After his team enjoyed one of the best turnaround seasons in NHL history, John Stevens, coach of the Philadelphia Flyers, will have his toughest decision ahead of him thus far once training camp gets underway.
Stevens, entering his second full season behind the Flyers bench, will have to select which defenders will make up his opening-day defensive corps.
Last season in the conference finals, the Pittsburgh Penguins exposed the Flyers' inability to move the puck, whether with breakout passes or by skating it out of trouble. Paul Holmgren was very vocal heading into the summer about the need to fill this gap.
But lack of cap space and some uncertainty about existing contracts all but eliminated the Flyers' chances to upgrade their defense with a big-name unrestricted free-agent signing. Instead, Holmgren tinkered with possible solutions by making minor deals or acquiring players he hopes can evolve into the players the Flyers require.
One of the positives for Flyer fans is that with Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, and even Randy Jones, the Flyers can make do nicely with a defenseman who can simply move the puck and skate well.
The Flyers are not doomed because they were unable to add a Norris Trophy-type defender. Philadelphia's puck movement will be much improved if they can find one or two defensemen that can skate and pass the puck better than Jason Smith and Derien Hatcher—as these were the two prime examples of Philadelphia's inability to start the offensive attack from the back-end.
Over the course of the summer, Holmgren acquired Steve Eminger from Washington and Danny Syvret, a skilled offensive defenseman in junior hockey, from the Edmonton Oilers' organization.
Ossi Vaananen was signed as a UFA after spending last season in Sweden. Tim Ramholt was acquired in a minor deal with the Calgary Flames. Luca Sbisa was drafted with the Flyers' first pick, 19th overall—but he will more than likely return to his junior team. Finally, Bryan Berard was signed to a professional tryout contract late in the summer.
Once training camp begins, the Flyers will have the following defensemen, all vying for one of six spots on defense:
The top defenseman on the team.
Had a terrific first full NHL season. Should solidify his spot as the number-two man.
Like Coburn, Jones enjoyed a solid season and was rewarded with a new contract. Should get an opportunity to be the number-three defenseman.
More than likely, it appears Hatcher will spend most of the season on long-term injured reserve with his chronic knee problems.
Spent most of last season with the Phantoms. Called up during the end of the season and stuck, even getting some in ice time in the playoffs. Acquitted himself nicely—although at times looked a tad overwhelmed. Should get solid chance to be a regular on the team this season.
Lasse was often the odd man out on defense. He has a great attitude, and plays his heart out when he gets a chance. He runs around a little defensively, but will use any part of his body to block shots—and in the new NHL, that is a huge asset.
Acquired from Washington on draft day for the Flyers' first-round pick. That alone means he'll be a regular. Showed signs that he belongs in the NHL with the Capitals, but became the odd man out when Bruce Boudreau took over as head coach.
Ossi is a tough defender to play against. Plays with an edge, and also blocks a lot of shots. May make fellow countryman Kukkonen expendable.
Syvret was a slick offensive defenseman in juniors. He'll need to play lights out in preseason to avoid playing for the Phantoms come October 4.
Berard has bounced around from team to team, mostly due to his nearly career-ending eye injury. He manages to put up decent offensive numbers each season, and can skate and pass the puck well.
Played very well with the Phantoms last season, especially in the playoffs. Like Syvret, would need to light it up all preseason long to stick with the big club.
A minor-league deal with Calgary brought Ramholt over. This is more of a depth acquisition for the Phantoms.
If I'm John Stevens, this is how I would play this scenario out. First, I would start the season with eight defensemen on the roster, dressing six a game with two in the press box.
The reasoning I would give for my decision would be that I'm a firm believer that competition breeds excellence. When you have a bunch of defenders all vying for the same spots without much separating them, the best way to nail down a decision is to move the bottom four on the depth chart in and out of the lineup, rating their performances as the season progresses. I do not believe Philadelphia will truly be able to confidently select their six out of training camp.
Here are the eight defenseman I would select to start the season—Timonen, Coburn, Jones, Eminger, Vaananen, Berard, Parent, and Kukkonen. The latter four would be shuffled in and out of the line up as seen fit.
Defensive pairings would look as such:
Vaananen is a stay-at-home defenseman in the truest sense of the word. His style and aggressiveness would allow Timonen to join the play more often.
This was an aspect of Timonen's game that I found was lacking compared to watching him play in Nashville. It didn't appear he trusted any of his partners enough last season to really play his offensive game.
This would be Philadelphia's hybrid pairing. Both players like to join the rush, and sometimes lead it. Coburn learned a lot about making sure he was covering his partner's back last year, after being paired with the slow-footed Hatcher for most of the season.
This pairing gives the Flyers a little bit of everything. Eminger has skill, but also plays a gritty game. Berard would provide puck movement, and with his abilities and patience with the puck, he would make Eminger's life a little easier.
Lasse Kukkonen would serve as a replacement for Vaananen. Their games are very similar in style, and it would be rather pointless to have both of them in the lineup at once.
The Flyers need to be very careful with the development of Ryan Parent. He should come up to the big club, but only play in maybe 55 or 60 games, to slowly but surely guide his development. He shows very good signs of becoming a solid, steady, defensive rear-guard. Parent could be slotted in the lineup in place of either Berard or Eminger.
It's a defensive group John Stevens will have to tinker with as he goes along, closely monitoring individual and group performances.
All in all, I believe Philadelphia has a group of eight defensemen who can come together and prove to be not nearly as weak as the lack of marquee names makes them appear to the experts.
I get the sense right now that the Flyers defensive corps is viewed as Timonen, Coburn, and a bunch of other guys. However, if you scan the other Eastern Conference teams, you'll find Philadelphia's group is as formidable as any.