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Why It Clicked: NHLers explain their career seasons

September is here and opening night of the 2018-19 NHL season is three weeks away, which means everything resets. What happened last season doesn’t matter and players’ sole focus now is to try and look forward and either build off 2017-18 or completely forget it in some cases.

At the NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago last week, Pro Hockey Talk spoke to four players who enter this season coming off career years offensively. We wanted to know from them why it all came together last season.

Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers: 34 goals, 68 assists, 102 points

A huge reason why Giroux had the year that he did was that he was attached to the hip of Sean Couturier. Moving to the wing, the Flyers captain spent over 80 percent of his time at even strength with Couturier, per Dobber Hockey, which resulted in both forwards posting offensive bests.

“I think it was a little bit of everything,” he said. “Being able to go on the wing and have a new position… at first I was a little uncomfortable, but after a few preseason games and regular season games you get in a rhythm. Being able to play with Coots, he’s a very smart player. We just had that chemistry going.”

It was a competitive year for the Hart Trophy, and while a case could have been made for Giroux winning MVP, he ended up finishing fourth in the voting by the Professional Hockey Writers Association.

Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils: 39 goals, 54 assists, 93 points

The Devils returned to the postseason for the first time in six years, thanks heavily in part to Hall carrying the team on his back during the second half. Fully comfortable in his new settings, the 26-year-old forward recorded points on a regular basis, with his play resulting in the franchise being able to tout its first Hart Trophy winner.

[Hall not expecting complacency from Devils]

A newfound partnership with the 2017 No. 1 overall pick helped and there was likely some motivation to continue sticking it to the Edmonton Oilers’ brass, who dealt him away in a surprise trade in 2016 — a decision that Hall said made him feel “slighted.”

“We added a lot more talent to our team and we became a team that really played fast and really played tenacious,” Hall said last week. “I think that my game meshed perfectly with the team and [I] found some really good chemistry with Nico [Hischier] and then from there, I don’t know if a 26-game point streak is ever going to happen again. It was just one of those things that happened. As far as being a successful player, a successful offensive player, I have no doubt that I can do that [this season] for the Devils. I’m excited to see what happens.”

Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche: 39 goals, 58 assists, 97 points

When you’re good friends with Sidney Crosby and spend your summers working out with one of the NHL’s best, you tend to pick up a thing or two. For MacKinnon, it was only a matter of time before he took the next step in his development following back-to-back 50-point seasons. With some better talent around him on a line with Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, 2018-19 was his year.

It all paid off as MacKinnon finished second in the Hart voting behind Hall as he helped the Avalanche back into the postseason.

“Experience. Just being my fifth year in the league, I got more comfortable with myself and my game,” he said. “It was all mental. I might have gotten a little bit better with my physical tools but nothing too drastic for the jump ahead. It was more mental.”

Vincent Trocheck, Florida Panthers: 31 goals, 44 assists, 75 points

The one constant for Trocheck for most of last season was Jonathan Huberdeau, who would score 27 goals. Spending a lot of time next to Huberdeau, Trocheck would take advantage of a bump in ice time and not pass up many opportunities to shoot en route to personal bests offensively.

The Pittsburgh native would also make good use of power play time, leading the team with 13 PPGs and 27 points with the man advantage.

“There was a lot of opportunity last year. I think a lot of it has to do with that,” Trocheck said. “The way the team was playing the first half of the year, I kind of had to take the onus on myself to take that extra step. And there’s a few of us, [Aleksander] Barkov, Huberdeau, guys like that, who stepped it up as well offensively. It was just a matter of clicking with each other, and I think there was a lot more chemistry.”

MORE: NHL Player Media Tour 2018 Notebook

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Flyers’ Sean Couturier out four weeks with another knee injury

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Philadelphia Flyers center Sean Couturier is out four weeks after injuring his knee for the second time in five months.

General manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday that Couturier was injured Aug. 10 during an offseason exhibition game. Hextall expects Couturier to be a limited participant in training camp when the Flyers get on the ice Sept. 14 and for the 25-year-old to be full-go halfway in and play in some preseason games.

