VOORHEES, N.J. – To hear coaches and players tell it, Marc Staal is almost as valuable off the ice as he is on it.
The Flyers’ veteran defenseman, who has been sidelined for the better part of a month by a rib injury, was cleared to play on Tuesday and could be in the lineup on Wednesday night when the team visits the New York Islanders.
During Tuesday’s practice at the Flyers Training Center, Staal was paired with rookie backliner Egor Zamula, a tandem which makes sense since there’s a teacher-student thing going on there, no doubt.
Keep in mind Staal signed with the Flyers as a free agent over the summer after helping lead the Florida Panthers to the Stanley Cup Final last season.
Coach John Tortorella usually doesn’t usually make many roster changes after a victory and the Flyers have now strung five of those together.
“Looking forward to getting back in soon,” Staal said, mindful that Tortorella had not yet announced a starting lineup for the game on Long Island. “I think a couple guys have switched in and out over the last five games, so I don’t think it’s that big a deal.
“They’ve been playing really well and it’s been fun to watch. It’s been a lot easier to watch when they’re winning like that. So I’m looking forward to being a part of it.”
While he’s been touted in some quarters as almost another assistant coach, Staal does admit he likes to help out where he can. Youngsters such as Zamula and Cam York can always use a tip or two.
“It’s a little harder when you’re not playing,” Staal admitted. “Obviously you can only watch so much when you’re not in it. I think after a game, if there’s open dialogue about little plays and preparation for certain teams, for younger guys who haven’t played here that much, it’s hard when you don’t know who you’re playing against.
“It gets easier the more you play. You see the same players, you get to know their tendencies. Maybe just sharing a little bit of that information before the game starts. Who to keep your head up with and who you can make a play around. I try as much as I can but generally you have to be out there. These (young) guys are good, they know what they’re doing.”
Another veteran, defenseman Nick Seeler, said Staal is invaluable to have around, not only for the defense but for the entire roster.
“A guy with that much experience, whoever he’s with, he settles him down,” Seeler said. “He has that veteran presence about him. I definitely think that will help whoever he’s with.”
Just having him around – in the locker room, on trains, planes and buses – can add some calmness but at the same time, an inspirational element.
“He’s a great locker room guy,” Seeler said. “Great to have around, especially for the young guys.”
>Penalty kill improving
After finishing 26th in NHL penalty killing last season (74.6 percent), the Flyers have improved to 14th thus far this season (81.6 percent). In close games, this can make a big difference.
At the moment, the Flyers actually have more penalty killers than most teams usually need, leading off with the forward pairing of Sean Couturier-Cam Atkinson.
Tortorella certainly doesn’t mind this abundance of riches. He tries to use three different forward pairings as much as he can.
“I just make the decision who I’m going to use,” Tortorella said with a chuckle, mindful that Couturier only received 10 seconds of penalty kill time in the win over Columbus. “I’ve been using him 20-plus (minutes for the game). I’ve been trying to manage his minutes a little better. We’ve got some good ones.
“(Ryan) Poehling, both as a penalty killer and as a forward, he puts a lot of different looks to taking people’s ice time. For the last little while he’s played pretty well. Cam comes back, I know him as a penalty killer, I used him for six years (in Columbus). We’ll see where it all goes. But I like the three pairs I’ve been using.”
What pleases Tortorella most is the penalty kill is “in sync.”
“With the PK, you can tell if you are out sync,” he said. “I just think they’re all in sync and they’ve picked the right times to push, to be aggressive.”