Ron Hextall says he “jumped off my couch” when the Flyers unexpectedly landed No. 2 pick Nolan Patrick in the NHL lottery.
Mike Vecchione’s reaction was similar.
For a completely different reason.
Courted by a handful of NHL teams during his senior season at Union College, Vecchione and his agent went through a painstaking process to decide the best fit. The Flyers too, who had invited Vecchione to a couple development camps, were in full wooing mode, well aware of Vecchione’s evolution during college into a dependable, mature two-way forward with a knack for winning faceoffs. And they had what was then perceived to be a need for immediate and future depth at the center position.
My how things have changed, at least perceptually. Coming off his second core muscle surgery in as many summers, Patrick skated pain free during the first day of rookie camp yesterday and, said head coach Dave Hakstol, “looked strong.”
But the real wild card in the latest bad hand dealt to the 24-year-old Vecchione was the contract Scott Laughton received as development camp ended in July — a two-year, $1.9 million deal that at least implied a roster spot on the big club come October.
This is Mike Vecchione’s ongoing story. Largely overlooked because of his size despite an outstanding high school career at Malden Catholic outside of Boston, Vecchione has already taken a much longer route to the NHL than the touted draft picks of his age group, many who are already established NHL veterans.
He played a couple of years in the USHL while his body matured, headed to Union College after a coaching change at the University of New Hampshire left him feeling unwanted. He bounced back from a tough junior season with a breakout senior year, amassing 63 points and earning a nomination as one of the finalists for the Hobey Baker award.
“It’s always been a numbers game for me,” Vecchione said Monday as the Flyers began their rookie camp at Skate Zone in Voorhees. “I’ve always expected that kind of stuff. It’s only made me a better player. You get the best out of a player when somebody is in front of you. I know there are a lot of guys in front of me. And I have to work harder to jump ahead of them. And that’s only going to bring out the best in me.’’
Laughton spent the entire 2015-16 season on the Flyers roster, scoring seven goals and amassing 21 points and being generally viewed as a bust. After playing just two games with the Flyers and spending most of last season at Lehigh Valley, he seemed likely to be left unprotected in the expansion draft.
Whether it was his relative young age (23), his lofty draft status – Laughton was the Flyers first pick in the 2012 draft – or something else, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall opted instead to protect Laughton, cut loose centerman Chris VandeVelde and expose valued veteran penalty killer and fourth-line winger Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. Las Vegas plucked the popular 32-year-old Frenchman.
“Scotty had a terrific year,” Hextall said before development camp began. “He improved a lot, I think his focus and professionalism, quite honestly. I think Scotty really grew up last year.”
Then why woo and sign Vecchione? Well you can never have too many centers in your system. Vecchione was also a winger at one point in his career. And because Hextall couldn’t have possibly predicted his luck in last June’s draft, moving up 11 spots to nab one of the two coveted Junior players available.
Before that, Vecchione and Laughton were likely to be Flyers. Now? Now Vecchione either has to upset Hextall’s unspoken apple cart, or hope Patrick’s surgery and/or relative rust – he played in just 33 games last season – induces Hextall to send him back to the Brandon Wheat Kings at the start of the season.
“It is what it is,” he said. “You can’t really dwell on those things. You just have to go out there and work hard. Nolan’s a great player. And he’s a great kid. It’s good. It brings out more of the competitiveness out there.”
Still, it raises the question. If he knew then what he knows now, would Vecchione have signed with the Flyers last spring? He insists he would, that he has never backed off a challenge, and that the organization was more important to him than the window of opportunity presented at the time.
He’s seen those windows open and close before. So far, it hasn’t stopped him.
“I’ve always had to work for it,” he said. “Nothing new to me. Obviously you want to make the big team. But it’s not the end of the world if you go down to play. They’re really good here about developing kids and bringing them back up. In the end, we’re all part of the Flyers organization. They want the best for us. They want us all to excel. I came in here focused on doing whatever it takes to make the big team and I won’t be disappointed if I’m don’t because I know in my heart I gave it everything that I have.”
Buzzing the net
- Chris VandeVelde, who played the last four seasons with the Flyers, signed a professional tryout agreement with the Ottawa Senators Monday. The 30-year-old center, who scored six goals and had 15 points in 81 games for the Flyers last season, will attempt to win a spot when the Sens’ training camp begins Thursday. Another former Flyer, Harry Zolnierczyk, is on a PTA with Florida.
- When the Flyers visit Nashville on the fourth game of their season-opening road swing (Oct. 10), the Predators will be without their star defenseman Ryan Ellis. After playing all 22 of Nashville’s playoff games with an injured left knee, the 26-year-old underwent knee surgery in June and has yet to begin skating. Preds GM Dave Poile expects he will be out until at least Christmas. Ellis had 16 goals and 38 points last season, both career highs.
- The Kings get the first crack at the newest NHL expansion team when their rookies face off against Las Vegas’ rookies Tuesday.
- At least one oddsmaker is not impressed with the moves the Flyers made this summer. The day after the season ended, Bovada.com listed the Flyers chances to win the Stanley Cup at 40-to-1. Their odds released Monday had them at 50-to-1.