Dancing around specific details, Hextall would only say the injury was not in the exact same spot as when Couturier damaged the medial collateral ligament in his right knee during the playoffs when he collided with teammate Radko Gudas in practice.

”It’s not a re-injury,” Hextall said on a conference call. ”He was 100 percent at the time, had more than enough time to heal after the season.”

Couturier was playing in the summer Boot Camp Tournament in Quebec City when the latest injury happened. Hextall called it a ”freak” accident, which similarly describes the knee-on-knee collision with Gudas in April.

”He was participating in a game, kind of an innocent play, and things happen,” Hextall said. ”It was just kind of a play in front of the net and it was a rebound and his leg just went the wrong way.”

 [2017-18 review | Breakthrough: Konecny | Under Pressure: JvR | 3 Questions]

Hextall said the team has no plans to forbid players from participating in summer leagues or tournaments.

”We want our guys to train hard and train the proper way, but you see guys on other teams getting hurt literally training,” Hextall said. ”They do train hard and there is some risk every day.”

The Edmonton Oilers recently announced that defenseman Andrej Sekera was out indefinitely after having surgery on an Achilles tendon torn during offseason training. Hextall said Couturier would not require surgery, as was the case with his previous knee injury.

Couturier is coming off a breakout season in which he was promoted to Philadelphia’s No. 1 center and set career highs with 31 goals, 45 assists and 76 points. He was third on the team in scoring and finished second in voting for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward.

His injury isn’t expected to alter the Flyers’ plans to keep captain Claude Giroux at left wing after he flourished there last season playing on a line with Couturier. Hextall also isn’t concerned about Couturier being more susceptible to knee injuries moving forward.

”This type of injury heals fairly quickly and fairly well,” Hextall said. ”I don’t anticipate this being an issue.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno .

Three questions facing Philadelphia Flyers

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Philadelphia Flyers.

1. Is their goaltending good enough to take them on a long playoff run? 

Going into last season, not many people expected the Flyers to be a playoff team. Sure, they were one of the up and coming squads in the league, but expecting them to make the postseason seemed to be a bit of a stretch. But they made the playoffs. They eventually lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round, but it was a positive season overall.

As always, the Flyers had issues with their goaltenders at times. The duo of Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth suffered through injuries and inconsistency, so GM Ron Hextall went out and acquired Petr Mrazek from Detroit. The Mrazek acquisition didn’t work out, so he’s no longer with the team (he signed with Carolina in free agency).

The big question is whether or not the Flyers can get it done with a duo of Elliott and Neuvirth. Both goaltenders aren’t true number ones at the NHL level. They go through times where they look like they are, but they tend to come crashing back down to earth eventually. Both are veterans, so it’s unlikely that they’ll suddenly emerge as superstar netminders.

[2017-18 review | Breakthrough: Travis Konecny | Under Pressure: JvR]

The wild card is all of this is Carter Hart. The top prospect is turning pro this year, which means he has zero experience at this level. He’ll start the year in the AHL, but what happens if he dominates at a young age? It’s not likely, but the possibility can’t be ignored.

Ultimately, the Flyers will probably have to roll with Elliott and Neuvrith. That means that a long playoff run is unlikely. Making it out of the first round with that duo would be a bonus for this team.

2. What happens to Wayne Simmonds?

This is a contract year for Simmonds, who had 24 goals and 46 points in 75 games last season. Those are the lowest offensive totals he’s put up during a full season since 2010-11. It’s hard to blame him when you look at all the injuries he dealt with. At trade deadline time, there were rumblings that the Flyers were willing to unload the rugged winger.

Now that they’ve inked James van Riemsdyk to a massive five-year contract, there might not be anymore room for Simmonds. That’s where things get a little tricky for Philadelphia. If they’re in the middle of a playoff race, can they really afford to let go via trade? Probably not. On the flip side, are they good enough that they can keep him and then lose him for nothing in free agency? Again, probably not.

