Flyers

Ron Hextall prefers short-term veteran goalie, disagrees with Mason's platoon thoughts

Ron Hextall prefers short-term veteran goalie, disagrees with Mason's platoon thoughts

VOORHEES, N.J. -- It has been the single biggest area of discussion so many times over the course of Flyers history, ever since Bernie Parent and Ron Hextall retired.

What about the goaltending?

That question remains on the front burner this summer and Thursday, Hextall offered little clarity on the issue yet indicated he would prefer to add another veteran on a short-term deal either via free agency or trade.

Which means the Flyers could be signing their 54th goaltender all-time in the months ahead.

"We'll work through our process here and in the end, we'll figure out what's our best option for next year and the following year and after," the general manager said at Flyers Skate Zone. "We do have kids coming, and I think everybody knows it. 
 
"I don't have a lot of interest in getting into a long, drawn-out deal with a goaltender, but again we'll look at our options and move when we feel it's our best option at the appropriate time."
 
Hextall isn't certain whether Anthony Stolarz, who sustained a lower-body injury Wednesday with the Phantoms and is on crutches, can handle being a full-time backup next season.
 
Stolarz played well in seven games, yet both Hextall and coach Dave Hakstol considered that a "small sample" only.
 
While Hextall remains open to re-signing Steve Mason, he emphatically shot down Mason's criticism of the "platoon" system and gave strong support that he expects Michal Neuvirth to rebound next season from a poor performance.
 
Asked if he's comfortable with Neuvirth and Stolarz, Hextall gave pause.
 
"That's a question still to be answered," he replied. "We'll use the best option that's realistic for us. Obviously, you've got salary cap, you've got term. There's a lot of factors that go into this. It's not just one."
 
So what's the future?
 
"I don't know," Hextall replied and then reiterated what he said before.
 
Mason said he wants to return but not in a platoon situation. He feels it's paramount to know who the No. 1 is in net.
 
"I guess if you ask the Pittsburgh Penguins right now, they'd say you need two, right?" Hextall said, referring to Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray, who was injured in warmups before Game 1 Wednesday against Columbus. 
 
"Neuvy and Mase last year were terrific. This year they weren't as good. It worked two years ago. I think Mase played 58 games this year. He played the biggest part of the workload.  You have to have two goalies."

Hextall said Mason had to realize no job is yours forever.
 
"The way pro sports work, the way we work, you earn your ice time," Hextall said. "So, whether you're a defenseman, a forward, a goalie, you earn your ice time. Mase has been pretty much our goalie for the last four or five years.
 
"He's done a good job for us. He played the bulk of the game as he did this year. I know Mase has his thoughts and we all have our thoughts, but he played 58 games this year. … Mase would want to know if he's No. 1, Neuvy would want to know if he was No. 1, but you've still got to earn your ice time."
 
Twenty-two of Mason's starts, however, were necessary because Neuvirth was injured and Hakstol was reluctant to throw his trust behind Stolarz.
 
"Well, but understand when Mase plays a lot of those games, maybe he's starting to wear down and needs a break, so when Neuvy comes back, you're going to give Neuvy a few games," Hextall said.
 
"I've seen coaches try to say before the season, Mase, Neuvy, Mase. Try to dictate the whole season before the year and you look back and it's almost laughable. It doesn't happen. It's not a perfect science."
 
If you sense Hextall has issues with Mason's mental strength, he actually doesn't.
 
"I'd say it's 80 percent [mental strength]," Hextall said. "There's a lot of goalies in the minors with NHL ability. What's separating them?
 
"The mind. Mase has been in the league for what now, 10 years? Nine years? He's good. Mase is a good goalie. I've got respect for Mase."
 
Neuvirth has a new two-year contract. The way Hextall was talking, he's coming back. Which means the club will gamble and expose Stolarz in the expansion draft.
 
Hextall expects a strong bounce-back from Neuvirth next season.
 
"I think it's human nature," Hextall said. "You have an off year, you're that much hungrier the next summer, you work harder and you're that much more focused come September. I had meetings with Neuvy a couple of times this year, including a couple days ago.
 
"I really believe Neuvy is going to come back focused. He was really good for us last year. This year he was kind of reflective of our team. He was inconsistent. … I expect Neuvy to come back and be a really good player for us. In saying that, we need two guys."

At this point, Brandon Manning appears to have advantage over Travis Sanheim

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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, where 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,” head coach Dave 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’s 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.