then missing the final six weeks after suffering an MCL sprain.

“I was banged up all the way through,” Raffl said. ”I had a long summer and a lot of time to work on some stuff. I feel fantastic out there right now.”

Both guys felt better when their cellphones went silent back in June as Vegas was composing its expansion roster. And even though Read and Raffl were left exposed, the Golden Knights selected Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. Raffl clearly had no ambitions of continuing his career in Nevada.

"I like it here, I like where I’m at. I love Philadelphia,” Raffl said. “This is where I’ve signed for three years. I want to be here.” 

Read, on the other hand, had a more realistic and philosophical approach to the situation.

“It’s completely out of your hands,” Read said. “If it happened, it happened. If it doesn’t, you just come back to camp here and get ready for the season. If it’s out of your control, why worry about it, why fret about it? You just prepare yourself and it doesn’t matter if you’re there or you come back here. You just have to show up and be able to have a good season again. It’s out of your hands and I didn’t worry about it too much.”

Now Read and Raffl are back in the same dressing room and, for the first week of camp even, on the same line along with Scott Laughton. Together that trio proved to be a hard-checking line against Islanders superstar John Tavares, Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee in the preseason opener.

“Laughts brings a lot of speed to the middle and Raffy is obviously someone on the forecheck who separates a guy from the puck, and when he has the puck he usually does the right thing with it,” Read said. “It’s easy to play with those guys and we had fun. We had a lot of ice time. It’s a good way to start the preseason."

They may be together now, but one of those final roster spots could essentially come down to Read or Raffl.

Roster cuts
The Flyers reduced their roster by 18 players Thursday morning. Connor Bunnaman (Kitchener — OHL), Pascal Laberge (Victoriaville — QMJHL), Ivan Kosorenkov (Victoriaville — QMJHL), German Rubtsov (Chicoutimi — QMJHL) and Carter Hart (Everett — WHL) were returned to their junior teams.

Rubtsov, the Flyers' 2016 first-round pick, was returned to his junior team, rather than sent to the AHL for which he was eligible.

Forwards Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Radel Fazleev, Tyrell Goulbourne, Danick Martel, Carsen Twarynski, Mikhail Vorobyev, defensemen James de Haas, Mark Friedman, Maxim Lamarche, Phil Myers, Reece Wilcox, and goaltenders Leland Irving and John Muse were assigned to the Flyers' AHL affiliate, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. The Flyers' training camp roster now stands at 36.

“Obviously, today there’s separation in terms of where we go from here in camp,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “We still have a good number of players in camp. Today is the day when the competition starts to rise in terms of some of the tougher decisions that are coming down the road here.”

Tonight in the preseason game against the Bruins, Hakstol will be forced to dress nine players who suited up in the split-squad games against the Islanders, including Taylor Leier, who continues to make a strong push to make the opening night roster (see story).

“Taylor Leier will be back in the lineup tonight,” Hakstol said. “He’s coming off a really good performance last night. Those are the kind of performances and that’s the type of impact you want to see out of the young players who are working to make our hockey team.”

Here is tonight's roster:

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.