Flyers' Akeson facing tough roster battle

NEW YORK - The puck drops on the Flyers' season a week from Wednesday and this is the longest forward Jason Akeson has lasted in an NHL training camp.

Last fall, Akeson was jettisoned quickly by Peter Laviolette, not even making it past the first round of cuts to train with the team in Lake Placid.

Two seasons ago, Akeson didn't even make the AHL Phantoms' roster, despite leading the team in scoring the previous year.

What a strange feeling it must have been then for Akeson Monday night, stepping onto the ice at Madison Square Garden. He was in uncharted territory for his career, yet one of only four Flyers forwards in the lineup for Monday night's preseason game who also faced the Rangers in the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring.

The other eight forwards in Craig Berube's lineup - which barely met the NHL minimum number of veterans for a preseason game - were all gunning for Akeson's spot.

"I got a chance last year and I made a little bit of noise for myself," Akeson said. "I got the opportunity and I tried to run with it. It was a pretty cool first experience, that's for sure. The crazy thing is that I'm only halfway there."

Akeson, 24, skated in the Flyers' regular-season finale and Berube decided to stick with him for all seven playoff games. He spent the entire summer training in his hometown of Ottawa with close friend Claude Giroux under the auspices of guru Tony Greco.

Akeson returned to Philadelphia with an awkward mix of comfort "just based on the way last year ended up," but also the need to prove himself because he has never been a full-time NHL player.

That larger comfort zone might be working against him.

"He's showed me things at times. At other times, he's looked slow," Berube said candidly after the Flyers' 6-3 loss to the Rangers. "He really has to move his feet. He has to be competitive. He's not a big guy, not the fastest guy. Sometimes, he looks OK and makes some plays when he has a little bit of time. But when he doesn't, he looks slow sometimes. He's got to be real competitive all the time."

In other words, even with his playoff experience last April, nothing is guaranteed.

Akeson is locked into a roster battle with Blair Jones and Chris VandeVelde - two players with significantly more NHL experience - to skate on the Flyers' third or fourth line.

Generously listed at 5-10, Akeson can be noticeable when he wants to be. His hands are smooth and he can make plays with the puck that Jones and VandeVelde could only dream of making. He beat Henrik Lundqvist Monday night in the second period off an impressive, cross-ice one-timer from Zac Rinaldo.

Yet, Akeson is not nearly as versatile as the other two. He likely isn't a candidate to kill penalties, his play in the defensive zone has previously been a question mark, and he hasn't shown the consistency that Jones and VandeVelde have displayed.

"It takes a couple games to get the legs under you," Akeson said, when asked to evaluate his preseason. "I think when the season comes, it will be full force and we'll be going 110 ."

Akeson's road has not been an easy one. Even last spring, he had an unenviable learning experience in Game 1 of the playoffs. He was whistled for a double-minor high-sticking penalty that was a complete accident in the third period of a tied game. The Rangers scored twice and took Game 1. Akeson was the scapegoat, a memory he said Monday night he "tried to bury" after "doing my part in the other games."

The Flyers, of course, lost in Game 7. The Rangers went on to the Stanley Cup final. And Akeson, the sort-of veteran, is still trying to prove he belongs.

"I got my name on that board last year and I want to stick there," Akeson said. "I want to be here this year. I want to show the coaching staff that I'm ready to play at this level. Hopefully, I can get that shot."

 

Slap shots

The Flyers (2-3-1) were outshot by an astounding 78-41 margin over the last two nights. Craig Berube shrugged off the losses because of the "young lineup" he dressed, facing five exhibitions in six nights this week . . . Braydon Coburn and Andrew MacDonald were on the ice for three of the Rangers' six goals. When asked about the play of his two veteran defensemen in a light lineup, Berube said: "They've got to turn it on. They've got to turn it up. They've got to play better" . . . Shayne Gostisbehere, who beat Henrik Lundqvist with a beautiful slap shot from the point, continued to impress . . . Steve Mason shouldered the heat Monday night: "I have to be better. In order for us to come in here with the lineup we have, I have to be a better player" . . . Berube said Ray Emery ("lower-body" injury) could be healthy enough to play tonight against the Rangers.

 


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