Couturier puts sophomore slump behind him

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Couturier puts sophomore slump behind him

This is a season of redemption for the Flyers.
 
For the team, the coaching staff and the general manager.
 
And yet, there is no escaping the fact that a number of players see it as a personal redemption for themselves.
 
Among them, 20-year-old center Sean Couturier, who was on the ice Monday night at the Wells Fargo Center during the Flyers' 4-3 shootout exhibition loss to the Capitals. Joel Rechlicz got the winner.
 
Couturier had two assists in the game, playing between Jason Akeson and Jake Voracek. That line scored two goals.
 
In 2011-12, Couturier was among the Calder Trophy nominees for Rookie of the Year with 13 goals, 27 points and a plus-18 rating in 77 games with 14 minutes of ice time a game. He was outstanding on the penalty kill that season.
 
Last year? The lockout-shortened season was a personal disaster.
 
“It was an up-and-down season,” Couturier said. “Not what I wanted. I wish it had been better. It’s behind me now. I’m just looking forward to a better season.”
 
He had just four goals and 15 points in 46 games but more importantly, his solid defensive play had vanished with a minus-8 rating while playing a hair under 16 minutes a night.
 
“A lot of times second-year players don’t have as good a year,” said Craig Berube, who coached the Flyers in Philadelphia while Peter Laviolette handled the split-squad in Toronto.
 
“The one thing I know with Coots is that he is an intelligent hockey player. He knows how to play the game. That is not going to go away. He looks pretty good this year, looks energized.”
 
What has to be better this season?
 
“I think my whole game,” Couturier said. “A little bit of everything. Last year, my defensive game kind of lacked at times. I got to be more constant offensively, as well, and produce more.
 
He put on a little weight -- almost eight pounds -- and you see it as he checked in at 208 pounds in training camp. The organization wanted him to bulk up over the summer. All rookies coming out of junior take a couple of years to “fill out” but it happens.
 
Berube feels Couturier is much better and the added weight has enhanced -- not hurt -- his game. He said his initial burst in the first 10 feet is better, much like the hot start that Claude Giroux has in his skates.
 
“The first 10 feet is where he needed to be quicker,” Berube said. “That’s where people like Jake Voracek get away from guys -- they get off, then they’re gone. That’s where he had to get quicker for me. Once he gets going, he’s fine. You pull away from people and create space for yourself."
 
Couturier is not the only player who gained needed weight. Defenseman Oliver Lauridsen gained a whopping 12 pounds to weigh in at 232. He trained with boxers to be more physical and a better fighter on the ice. Gaining muscle is important to young players.
 
“Last year, I played at about 200,” Couturier said. “As I get older, I want to get bigger and stronger. That’s one part of the game where guys are so strong on the puck. You want to get stronger and out-battle these guys.
 
“The organization wanted me to get bigger and stronger. I went home and tried to get bigger and stronger and I think I did a pretty good job. I feel good [on ice]. I feel stronger and my skating is more powerful, as well.”
 
Laviolette was pleased, too. He feels Couturier need to be physically stronger in his board play for one-on-one battles. Much of the drills in the first part of training camp practices every day focus just on that aspect -- one-on-one battles.
 
“What we do out there [is] designed to be part of what we do through the course of a game,” Laviolette previously said during training camp. “With that comes a lot of board work and battle play in the offensive zone. The first half of the sessions are up and down the ice and skating and skills.
 
“The second half is more geared to competitive nature. Guys getting into battles. Sean is stronger. That comes. When you first see someone at age 18-19 and then see them again at age 23, a whole progression takes place.”
 
That’s what is happening now with Couturier. He wants to turn this muscle into offensive point production, too.
 
“I have always been a two-way player no matter what I do,” he said. “It’s nothing new. I know I can produce offensively, go out and show what I can do.
 
“The last 15-20 games [last year] I felt I played better. I finished strong. This year, I want to build on that and keep pushing and improving.”
 
