Flyers

Ron Hextall not veering from Kings' path with Flyers' young defensemen

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Ron Hextall not veering from Kings' path with Flyers' young defensemen

If that “mirror, mirror on the wall” actually existed, Flyers fans would be lined up right now wanting to know, “Who’s the most deserving of them all?”

And rightfully so.

Unfortunately, without that magical piece of glass from the movie “Snow White,” you may not get the straightforward answer you’re looking for. "Preseason 2017," for lack of a better title, will be remembered as “The Battle on the Blue Line,” and now that we’ve cycled through the credits, culminating with the final game against the Islanders, it appears as if a sequel is already in the works.

It was an intense competition revolving around the team’s talented, homegrown defense. Sam Morin, Robert Hagg and Travis Sanheim competed for the two vacated positions. Sanheim displayed an impressive and rare offensive skill set with a team-high-tying three goals, but he flashed shortcomings with his penchant for turnovers. Morin was strong in all phases, most notably his imposing physical presence, while also showing a tendency to contribute offensively. Morin’s mishaps, perhaps not nearly as glaring as Sanheim’s, were mostly positional play. Hagg was perhaps the least flashy and noticeable of the trio, but remained consistent throughout.

All three rookies had their bags ready to go Sunday night — destination unknown at the time. Either they would be joining the rest of the Flyers team on the charter to San Jose or they would be carpooling to Allentown as they begin another season in the AHL. Now with the upper-body injury to Shayne Gostisbehere, all three rookies are California dreaming, and more importantly, California unpacking.

If "Ghost" suits up in the season opener, then in all likelihood, only Hagg will actually crack the lineup to start, and that will remain a head-scratcher for a fan base that's been asked to sit on its collective hands.

And they’re not alone. Even members of the Flyers' Cup teams have expressed to me personally a desire to see the kids play. The decision is even more puzzling to guys like Morin and Sanheim, who both believe they did everything possible to earn their spot.

“Yeah, I’m very excited,” Morin said Monday. “I think I had a pretty good camp. I deserve it. We’re going to see what happens. I’m just living one day at a time. I’m just really excited to prove I can be in the NHL and be a regular.”

For Hextall, this is nothing more than business as usual. He rarely deviates from the script that comes straight out of Hollywood, just not crafted by Disney.

During his time with the Kings, then-general manager Dean Lombardi nurtured his defensive corps in much the same manner.

Alec Martinez — Three seasons of college hockey followed by 2½ seasons with the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL. Became a full-time NHL regular at age 23.

Jake Muzzin — Four years in the OHL (Ontario Hockey League) proceeded with 2½ years with the Monarchs. Became a full-time NHL regular at age 23.

Slava Voynov — Three full seasons (266 games) with the Monarchs. Entered the NHL at age 22.

Martinez and Muzzin remain core pieces to the Kings' defensive unit and Voynov was equally as talented, perhaps even more so. However, Voynov was indefinitely suspended for allegedly assaulting his wife, and hasn’t suited up in an NHL game since October 2014. He has since returned to Russia to play in the KHL.

Compare those players with Hagg, 22, Morin, 22, and Sanheim, 21, and you can see Hextall will not serve up one of his defensemen until they are properly aged to his standards. You can place Drew Doughty and Ivan Provorov into a category of all their own.

During his brief press gathering Sunday night following the decision that Oskar Lindblom would begin his North American career with the Phantoms, Hextall had this to say: “American League time hasn’t hurt one player in the history of professional hockey.” In other words, to Hextall, no one regresses playing in the minors … ever.

It seems fitting the Flyers will begin their season just a few hours away from Napa Valley, because Hextall refuses to pluck one of his guys off the vine until the time is absolutely right. There’s no one right way to serve up an NHL defenseman, but there is, in Hextall’s vision, a certain recipe for disaster. Don’t think for a moment the ingredients that go into that will ever change, especially now that Hextall just recently hired Lombardi, who I’m sure packed up his “How to Build a Stanley Cup Champion” cookbook and brought it with him.

