Sean Couturier shows his best late -- but is more to come?

Sean Couturier shows his best late -- but is more to come?

For the final month and change of the regular season, Sean Couturier led the NHL with a plus-18 rating over his final 19 games.

In that stretch from March 4 to April 9, the center amassed five goals, 12 assists and the league's fourth-most even-strength points at 17.

"Sean Couturier was playing the best hockey I've ever seen him play," Jakub Voracek said.

This was all in large part because Couturier finally found some continuity with two wingers to stop the line carousel from spinning. Couturier paired with Brayden Schenn and Dale Weise to form what teammates believed was the Flyers' best line as the season wound down.

Weise, in the first season of a four-year contract, totaled 10 points (six goals, four assists) in his last 14 games to ease the pain from his underwhelming 50 contests prior (see story).

Schenn, coming off a fresh four-year contract of his own, produced 13 points (six goals, seven assists) in his last 15 games to end the season with 55 on 25 markers and 30 assists.

Unfortunately for the Flyers, it all came too late.

As the Stanley Cup Playoffs unfold without them, the Flyers can only hope the line's production carries into 2017-18.

"Me, Schenner and Weiser, we had some tremendous chemistry," Couturier said last week at the Flyers' cleanout day. "We seemed to find each other right from the get-go when we were reunited. We had a good first few games and built on that, and finished the year strong together. It was nice and hopefully, we can build on that and get the same thing going next year."

Couturier's nice finish won't overshadow the fan base's desire for more than just spurts of potential. Many are still eagerly waiting for the 24-year-old to reach greater heights offensively. Couturier was a team-best plus-12 this season with 14 goals and 20 assists in 66 games. However, in six NHL seasons, he has yet to eclipse 40 points.

Maybe some expected too much, too soon after Couturier's back-to-back 96-point seasons at the junior ranks before he joined the Flyers. The Flyers see Couturier as still young with much ahead, while a solid, two-way center is always valuable in the NHL.

What also spurred Couturier late was good health and the addition of center Valtteri Filppula. Couturier missed a month (16 straight games) with a left knee MCL sprain before the New Year and said he returned short of 100 percent.

"I thought I could do enough to help the team win, whether it was defensively, offensively, whatever it was," Couturier said. "Frustrating at times and it took a few weeks to really start not feeling it anymore and getting it out of my head.

"You think you're moving forward and it's getting better and then you get a little setback. It was that type of year.

"I always felt like I was missing that half second to make a play or whatever. … But at the end there, I was starting to feel better and I think it ended pretty well."

Filppula, acquired at the March 1 trade deadline, alleviated weight off Couturier's shoulders by taking on a bulk of the workload at center. Filppula, 33, plays both ends of the ice like Couturier.

"Coots' line there, they really became a productive line," general manager Ron Hextall said last Thursday. "Val's a real solid two-way player, who's going to chip in. When I looked at our lines and our chemistry late in the year, we were a better team. That bodes well for next year and our 5-on-5 play."

Even less than an hour after the Flyers' season finale, head coach Dave Hakstol liked the trio of Couturier, Schenn and Weise looking forward.

"Four or five months is a long ways down the road," he said, "but that's certainly a group that has a good chance to be together starting the year next year."

Couturier's numbers bothered him when he returned from the knee injury in late December. Weise and Schenn had motivational factors, as well, after new deals.

"Obviously I was hungry," Couturier said. "My stats weren't looking too good. This year, that's how I was. We were just three guys that wanted to prove something here at the end and make a push."

For Couturier, that will only continue starting in September.

NHL Notes: Rangers ink Mika Zibanejad to 5-year extension

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USA Today Images

NHL Notes: Rangers ink Mika Zibanejad to 5-year extension

NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers have signed center Mika Zibanejad to a $26.75 million, five-year deal.

Zibanejad will count $5.35 million against the salary cap through 2021-22 as the Rangers count on him to take on a bigger role following the trade of Derek Stepan. General manager Jeff Gorton announced the contract Tuesday morning, before the team and Zibanejad were set to go to arbitration.

The 24-year-old Swede had 14 goals and 23 assists for 37 points in 56 games last season, his first with New York. The Rangers acquired Zibanejad from the Ottawa Senators for Derick Brassard a year ago.

Zibanejad has 188 points in 337 NHL games with the Senators and Rangers since Ottawa drafted him sixth overall in 2011.

Team Canada names Sean Burke GM for 2018 Olympics
Sean Burke will be the general manager and Willie Desjardins the head coach for Canada at the first Olympics without NHL players since 1994.

Hockey Canada named its management and coaching staffs for the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics on Tuesday. St. Louis Blues assistant general manager Martin Brodeur will work under Burke on the management side, while Desjardins will be assisted by Dave King, Scott Walker and Craig Woodcroft.