The big question in camp is who will play left wing on his line with Matt Read. It was a given that that job would have gone to Dan Cleary had he not backed out of a tryout and future contract with the Flyers and signed with Detroit.
 
Now it’s a wide-open competition with Tye McGinn, Michael Raffl and even Marcel Noebels.
 
“Obviously, I’d like to know who I am going to play with,” Couturier said. “It doesn’t really change my mindset. I just want to go out and compete hard. Try to get better.”
 
Would a grinder or a skill player best complement that line?
 
“I don’t know,” Couturier said. “Anybody they put there I will have to adapt to whatever style there is. Whatever they ask me to do. Whatever role I can do to help the team.”
 
Cleary, who is 34, was capable of playing both roles which is why the Flyers liked him. One thing seems certain: The opening will be filled with a younger player.
 
That player could be Scott Laughton, McGinn or Raffl.
 
“We have different guys here who can play different roles,” Couturier said. “We have a good group here. It doesn’t matter.”

Flyers free-agent goalie fits: Antti Niemi

Flyers free-agent goalie fits: Antti Niemi

Each day this week until July 1, the day free agency begins, Tom Dougherty, Jordan Hall and Greg Paone will profile the five best goalie options for the Flyers on the open market and project their likelihood of signing.

Antti Niemi
Age: 33
Height: 6-2
Weight: 215
Last team: Dallas Stars
2016-17 cap hit: $4.5 million

Scouting report
Niemi signed with the Blackhawks as an undrafted free agent in 2008 and played three games for Chicago in 2008-09. He broke training camp with the Blackhawks in 2009-10 and eventually took over as the team's No. 1 goalie by the end of the season and for the playoffs.

The Vantaa, Finland, native started 22 games in the postseason and helped the Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup win over the Flyers in 2010, though his numbers in the Final weren't pretty. In six games against the Flyers, he posted an .882 save percentage. Overall, Niemi had a 2.63 goals-against average and .910 save percentage in the 2010 playoffs.

After winning the Cup with Chicago, Niemi filed for arbitration but the Blackhawks didn't want to pay the $2.75 million he was awarded and walked away. He signed a one-year deal with the San Jose Sharks, where he ended up spending the next five seasons.

In those five seasons, Niemi compiled a .917 save percentage and 2.40 goals-against average along with 25 shutouts. In the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, Niemi was 24-12-6 with a 2.16 GAA, .924 save percentage and four shutouts. He was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, which Sergei Bobrovsky won.

San Jose traded Niemi's rights to the Dallas Stars at the 2015 draft. Dallas signed Niemi to a three-year, $13.5 million contract to pair with Kari Lehtonen. In 2015-16, Niemi posted a 2.67 GAA with a .905 save percentage. He was 25-13-7 and was the backup in the playoffs.

Last season was a disaster in net for the Stars. Both Lehtonen and Niemi struggled, and Dallas missed the playoffs. Niemi had an NHL-worst 3.30 goals-against average and his .892 save percentage was the second worst in the league to Michal Neuvirth (.891).

Dallas acquired Ben Bishop this offseason and then placed Niemi on waivers with the intention to buy out his final year. The Stars will carry a $1.5 million cap hit over the next two seasons while Niemi is an unrestricted free agent.

Dougherty's projection
Niemi is the worst possible option on the market for the Flyers. Going into next season with the two worst goalies from last season based off save percentage would be a major slap in the face of Steve Mason. With that said, I do think he's an option, unfortunately. 

With Ryan Miller reportedly likely to sign in Anaheim, Mike Condon staying in Ottawa, Chad Johnson likely going back to Buffalo, the free-agent goalie market is filling up quickly. There appear to be three teams in the market for either a starter or tandem goalie.

The Flyers are one of them. Winnipeg and Vancouver are the other two. The three best options on the market are Mason, Jonathan Bernier and Brian Elliott. But that doesn't necessarily mean the Flyers view it the same or that any of those three will sign here.