When asked about his three impressive, young defensemen specifically, Hextall smiled and said, “When you look at the career of a young player, going to the minors is OK, even if its for a couple years. It’s not a death sentence. You’re still a pro hockey player and you’re still one injury, one day away from a call-up. It’s not as disastrous as you try to paint it, maybe.”

Even Hextall understands that sometimes the best-laid plans have to shelved. It was an injury to Mark Streit that opened the door for Gostisbehere, who burst onto the scene two years ago and never looked back, despite just 21 games of AHL experience.

When will Morin and Sanheim earn their spot, permanently?

If you have a magic 8-ball lying around, now would be a good time to dust it off, and give it a good shake.

Ex-Flyer Nick Cousins takes down Islanders

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Ex-Flyer Nick Cousins takes down Islanders

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet praised center Nick Cousins after, not just for his game-winning goal against the New York Islanders but also for his improved overall play.

Cousins scored his second goal of the game 2:21 into overtime to lift the Coyotes to a 3-2 win over the Islanders on Monday night.

"I've got to give him a lot of credit," Tocchet said. "He's done really well. I've sat him out this year. He's worked on his game. He's always got a smile on his face coming to work to practice. He's worked on his game and he's starting to reap the benefits."

Cousins added an assist and the Coyotes ran their points streak to five games, a season high. Arizona has points from seven of eight games, with six of those going to overtime. Brendan Perlini scored for the third time in three games and Antti Raanta stopped 32 shots (see full recap).

Wings blank Devils before welcoming Flyers
NEWARK, N.J. -- Petr Mrazek wants more playing time and Detroit Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill is probably going to give it to him.

Mrazek had 37 saves in posting his second straight shutout and third of the season as the Red Wings played one of their best games of the season in beating the slumping New Jersey Devils 3-0 on Monday night.

Mrazek has stopped 64 shots in shutting out the Blackhawks and Devils in his last two starts. He now has three shutouts in 14 games with a 5-5-1 record.

"I'm trying to get some confidence every game I play, every save I make," Mrazek said. "I haven't played a lot of minutes, so every game I am trying,” (see full recap).

Avalanche beat Leafs for 10th straight win
TORONTO -- Colorado goalie Jonathan Bernier heard the Bronx cheers from the Air Canada Centre crowd on Monday night.

He remembers listening to Toronto fans giving him the same sort of hard time when he was a member of the Maple Leafs as they struggled through the 2015-16 season.

"It's not as bad when you are the away team," he said.

Bernier made 29 saves in his first start at the ACC since Toronto traded him in July 2016, Blake Comeau scored the go-ahead goal with 7:43 left and the Avalanche extended their winning streak to 10 games with a 4-2 victory over the Maple Leafs (see full recap).

Vasilevskiy leads Lightning past Blackhawks
CHICAGO -- Andrei Vasilevskiy was terrific, Chris Kunitz made a clutch play and Tampa Bay's penalty killers had a big night.

The Lightning followed a familiar formula back to the top of the NHL.

Vasilevskiy made 40 saves in his league-best seventh shutout and Kunitz scored a short-handed goal in the second period, leading Tampa Bay to a 2-0 victory over the sliding Chicago Blackhawks on Monday.

Yanni Gourde also scored as Tampa Bay stopped a season-high three-game skid and leapfrogged idle Vegas for the best record in the NHL. The Lightning, who lost to Chicago in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, improved to 11-0-2 against the Blackhawks in their last 13 regular-season meetings (see full recap).

Flyers have a Travis Sanheim dilemma

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Flyers have a Travis Sanheim dilemma

Defenseman and prized prospect Travis Sanheim will start playing some big minutes again.

It just won’t be with the Flyers right now.

