NEW YORK - That Sam Gagner centered a line with Wayne Simmonds last night at Madison Square Garden had nothing to do with Sean Couturier being sidelined, coach Dave Hakstol said.
But the fact that it was Gagner's number that was called shows the importance of versatility, which Hakstol has so frequently mentioned throughout his first NHL training camp. With more than enough natural centers, Gagner is one of those being tested in different spots.
"I think versatility is important in a player, and Sam has some of that versatility," Hakstol said. "That's why we're asking him. He gave us a few solid days at left wing. He's given us a couple on right wing now. Let's see what he looks like without our group up the middle. I think it's important. It's valuable if you can have that.
"I think this is a great opportunity to see Sam up the middle. Not because he will most likely start the year there, but because, at some point in time, it may make sense to bring him back there, because it has been his natural position. That's why I want to get a look at it."
Last night was the Flyers' fourth preseason game. Gagner has played in all of them and was in his third forward position against the Rangers, centering a line with Simmonds and R.J. Umberger in the absence of Couturier, out with what the team called an upper-body injury.
Gagner had a slow start in the Flyers' 3-2 overtime loss. Although there were six total penalties in the first two periods, he saw little time on special teams, and the line didn't do much offensively in the little time they were all together. Gagner appeared to get more comfortable at center as the game went on and registered two shots on goal.
Gagner, who was acquired in June from Arizona, played all three forward spots last season for the Coyotes.
"I think you want to be able to show your versatility," Gagner said. "There's different things that happen throughout the year. As much as you'd like every line to stay the same throughout the course of the season, it just doesn't happen that way. There are injuries that happen, guys go into slumps; you need to be able to fill in anywhere that you can."
Through eight NHL seasons, Gagner, selected sixth overall by Edmonton in the 2007 draft, hasn't yet reached the offensive potential many thought he had when he was drafted. He had 118 points in his final season of junior hockey, playing for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.
His career high of 49 points came in his rookie season. Last season, he had 41 points for Arizona. He hasn't scored more than 18 goals in any season. Gagner's best stretch of play came during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, when he recorded 38 points in 48 games for the Oilers. Now 26, he's trying to draw some confidence from that season.
"My points per game were the highest they've been," Gagner said. "The next year (2013-14), I felt good coming into camp, then I had the injury (broken jaw). Then last year was kind of an off year, numberswise."
Last season, Gagner's 41 points were second-best on the Coyotes. That total would have been sixth-best on a Flyers team that finished 14 points out of a playoff spot. Arizona scored the second-fewest goals (170) in the league last season.
"When that happens, it's tough for anyone to produce," Gagner said. "But you gotta put your work boots on and make sure that you're finding ways to get better.
"I think there's definitely another level I can get to, and that lockout-shortened season is probably indicative of what I think I can accomplish at this stage in my career. For me, it's about the all-around game and making sure that I can be trusted on both sides of the puck and play in all situations."
Sean Couturier is day-to-day with his upper-body injury. The initial thought when Couturier missed some practice time was that it was a lingering effect from a slash he took in the back of the right knee from New York's Jarret Stoll in last Tuesday's win over the Rangers.
The Flyers were off Wednesday and Couturier practiced Thursday before being one of the team's multiple scratches in Friday night's win over the Islanders. He returned to practice Saturday but only briefly skated alone before Sunday's practice. He did not skate during yesterday's morning skate.
Couturier, who this offseason signed a six-year contract extension through 2022, is expected to be available for next Thursday's season opener in Tampa Bay.
Michael Raffl, who had a strong game, left in the third period with an upper-body injury and did not return . . . Backup goaltender Michal Neuvirth was scratched despite participating in the morning skate. Jason LaBarbera served as the backup to Steve Mason. The Flyers called it a "maintenance day" for Neuvirth . . . Mason turned away 41 Rangers shots, including all 16 he faced in the first period . . . The Flyers were outshot, 44-29 . . . Healthy scratches for the Flyers were Michael Del Zotto and Evgeny Medvedev on defense and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Chris Porter and Colin McDonald up front . . . The Flyers got goals from Mark Streit and Wayne Simmonds . . . The Rangers won the game on a penalty shot by Keith Yandle in the overtime period after Scott Laughton was whistled for a questionable hooking penalty.