Offseason injuries to Andreas Lilja and Andrej Meszaros, coupled with the doubts surrounding Chris Pronger’s return to hockey, left the Flyers’ blue line depleted before the lockout even began. Matt Carle was lost to free agency, while Luke Schenn was brought in via a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Schenn’s development is a talking point for those concerned about the Flyers’ defense, as are Kimmo Timonen’s age, Braydon Coburn’s leadership and the general performance of young blueliners.
Should the season happen, the Flyers will look for ways to get the most out of their defensive corps.
Here are six ways the Flyers can get their defense back to competitive status between now and the start of the season, whenever that may be.
While players with NHL-only contracts must go overseas to find ice time, AHL-eligible players remain with their organizations in the minor leagues. For the Flyers, this places third-pair defensemen like Erik Gustafsson and Marc-Andre Bourdon in a setting that will allot them plenty of ice time and development.
As long as their services are not required on the depleted Flyers’ roster, Gustafsson and Bourdon have ample opportunity to sharpen their skills with the Adirondack Phantoms.
While they won’t be facing the NHL’s top talents, they will continue to experience the pace and demands of professional hockey and will be more NHL-ready when the league finally re-opens its doors.
In a normal season, Gustafsson and Bourdon would probably have been called up before they had completely outgrown the AHL. The lockout is a blessing in disguise that could benefit these prospects in the long run.
The Flyers’ goaltending woes are well-documented, and the team knows all too well that Ilya Bryzgalov isn’t exactly an impenetrable fortress behind them.
Thus, the coaching staff needs to focus heavily on shot-blocking, especially with Chris Pronger and Matt Carle out of the Flyers’ starting lineup.
The team must build a culture of players willing to sacrifice, from the forwards covering the points to the defensemen clearing the crease. Shot-blocking results from positioning, and the coaches need to make sure the Flyers stand their ground in the defensive zone.
The fewer shots Bryzgalov faces, the fewer mistakes he can make.
Luke Schenn was Philadelphia’s most significant offseason acquisition, brought in from Toronto in exchange for James van Riemsdyk.
Schenn’s development hit a wall in Toronto, and Philadelphia traded for him in the hopes that a change of scenery will get him back on track to becoming one of hockey’s premier stay-at-home defensemen.
Schenn’s strengths are his shot-blocking and hitting. The shot-blocking will be welcomed by the Flyers’ coaching staff, but the team may actually want Schenn to tone down his use of the body.
Physicality is certainly welcome on a team with the nickname “Broad Street Bullies,” but Schenn has a tendency to put the highlight-reel hit ahead of his defensive positioning. A big-time check does the team little good if it leaves open ice in the defensive zone.
Once coach Peter Laviolette is back in communication with his players, Schenn’s defensive positioning will be a major focal point in practice.
If Schenn can use his body more opportunistically and rely more heavily on keeping opponents from getting near the net, the young defenseman will be back on track to becoming a top blueliner in the league.
Kimmo Timonen is still immensely valuable to the Flyers. He is still responsible with the puck, he is still capable of putting up significant points over the course of the season and he is still a natural leader.
But Timonen is 37 years old and has dealt with injuries sporadically in his Flyers’ career, and the team can no longer give him the demanding physical responsibilities of a first-pair defenseman.
Instead, Timonen should play on the second pairing, serving as a complement and mentor to players like Luke Schenn, Erik Gustafsson and Marc-Andre Bourdon, all of whom have strong potential but would benefit from Timonen’s wisdom on the ice.
Timonen will benefit from a lockout-shortened campaign, and reduced nightly ice time will keep him contributing through the regular season and playoffs.
The Flyers cannot afford to burn him out just because their pairings are depleted by injuries.
Leadership on the Flyers’ blue line is changing quickly. Former captain Chris Pronger may never play hockey again. Alternate captain Kimmo Timonen is in the final year of his contract with the Flyers and is approaching retirement. One of the team’s few tenured veterans, Matt Carle, is now playing with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
It appears that the natural choice as the team’s next defensive leader is the longest-tenured Flyer on the roster, Braydon Coburn. Coburn has developed slowly but steadily since arriving on the team in 2007, and as Timonen’s age catches up with him, primary defensive responsibilities will fall upon Coburn.
Coburn should be the go-to defenseman to match up with opposing scoring threats, as well as the quarterback of the powerplay.
He may not possess the offensive prowess of Timonen or Meszaros, but this defense needs a rock to build around. It is time to start structuring the whole look of the defense around Coburn.
Nobody likes the NHL lockout, but the Flyers can probably see a silver lining in the fact that the season is likely to be shortened significantly. The more games missed, the closer the Flyers are to getting Andrej Meszaros back without paying the price of his Achilles’ tendon surgery.
Without the NHL lockout, this week would mark the beginning of the top teams in the NHL pouncing all over the Flyers’ shaky defense. The more games cancelled, the closer the Flyers come to having a complete defensive roster.
Of course, the team needs major help beyond its injuries, but delaying the start of the season gives the Flyers a little breathing room.