The Flyers’ offseason has seen their defense take some major hits.
The blue line, which showed major weaknesses in the team’s 4-1 series loss to the New Jersey Devils, will be without Chris Pronger, Andrej Meszaros and Andreas Lilja for opening day. Pronger appears to be done for good, and Meszaros could miss the whole regular season recovering from a torn Achilles tendon.
The Flyers also failed to add a significant newcomer to the defensive corps, publicly whiffing on high-profile targets like Shea Weber and Ryan Suter.
With the dust of free agency settling, there is little that GM Paul Holmgren can do to upgrade without blowing up the roster.
Here are four ways to fix the defense without making a desperate move.
Last season, rookie defensemen Marc-Andre Bourdon and Erik Gustafsson combined to play in 75 regular season games and eight playoff games.
While neither player put up significant scoring numbers, both managed to prove that they are NHL-ready by playing consistent, responsible defense.
Bourdon showed signs of being a big-body presence in the defensive zone, while Gustafsson has proven to be a crafty puck-mover whose hockey instincts are developing quickly.
At this point, there is no reason to believe that these two players could not be everyday players in the NHL. Few teams would feel comfortable devoting one-third of their defensive lineup to players with such limited experience, but the Flyers may find that they can trust the third pairing to these youngsters.
At this point in their careers, Kimmo Timonen is beginning to show his age and Luke Schenn is still displaying his inexperience. Both of these players are now top-four defensemen for the Flyers, but they are on opposite ends of their prime.
This means that the top unit is the pairing of Braydon Coburn and Nicklas Grossmann, and this pair needs to get the biggest minutes.
They are the two strongest defensive presences on the Flyers. Grossmann proved to be a bully around the crease during his time with the Flyers last season, and Coburn has been steadily developing with the Flyers since 2007.
The Flyers need to avoid overworking Kimmo Timonen and have to ease Schenn into the new system. That puts the burden of responsibility on Grossmann and Coburn.
It is impossible to talk about the Flyers’ defensive concerns without bringing up Ilya Bryzgalov.
Bryzgalov’s performance inevitably highlights the defense, for better or for worse.
When Bryz is making consistent saves, the defense looks good and performs well. When he is letting in soft goals, the defense’s confidence is rattled and the entire unit suffers.
With defense becoming such a concern as the team prepares for the 2012-13 season, head coach Peter Laviolette needs to put his trust in Bryzgalov, that the goalie can be an anchor for the struggling defensive unit.
This means committing to Bryzgalov as a starter. Last season, Bryz started 57 games, significantly fewer than he was used to in Phoenix.
It seemed he had to constantly look over his shoulder at backup Sergei Bobrovsky.
In 2012-13, Bryz should start in at least 65 games, in order to become the goalie the team expects him to be. If he has a few off nights, he should not be benched. He must be allowed to find his groove in Philly.
The Flyers should avoid making a long-term, desperate move at all costs. That means no trading for Jay Bouwmeester (via CBS Sports).
However, the Flyers could add some depth by bringing in one more low-cost, low-commitment, mid-level defenseman. The Flyers currently have Bruno Gervais, who could anchor the third pairing with either Marc-Andre Bourdon or Erik Gustafsson, but another injury or two would leave the Flyers in no-man’s land.
Carlo Colaiacovo is a sensible candidate for the Flyers’ third pairing, and would likely come with a reasonable price tag.
The most important factor for Holmgren to keep in mind is not to over-commit to anyone. At this time, there is no reason to sign a player beyond the 2012-13 season. Adding another veteran to the blue line will put too many cooks in the proverbial kitchen once Lilja and Meszaros return.
Overall, the Flyers must make sure not to panic. There is a lot of depth in the team’s current defense, and they can hold seven capable defensemen on their roster.
This defense is capable of being successful as long as the whole team does the little things right.