It was a day of change on the blue line for the Philadelphia Flyers.
In the morning came the unfortunate news that veteran defenceman Kimmo Timonen had suffered a significant health problem:
Suddenly down a key defenceman for an indeterminate length of time, the Flyers moved quickly to add an insurance policy in the event that Timonen is unable to play in 2014-15, signing offensive rearguard Michael Del Zotto:
Assuming Timonen isn’t going to be available next season, where does that situation leave Philadelphia on the back end?
Timonen had been likely to assume a top-four role with the Flyers, presumably in partnership with Braydon Coburn on Philly’s top pairing; the two have spent most of the past five seasons together and have good results. But as Del Zotto assumes Timonen’s spot on the roster, it isn’t likely that he’ll also step into the Finnish rearguard’s role at even strength.
Del Zotto, at his best, was a second-pairing even-strength defenceman with the Rangers. In 2013-14, his ice time fell and he slipped to the third pairing, which is also where he played in Nashville. Until he proves otherwise, he’s likely bound for a similar role in Philadelphia.
Del Zotto’s most probable partner is right-shooting Luke Schenn, who as a big, physical stay-at-home type, would seem a logical match for the freewheeling ex-Ranger. Nick Schultz, who can play either side of the ice, will probably start as the team’s No. 7, but he could supplant Del Zotto for a role in the top six.
Moving up the depth chart, there are a number of possible top-four arrangements, but the likeliest would seem to be a top pairing consisting of Coburn and newcomer Andrew MacDonald and a second unit featuring Mark Streit and Nicklas Grossmann.
Streit and Grossmann were regular partners last season, and the Flyers felt strongly enough about MacDonald to sign him to a six-year extension worth $30 million in April, which suggests that they feel he can log heavy minutes at evens (he led the team in even-strength time on ice after being acquired from the Islanders).
Where Del Zotto will help is on the power play, where Timonen was the Flyers’ No. 1 defensive option, averaging 3:25 per night during the 2013-14 season. Streit and Del Zotto will probably take over the primary defensive duties on the man advantage, with MacDonald also seeing time in those situations.
The loss of Timonen on the penalty kill (he played 3:24 per game) may be more difficult to recover from. With a full training camp under his belt, MacDonald should join Coburn as one of the chief defensive pillars of the group, with Schenn and Grossmann supporting. Philadelphia hasn’t trusted Streit on the PK much at all, so the No. 5 role may fall to Del Zotto, who was given spot duty by the Rangers during his time in New York.
It’s not a bad unit, if the Flyers are right about MacDonald being able to shoulder a heavy load. The problem is the Flyers probably aren’t right about that.
MacDonald’s a rarity in the NHL in that he’s a highly regarded player that the analytics emphatically don’t like (there aren’t that many of these; MacDonald and Jack Johnson are probably the best known). Fortunately for people interested in why this dichotomy exists, MacDonald was dealt to Philadelphia, home to one of the best groups of statistical bloggers on the Internet.
Eric Tulsky’s zone entries project makes it pretty clear where MacDonald’s principle problem lies: He’s bad in the neutral zone. Tulsky found that opponents were most likely to transition from the neutral zone to the Flyers’ end on MacDonald’s side of the ice and further, that MacDonald struggled with both A) preventing the opposition entry and B) preventing the opposition from entering the zone with possession of the puck.
That’s unfortunate. SB Nation’s Kevin Christmann notes that MacDonald is an exceptional player once the puck makes it to the Philadelphia zone, providing strong coverage that was “a welcome addition to a Flyers blue line that all too often ‘puck watches’ and loses sight of their responsibility.” Unfortunately, as Christmann further explains, that isn’t enough to overcome the frequency with which MacDonald allows the opposition to gain the zone with possession. The end result is a good zone player with terrible shot metrics and even worse scoring chance numbers.
MacDonald’s presence, barring a structural shift in his game, should be enough to keep the top pairing from performing all that well. The second pairing of Streit and Grossmann is only middling, while the third pairing relies on two still-young players who were handed great responsibility early in their respective careers and ultimately proved incapable of shouldering it. The group is rounded out by Schultz, who was thoroughly mediocre during his time in Edmonton.
Philadelphia’s blue line wasn’t very good on Monday. It got worse on Tuesday.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.
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