So they’ll have to make a huge decision at some point. There’s a chance that management isn’t interested in bringing him back on a long-term deal that a player of his caliber will command on the open market. That’s understandable, too. He’s almost 30, he plays a physical style and he’s had his share of injuries. Players like Simmonds rarely age well.

“I’ve played in this league a long time and I think you come to realize as a player if you’re not at your top, you’re probably not going to be getting probably what you usually should,” Simmonds said, per NBC Sports Philly. “I know that’s what maybe went down at the end, there’s not really much I can say about that. If I was 100 percent, then I think there might be some annoyance, but I wasn’t 100 percent and I understand the situation that we’re in, the position that we’re in, we were fighting for the playoffs.”

The Flyers also have a number of in-house options that could step into a top-six role, as well. With Simmonds on the shelf, youngster Nolan Patrick saw his ice time increase. The second overall pick’s ice time probably won’t be going down this season, either.

3. Can Sean Couturier replicate what he did last season? 

Coutier was one of the biggest surprises in the NHL last season. The 25-year-old had a career-high 31 goals and 76 points in 2017-18, which was 37 points more than his previous high. Those numbers came out of nowhere. Couturier was always regarded as a solid two-way player, but by putting him on a line with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek, the Flyers discovered that he had a lot more to give.

Unfortunately for Couturier, he suffered a torn MCL after he collided with teammate Radko Gudas during a practice in April. He ended up missing Game 4 of the first-round series against the Pens, but he eventually came back and even had a five-point night in the final game of the series.

Couturier was expected to be ready to go for training camp, but this story took an interesting twist on Wednesday as Hextall announced the forward will miss a month with a knee injury.

All things considered, that’s not so bad (it could have been a lot worse). The big question now is: how will back-to-back knee injuries affect him both physically and mentally? The Flyers need Couturier to be the player he was last year. Anything less will be a huge disappointment.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Building off a breakthrough: Travis Konecny

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Flyers have a couple of players who could be restricted free agents in the summer of 2019. One of them in Konecny, who posted 24-23—47 in 81 games last season while averaging 14:54 of ice time. He was most productive with linemates Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux, chipping in 27 of his 47 points at 5-on-5 with those two. The top line chemistry was unmatched as all three produced career seasons.

That was a big difference from 2016-17 when he was mixing time with Couturier, Jake Voracek, Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn during a rookie season that produced 10 goals and 28 points in just over 14 minutes of ice time a night.

[2017-18 review | Under Pressure: JvR | 3 Questions]

He learned from those rookie year benchings, minimized his mistakes and took smarter risks. All of that combined for a breakout season and the trust of head coach Dave Hakstol that he can hold his own on the top line.

But how much of his success can be attributed to the seasons of Couturier and Giroux? Konecny wasn’t as productive during early and late seasons stints off the top line and the defensive side of his game also suffered away from those two. Which should probably tell Hakstol to keep the 21-year-old with them, seeing as how well they work together and that there could be more to his game that’s yet to be unlocked.

“I think I’ve narrowed my game to where it’s effective for me and the team,” Konecny said in March. “This is good for me, I’m learning a lot. Honestly, I’m trying to play as safe as I can and as smart as I can and gain the trust of the coaching staff. Things like good defense leads to good offense, everyone says it, and cliché, but it seems to be working. I was worried about making mistakes before earlier this season. As of right now, I’m playing with a confidence that if I can’t make a play this time, I’ll get a chance to make a play the next time.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

It’s Philadelphia Flyers day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Philadelphia Flyers.