Canada has been grooming Burke for this responsibility for some time as he served as assistant GM for the 2017 world championships, GM for the 2016 Spengler Cup and Deutschland Cup and director of player development for the 2016 worlds. Desjardins coached Canada's 2010 world junior team and assisted in 2009.

USA Hockey has not yet named its GM or coach.

Sabres re-sign goalie Lehner to 1-year deal
BUFFALO, N.Y.  -- The Buffalo Sabres have re-signed goaltender Robin Lehner to a $4 million, one-year contract.

The team announced the deal Tuesday. Lehner was a restricted free agent.

The 26-year-old Swede showed he could stay healthy last season, setting career highs with 59 games played, 23 wins and two shutouts. He ranked third in the NHL with 1,758 saves and finished with a .920 save percentage and 2.68 goals-against average.

Bothered by injuries and concussion problems, Lehner had never before played more than 36 games in his NHL career. The Sabres took a chance on Lehner when they traded a first-round pick to the Ottawa Senators for him at the 2015 draft.

Lehner will again be a restricted free agent next summer when this contract expires.

Devils re-sign 3 restricted free agents
NEWARK, N.J. -- The New Jersey Devils have re-signed restricted free agent defenseman Mirco Mueller, forward Joseph Blandisi and goaltender Scott Wedgewood.

Mueller got a two-year deal worth an average of $850,000 a season, Blandisi a two-year, two-way deal worth an average of $680,000 in the NHL, and Wedgewood a one-year, two-way deal worth $650,000 in the NHL. General manager Ray Shero announced the contracts Tuesday.

Re-signing Mueller for two years was the most significant move after New Jersey acquired the 22-year-old from San Jose before the Vegas expansion draft. The Swiss defender has just six points in 54 NHL games with the Sharks, but still is considered a good prospect after being a first-round pick in 2013.

Mueller will make $775,000 next season and $925,000 in 2018-19.

There's a new game in town: The Philadelphia Rebels

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John Boruk/CSNPhilly.com

There's a new game in town: The Philadelphia Rebels

The opportunity to watch a Briere play again in Philadelphia will be an exciting reality for hockey fans this season.

No, Danny Briere isn’t coming out of retirement as the former Flyers forward has committed to handling the day-to-day operations of the organization’s newest ECHL team.  

However, Briere will be keeping close tabs on his younger son, Carson, who’s currently on the Philadelphia Rebels' 30-man roster and is setting his sights on making the team’s final cuts during training camp.

“It’s great,” Briere said Monday. “Growing up here for most of my life, I love Philly. It’s fun getting to play in the same city that [my dad] did. Whenever I think of him playing, I always think of that playoff run [in 2010] for the Flyers.”

After spending the past two seasons at IceWorks in Aston, Pennsylvania, the NAHL’s (North American Hockey League) Rebels are moving their operation to the Penn Ice Rink at the Class of 1923 Arena, where they made the formal announcement on Monday. It will be the organization’s third different home rink in the past four seasons after relocating from the Rio Grande Valley in 2015.

“It was a no-brainer,” team owner Marko Dundovich said. “When the opportunity presented itself, it was very easy. I think it will give the boys a better opportunity to play, get them seen and I think it’s going to continue to grow here, and our business and organization will do much better here.”

The Rebels and junior hockey simply didn’t attract a broad appeal in the Philadelphia suburbs like ownership had hoped, and as a result, attendance lagged as the team typically averaged around 125 fans a game.

“It was the first time we tried Junior A hockey here,” Dundovich said. “If we had a 300-, 400- or 500-person fan base, we would have been OK in Aston, but I think it was tough to sell a junior hockey ticket in Aston. It’s a difficult sell in a small town.”   

Conversely, hockey fans in Philadelphia haven’t had much of an alternative to the Flyers since the Phantoms left the city in 2009 for Glens Falls, New York. Rebels forward Aaron Maguyon, who stays with former Flyers captain Keith Primeau throughout the season, feels the team cannot only fill the 2,500-seat ice rink, but the players will greatly benefit from the college vibe.  

“I think it prepares us for the future and playing college hockey, for sure, so in that way, it’s like a sneak peek for what’s to come," Maguyon said. "I think it helps pull guys closer together. We have restaurants we can go to or just activities we can do in the city."

According to the league website, the NAHL set a new single-season NCAA record with 280-plus commitments, and the Rebels had 12 commit to Divison I programs. Head coach Joe Coombs has built a tier-II junior hockey powerhouse over the past two years. Last season, the Rebels finished with the NAHL’s best regular-season record, advancing to the championship game of the Robertson Cup in Duluth, Minnesota, where they came up short in a 2-0 loss to the Lone Star Brahmas. 

“This is business,” Coombs said. “Let’s bring the game to the people. Over the last two years, we struggled with our attendance. I didn’t even know this place was here — UPenn hockey rink — and we couldn’t think of a better venue right here in University City to try and market our brand of hockey and bring our game to the people.”  

And who knows? You might just see a few former Flyers in the seats, as well.