Finally settled in, Stolarz focused on development

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Finally settled in, Stolarz focused on development

VOORHEES, N.J. -- It had been a crazy couple of years for Anthony Stolarz.

Two seasons ago, the now-19-year-old goalie barely made it onto the roster of the NAHL’s Corpus Christi IceRays. His family had to drive from their home in Jackson, N.J., to New York before flying to Dallas where Stolarz eventually made the team.

The following year, he made plans to attend and play for the University of Nebraska Omaha, but after a while of riding the bench, an opportunity arose in London, Ontario, to join the OHL’s Knights.

So, once again, Stolarz hustled to a new city.

Now, finally, he knows exactly where he fits in, and he’s free to focus solely on his development.

“It’s finally nice to be settled in and know where I’m going to be this year,” Stolarz said. “Being settled in, it’s going to be a benefit for me. I’m not going to have to think too much about anything or make any difficult decisions.

“I’ll be in one place all year, so that’s something that will be a change for me -- and it will be very nice.”

The towering netminder (he’s 6-foot-6) will return to London this fall and rejoin the defending OHL-champion Knights, where he finished his first season with a 2.29 goals-against average and .920 save percentage in 20 games.

And when he arrives, he said, he’ll be an even stronger player than he was at this time last year.

“I think my patience is something I’ve worked on,” he said. “Rebound control. Those are two things that I worked on with [goalie coach] Jeff Reese this week, and I think from Day 1 when I was here at development camp last year 'til now, it’s tremendously improved.”

That improvement was absolutely on display Monday, when Stolarz teamed up with fellow Flyers goalie prospect Carsen Chubak to help the Flyers' rookies shut out the Washington Capitals' rookies, 1-0, in the teams' annual rookie game.

Stolarz’s family still resides in Jackson, and the ability to spend the summer at home meant he was a mere 45 minutes away from Skate Zone. That proximity allowed Stolarz to work out at the Flyers’ practice facility five days a week and spend time around players like Marc-Andre Bourdon, Nick Cousins, Derek Mathers and Mark Alt, who were also in town.

Talking to players who have been around the organization and have played at the pro level taught him a lot, Stolarz said. But there are still elements of his game that need improvement.

“Definitely just foot speed and beating the pass,” he said. “A big thing we’re working on this week is getting across [the crease] and getting hard pushes and moving around the crease. You look at the guys out here, and it’s definitely a lot faster than what I’m used to.

"For me, it’s just getting used to that pace and making myself quicker during the season and the offseason, to be able to compete at this level.”

When the Flyers drafted Stolarz in 2012 in the second round (45th overall), he was a confident, aggressive 18-year-old. His attitude showed even in his draft interview, when he joked with reporters and was hardly shy like draftees often are. That mindset, too, has improved, Stolarz said.

“In terms of the aggressiveness, I think I’ve calmed down a little bit,” he said. “I’m not as all over the place. A big thing with coach Reese, he’s wanted me to simplify my game and stay back a little more and let the game come to me, and I think I’ve definitely seen improvement with that.”

That said, Stolarz is still confident. He's aware of the pressure he faces, considering where the Flyers selected him, and his eyes are still on the ultimate goalie prize.

“Going in as a second-round pick, I feel that I want to live up to expectations,” he said. “I want to come to Philadelphia and be the No. 1 guy, be the guy.”

Wayne Gretzky defends Connor McDavid's outburst over Brandon Manning

Wayne Gretzky defends Connor McDavid's outburst over Brandon Manning

PALM BEACH, Fla. — As the primary target of opponents over his Hall of Fame career, Wayne Gretzky can certainly empathize with the frustration of Oilers star Connor McDavid.

McDavid and Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning jostled all evening long in a 6-5 Edmonton loss. McDavid denounced the tactics of his opponent after the game, claiming Manning intentionally injured him last season; McDavid missed 37 games with a broken collarbone.

"I guess we can put the whole 'if he did it' thing to rest because what he said out there kind of confirmed that," said McDavid, who taunted Manning after scoring the second goal in the Oilers' loss.

"I think anybody who knows me or who has played with or against me along the road here, knows that I am not that kind of player," Manning said, according to a statement released by the Flyers. "I am not out there intentionally trying to hurt people. I'm a guy who plays the game hard and I take pride in that."