2017-18
42–26–14, 98 pts. (3rd in the Metropolitan Division, 6th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Lost in six games to the Pittsburgh Penguins, first round

IN
James van Riemsdyk
Christian Folin

OUT
Valtteri Filppula
Colin McDonald
Brandon Manning
Petr Mrazek
Matt Read

RE-SIGNED
Samuel Morin
Alex Lyon
Robert Hagg

It was a bumpy ride as the Flyers returned to the Stanley Cup Playoffs after a year off in 2017. The end of November saw the team holding an 8-10-7 record as they were in the middle of a 10-game losing streak. “Fire Hakstol” chants rang throughout Wells Fargo Center, but general manager Ron Hextall was preaching patience and stuck by his head coach. That losing streak was then followed by seven wins in eight games and strong months in January and February that helped put them into the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

The season ended in disappointment after a first-round exit at the hands of their rivals in Pittsburgh, but there were a lot of bright spots that were encouraging signs moving forward.

[Breakthrough: Travis Konecny | Under Pressure: JvR | 3 Questions]

Nolan Patrick, the No. 2 overall pick in 2017, had a strong rookie season with 13 goals and 30 points. Travis Konecny potted 24 goals and Scott Laughton and Jordan Weal saw extended ice time. That coupled with a 100-point season from Claude Giroux, an 85-point campaign from Jake Voracek, a 31-goal year from Sean Couturier and more steps forward for young blue liners Shayne Gostisbehere (65 points) and Ivan Provorov (17 goals, 24:09 TOI) set a nice foundation for 2018-19.

The addition of James van Riemsdyk could mean bye-bye to Wayne Simmonds. Or an extension. Who knows? Ask Hextall. But JvR’s addition gives the offense a boost and will aid their power play (JvR scored 11 PPGs in 2017-18).

Petr Mrazek is gone, so it’s Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth, who are both UFAs next summer, in goal again, with Carter Hart looming as the ‘tender of the future.

The Flyers have cap space to add a piece, if needed, and a highly-rated prospect pool. In a tough Metropolitan Division, they’ll need to get more from their youth and continue relying on their veterans in order to navigate an 82-game slate and find themselves as one of the lucky 16 teams playing in mid-April.

Prospect Pool

Joel Farabee, LW, 18, Boston University (NCAA) — 2018 first-round pick

Known for his two-way play, Farabee enters his freshman year with the Terriers coming off a productive season with the U.S. National Team Development Program. He scored 33 goals and recorded 76 points with the U-18s and posted 40 points in 26 games during their season in the USHL. While serving as captain for the Americans at the U-18 Worlds, he scored four goals eight points in seven games. So you can see why the Flyers were happy to get him 14th overall in June.

“He disguises whether it’s a shot or a pass,” Hextall said after development camp in July. “He’s got really quick hands. A lot of guys will come down, the goalie knows where they’re going to shoot, so you see goalies make a save and go, ‘That was quick.’ It really wasn’t because they read the puck off the stick blade. The puck is really hard to react to. Joel hides things. If he’s going to shoot the puck, he’ll turn his hands real quick, bang and let it go. Or he’ll open up for a shot and he’ll pass the puck. A lot of top guys in the league, you wonder why they score or how that pass went through … they’re showing hands to the defenseman, to the goalie. Joel is one of those guys.”

Carter Hart, G, 19, Everett Silvertips (WHL) — 2016 second-round pick

The 2017-18 WHL Player and Goalie of the Year was also the first player in CHL history to win the junior hockey goaltender of the year twice. He had a remarkable season with 41 wins, a 1.60 goals against average, seven shutouts and a .947 save percentage with the Silvertips. In the middle of that, he backstopped Canada to gold at the World Junior Championship with a 1.81 GAA and .930 SV% in six games. He’ll have a shot to get some time in the NHL, but he’ll likely be in AHL Lehigh Valley to get some seasoning as the Flyers figure out their goaltending situation for the future.

Morgan Frost, C, 19, Sault Ste. Marie (OHL) — 2017 first-round pick

Also getting a shot to stick with the big club is Frost, who put up 112-points last season. He’s doubled his goal output in junior in each of the last two seasons and his point total has jumped from 27 to 62 to 112 since 2015-16. He has playmaking ability and is a possibility to fill the third line center role. But Hextall has made it sounds like Frost is a little lower on the depth chart at the moment and like Hart, could see himself furthering his development in the AHL this season.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.