On Monday, Sanheim was reassigned to AHL Lehigh Valley as the front office also recalled Mark Alt to take Sanheim’s spot on the active roster.

Why?

Trust and development.

With the Flyers playing some of their best hockey of the season with wins in eight of their last nine games and the increased importance of gaining necessary points in an air-tight division (as of Monday morning, the Flyers held the East's first wild-card spot with 54 points, one behind Columbus for third in the Metro, two behind New Jersey for second and just seven behind first-place Washington), Sanheim had been relegated as the seventh defenseman and had served as a healthy scratch in eight of those nine games.

“He comes out of the lineup and the team plays well,” general manager Ron Hextall said recently of the 21-year-old blueliner. “Like most teams when things are going well, you really don’t want to change too much. If you look at the whole year with Travis, I think he’s played well with us. He’s had his moments, but he’s a young player and that’s going to happen. I don’t like him sitting and coaches don’t like him sitting, and I’m sure he doesn’t like sitting.”

Prior to the Devils/Capitals weekend series the Flyers swept, head coach Dave Hakstol was asked about the possibility of utilizing an 11 forward-seven defensemen combination as Tyrell Goulbourne has been used sparingly since his call-up. But Hakstol made it clear he wasn’t going to make concessions to accommodate one player.

“We’re not going to do anything to get anybody in the lineup at this point in time,” Hakstol said. “It can’t solely be about that. If that’s a scenario that’s best for our team, then we’ll consider it. What’s the right combination for our team to win a game that day?”

Coming out of the Christmas break, Hakstol started shortening the length of Sanheim’s leash. The rookie played 14:42 of the Panthers game (a 3-2 loss) on Dec. 28. Brandon Manning was fully healed and ready to return from a hand injury the next night in Tampa, a 5-3 decision the Flyers took from the league-best Lightning.

After missing the next five games, Sanheim received another chance with the Flyers playing their first game against the Devils out of the bye week on Jan. 13. All it took was one play in which Sanheim stepped up to check his man along the boards. He subsequently lost his stick, and by the time he grabbed it, the Devils converted an easy goal to take a 1-0 lead.

That came during Sanheim’s second shift as he finished the game playing a season-low 6:02, including just one 18-second shift in the third period.

“They’ve got to earn the trust of their teammates and the coaches, and sometimes that’s a process,” Hextall said. “Some of what Travis is going through is good for Travis. There’s a lot you learn out there. Part of it is the life lesson of you have to earn things. Things aren’t going to be handed to you. Just because you’re a first-round pick or a highly paid guy, you have to learn things. You don’t come out of college and become a CEO. You have to pay your dues, and you have to earn what you’re going to get.”

Travis Konecny and Shayne Gostisbehere learned those life lessons the hard way last season as both young players were pulled out of the lineup after their performance lagged. Hextall believes Sanheim will eventually bounce back and reflect at his rookie season as a valuable learning experience.

“Sometimes the only way they learn is by missing a shift or having their ice cut back a bit or getting sat out at some point,” Hextall said. “Most players have gotten sat out in their career. If you ask most guys, not at the time, they say it was a good lesson. There are a lot of things our young guys are learning right now, not only at this level, but at Lehigh.”

Gostisbehere and Konecny are playing arguably some of the best hockey of their careers right now.

Even if Sanheim has more upside and potential than Manning, the veteran has proven to be more reliable defensively and has even been more opportunistic in the offensive end. In a twist of fate, Sanheim's offensive upside is a big reason why Hextall selected him with a first-round pick in 2014. Sanheim has one goal and four assists in 35 games played this season.

“You've got to get stronger. You make a mistake and if you can’t rebound from it, you're probably not going to be at this level for very long,” Hextall said. “There’s learning curves all along the way. You can’t look at everything in a vacuum. There’s a small picture and there’s a big picture.”

Hextall is right. At this critical point of the NHL season, the bigger picture of winning outweighs the smaller picture of player development.