Gretzky didn't mind seeing that fire in McDavid, saying competitiveness is part of what makes the great ones great. And he said the targeting comes with the territory of being a superstar. It was something he and Mario Lemieux dealt with, too.

"And Connor, he's going to get tested every night, but this is not new for him," Gretzky said Friday at the NHL board of governors meetings. "He's been tested since he was a kid and then playing junior hockey and now in the NHL and he's always responded and done his part."

Michael Raffl's power moves impressing Flyers, adding another element to top line

Michael Raffl's power moves impressing Flyers, adding another element to top line

He did it last Sunday in Nashville.

And he did it again Thursday night against Edmonton.

Michael Raffl displayed power and speed to send the Flyers to their seventh straight victory and longest winning streak since 2011 Thursday with a 6-5 win over the Oilers.

"Raf has this stutter step that's undercover speedy," goalie Steve Mason said. "He used it in Nashville to get a big goal and then here tonight.

"It looks like he's going to stop fully up, but he finds another gear and he really adds another element to that line that brings physical play.

"He has that sneaky talent, too, that can make you pay."

Raffl received a bank pass off the wall from Jakub Voracek, stutter stepped and then blew by Oilers defenseman Oscar Klefbom, protecting the puck along the way before flipping it over goalie Jonas Gustavsson for the game-winning marker with 1:29 left in the game.

It was his sixth goal of the season and his second game-winner in three games.

"Jakey has been hard on me for three years now," Raffl said, referring to Voracek's pass, "and it's actually the first time it worked out.

"He wants me to make that play all the time. He's been hard on me. I threw a little fake in there, got around their D-man and chipped it up high."

Voracek, who tied a career high with four points (one goal, three assists) said after the game his pass was not as perfect as it appeared on tape, as it didn't hit Raffl in stride.

"I think we should use it a little bit more to be honest," Voracek said, "because if their D wants to have a gap on that, you know you put it off the boards, it's tough to handle for the defenseman. [Raffl] had to slow down a little bit, so next time I've got to put it better."

Juggling his lines in an attempt to find chemistry, Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol moved Raffl up from the third line to the top line with Voracek and captain Claude Giroux on Nov. 27. Coincidentally, that was the start of this seven-game winning streak.

On Thursday night, Raffl showcased the reasoning behind the move to the top line, a spot he's familiar with, having played with Giroux and Voracek in seasons' past.

"He's good from coming off either way as he enters the zone," Hakstol said. "He's got the ability to take it to the net. 

"Obviously at a critical time of the hockey game. But, that's Raffl when he's at his best. He's a power forward that can do those type of things offensively."

In his fourth season with the Flyers, the 28-year-old doesn't possess jaw-dropping skill. He's better suited for a third-line role, but drives play at 5-on-5 and is strong on the puck to move up into the top six. His style complements Giroux and Voracek's game well.

"[Raffl] complains a lot on the bench," Giroux quipped. "Nah, he was fired up there in the third. He is so strong on the puck. That's a big goal for us. He's been playing some great hockey right now for us. I think me and Jake are lucky to play with him right now."

"He does every little thing right," Voracek said. "He wins the battles. He wins so many puck battles in the corners and on the boards and gives me and G a lot of space to work with. He knows what to do to have success with us and he's been doing that."

Against the Oilers, Raffl was one of two European free agents the Flyers found to contribute to their win, with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare slowing down Connor McDavid.

It's been an avenue the Flyers have found some success in recent years. Raffl was a Paul Holmgren signing, while general manager Ron Hextall plucked Bellemare from the SHL.

"Since we signed him, I think he surprised everyone," Voracek said of Raffl. "He's got a lot of talent. He's a strong guy on the puck. He's skating well. He's got a great shot.

"I think he's one of the good players."

The Flyers described Raffl as a sneaky talent, someone who may not demand the respect from defensemen but has the ability to surprise and make them pay for playing lax against him.

But it's really simpler than that, according to Raffl.

"Just puck possession," he said. "Just focus on being the first on forecheck, digging out pucks. It's not a fun job to do, but somebody has to do it.

"They're two great players with the puck, I try to dig it out and get it to them and get in an open area and they'll find me eventually."

And they found him Thursday night when it mattered most.