NEWARK, N.J. — When the Flyers placed Sean Couturier on injured reserve Feb. 5, general manager Ron Hextall had a few options trying to replace a major part of his team.
With cap space and an extra spot, Hextall would fill the position regardless, but it depended on the role he and head coach Dave Hakstol envisioned for said replacement.
The Flyers had a couple of extra forwards at the time, with Sam Gagner and Jordan Weal routinely sitting in the press box. Hextall could have opted to bring up a veteran such as Colin McDonald or Chris Conner to sit while Gagner or Weal cracked the lineup.
Instead, he decided to give 22-year-old Nick Cousins an opportunity.
"Nick's done a good job. He really has," Hextall said before the Flyers' 6-3 win over the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday night at the Prudential Center (see game story).
"Seeing him his first year in Glens Falls, there to now, it's night and day. Two and a half years, he's really improved and he's improved because he works.
"He works hard every day, every game. He's a tenacious player."
Cousins on Tuesday night found himself playing between Jakub Voracek and R.J. Umberger, as Hakstol changed up his lines in a move to spark his sluggish offense (see story).
The line changes worked and Cousins potted his second career goal — his first career game-winning goal — in the third period against the Devils.
"The more you play, the better you feel," he said. "Every shift, especially early on in the game, you get your legs underneath you and you get a little bit of confidence."
Despite being on the second line against New Jersey, Cousins played just 10:37 and did take a holding penalty in the final period, too. But the Flyers were shorthanded seven times, including for five minutes in the first, so special teams were a big part of the game. Still, Cousins has done an adequate job filling in on the second line. Couturier's absence has been highly advertised as a big blow, but Cousins has been productive since coming up.
"He's done a good job," Hakstol said. "Obviously, he had a penalty [Tuesday], but he's been a reliable two-way player. I think he's really concentrated on being reliable.
"I think he's concentrated on taking care of pucks. In the offensive zone, he's played with confidence with the puck at the right time and that's a positive for him."
Before his Feb. 5 call-up — his second of the season — Cousins had been a point-per-game player — 38 points in 38 games — with the Phantoms and made his first AHL All-Star Game.
In his first time around this season with the Flyers, he centered the fourth line for four games. This also isn't his first time playing in an orange and black jersey.
Last season, Cousins got the call when Umberger went down with a season-ending injury and played the final 11 games. He didn't register any points but finished a plus-1. A 2011 third-round draft pick, he led the Phantoms last season with 56 points. He was leading Lehigh Valley this season when he came up — and still is.
While the production is welcomed, Cousins doesn't want to be known as an offensive player.
"I think early on in my career," he said, "everyone really labeled me as a one-dimensional player — all offense but can't play defense. Battling for the puck.
"So I took that as motivation and I worked on that part of my game. It's come a long way, still not where I want it to be. I want to be reliable on the ice, all three zones."
At the AHL level, Cousins' role was much larger than it is with the Flyers. He was asked to put up points and he did. Up here, he's being asked to be responsible. No one is expecting him to replace Couturier's production or defensive prowess, but he's been given an opportunity playing with mostly Brayden Schenn on the second line. Cousins' mentality of trying to become a better two-way player has been noticed.
"He's a skilled player," Hextall said. "He's got to produce and I'm talking mostly at the minor-league level, he's got to produce and he has.
"And his 200-foot game has come a long ways. He's the type of kid that probably had the puck his whole life until he turned pro and all of sudden you turn pro and it's, 'Whoa.'"
Hextall recalled Cousins' first full year with the Phantoms, when they were in Glens Falls, New York. Cousins had 29 points in 74 games and was a minus-9 in his first pro year.
"I know that first year in Glens Falls," Hextall said, "he was shocked by the level of play and his production and all that, but give him credit. He worked his tail off."
When Couturier returns, Cousins was expected to return to the Phantoms, but he may now stay since Weal is out at least three weeks with an upper-body injury (see story).
Schenn said before Tuesday's game he didn't know a lot about Cousins before his call-up, but playing 10 games together on the same line allowed him to learn how he plays.
"He's been good. Really good," Schenn said. "He's smart, he's not afraid to get in the opposition's face and play that aggravating style of hockey.
"He's a small guy but highly skilled and always in the right position. He's playing well. Hopefully he continues to. We need him to play well right now.
"He's played some good minutes. We need him to keep playing his game."