VOORHEES, N.J. – The voting for this year’s Frank Selke Trophy (NHL best defensive forward) could be so close that a decision could come down to a single ballot.
If Ron Hextall had that ballot, the Flyers’ Sean Couturier would walk away with the prize.
Couturier has a chance to finally get past Boston’s Patrice Bergeron and Los Angeles’ Anze Kopitar, based on strong numbers and exceptional all around play.
Going into Tuesday night’s game at the Islanders, Couturier sports a gaudy plus-28, along with career highs in goals (31), assists (40) and points (71) in 79 games.
Bergeron, who has won the award a record-tying four times, has a plus-26 but has 10 fewer points and 20 fewer games.
Kopitar enjoyed a terrific March and recently cracked the 90-point mark but doesn’t always draw the Ovechkins and Crosbys as Couturier and Bergeron do.
“When you look at guys who have really good seasons, it always starts in the summer,’’ Hextall said of Couturier’s 2017 offseason work. “You have to put your time in or you’re not going to get off to a good start.
“It takes half a year to get in shape. I think he came back extremely focused this year. Probably a little more belief in himself than he’s had in the past. He’s been around a long time. At some point, he believed he could be a better player.
“That’s good because we’ve been talking about it for a couple years. As far as the Selke, he’s the guy. Am I biased? Maybe a little. But I do watch other games. He’s a horse for us, plays against top lines every night. Produced at a high level His defensive play is phenomenal. I believe he should win.
Comfortable with Manning-Gudas
The defense pairing of Brandon Manning and Radko Gudas occasionally comes under fire for uneven play but it’s not drawing criticism from Hextall.
Even if the Flyers meet a speed team like Pittsburgh in the playoffs, Hextall is OK with the two veterans together.
“I’m comfortable with it, those guys have played good for us this year,’’ Hextall said. “Brandon Manning is one of those guys, if you’re on the other team, you probably don’t want to play against. . .he’s a hard player to play against. He takes up space, he boxes out, he does a lot of little things that people don’t notice.
“And Gudas is Gudas. I don’t have any problem with that tandem.’’
As for Robert Hagg sitting for so long, Hextall said Hagg has played 70 games and that’s not a problem for a rookie. “Hagg is a good player and when he gets back in, he will do a good job for us,’’ Hextall said.
Hextall said goaltender Michal Neuvirth “is doing better’’ and still on a day-to-day timeframe. . .As for starting goaltender Brian Elliott, Hextall said: “We can’t even speculate on that. We need to put the best team on the ice everyday to give us the best chance to win. If we clinch, it becomes a little bit different.’’ Elliott hopes to play in one of the last three regular-season games, perhaps the season finale against the Rangers on Saturday.
Wayne Simmonds does have 23 goals but his minus-15 jumps out at you. He’s been through several significant injuries and Hextall noted that in defending his veteran forward.
“I think there have been times when he hasn’t played as well as he can play,’’ Hextall said. “Last three or four games (except for a flub late in the Boston game) he’s been a pretty good player for us.
“Can he play a little better, yeah.’’