So, it's fair to examine Niemi as a potential fit, albeit not a good one. Let's keep it simple.

Positive: He's cost effective. Since the Stars are still paying him and with his numbers from last season, it's hard to imagine a team handing out a lot of money for him.

Negative: Well, he's not very good. The Flyers may be better off calling Ilya Bryzgalov than signing Niemi. This is a hard pass from me.

Hall's projection
This shouldn't happen for the Flyers.

Niemi turns 34 years old in August and his goals-against average has ballooned each of the past five seasons, with the 2016-17 campaign being his most futile, as his 3.30 GAA was worst in the NHL among netminders with 25 or more games played.

Like Tom said above, Niemi would not take much out of the Flyers' pockets. Maybe the Flyers can get him on a strict one-year insurance policy for dirt cheap — still, extremely unlikely. The Flyers want some quality here, too, not just a bargain.

The Flyers will do their due diligence. Provided the goalie market, Niemi should be evaluated but not seriously considered. The Finn looks in decline and Dallas couldn't get anything in exchange for his services and contract before buying him out.

Paone's projection
The Flyers should be steering way clear of Niemi here.

It’s easy to see why the Stars, a team that was in desperate need of goaltending help before they landed Bishop, decided to cut ties with Niemi last week with a buyout and were willing to eat his cap hit that came with it. Niemi had the chance to take the reins on a star-studded Dallas team and responded by playing like a sieve last season. The numbers Tom and Jordan mentioned above are the proof you need. 

Sure, Niemi would come to Philadelphia on a bargain and that no doubt is a fact that would catch the eyes of Hextall and the Flyers’ brass. And they should do their due diligence on Niemi, as they should with every goaltender on the market. They’d be doing a disservice to the team if they didn’t closely examine any goalie on the market.

But a goaltender on the clear decline isn’t one of the criteria on the Flyers’ checklist here.

And that decline has been steady for Niemi. His goals against average has consistently risen from 2.16 in 2012-13 to that gaudy 3.30 mark last season. And his save percentage has steadily dipped from .924 in 2012-13 to an ugly .892 last year. There’s a reason San Jose decided to move on two offseasons ago and then give up an asset like a precious first-round pick for Martin Jones to shore up their net.

Think about it this way: Isn’t the point of signing and investing in a free agent to make an improvement over what you had last season? 

Would a Niemi-Neuvirth tandem be an improvement over a Mason-Neuvirth tandem? Nope.

NHL Notes: Blues lose Patrik Berglund until December after shoulder surgery

NHL Notes: Blues lose Patrik Berglund until December after shoulder surgery

ST. LOUIS -- Blues center Patrik Berglund is expected to be out until December after having surgery to repair a dislocated left shoulder.

The Blues say Berglund was injured during an offseason conditioning program in Sweden and flew to St. Louis for Tuesday's procedure. The team called it a successful surgery.

The 29-year-old Berglund scored a career-high 23 goals and finished with 34 points in 2016-17, adding four assists in 11 playoff games.

Berglund has spent his entire nine-year NHL career with the Blues, scoring 296 points in 637 regular-season games.

St. Louis fell to Nashville in the second round of the playoffs last season.

Red Wings: Worker dies after fall from new arena
DETROIT -- A worker has died after falling 75 feet (23 meters) at the Little Caesars Arena worksite north of downtown Detroit.

Deputy Detroit Fire Commissioner David Fornell says the 46-year-old man was in cardiac arrest when paramedics arrived about 8 a.m. Wednesday.

Other workers had started cardiopulmonary resuscitation which first responders continued. The man was taken to a Detroit hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Fornell says officials were told the man was an electrical worker and may have fallen from a catwalk. He says the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration likely will investigate.

The arena will be home to the NHL's Detroit Red Wings and the NBA's Pistons. It is scheduled to open this fall.