Despite replacing nearly half of last season's roster, the Flyers and GM Paul Holmgren managed to keep the team's defensive unit largely intact. Last season, the star-studded unit performed exceptionally well, despite Chris Pronger's bout with injuries.
With the offseason ending and the 2011-2012 NHL season on the horizon, it's time to take a look at what Flyers fans can expect from the team's blueliners next season.
Matt Carle is the player Flyers fans dislike the most on the blue line. Almost every article and comment I read concerning him is negative for a different reason. Some claim that Chris Pronger's presence mask many of Carle's flaws. Others say that Carle doesn't have the talent or ability to be a top-four defenseman at the NHL level. Still, others questioned his grit, toughness and will to win.
While all of those criticisms do have hints of truth, I do not believe a single one accurately portrays Matt Carle.
Carle is, at his core, a mobile, big-minute, offensive defenseman. His development, especially in the defensive aspects of the game, was stunted earlier in his career. Since his arrival in Philadelphia, he has gotten back on track and improved. I fully expect his development to continue next season and his decision-making to improve in his own zone.
When he's on his game, Carle is extremely effective at both ends of the ice. He is able to use his skating ability and smarts to read the play and react appropriately. When he's off his game, he's liable to misdiagnose a play, blow a coverage in his own zone or force a pass that leads to a turnover.
The key for Carle will be to play within himself, trust his hockey sense and be content to make the safe play. If Carle can do that, I believe he'll post very solid numbers next season.
2011 Stats: 82 GP, 1G, 39A, 40P, +30
Projection: 81 GP, 7G, 44A, 51P, +31
Braydon Coburn improved his play tremendously in 2010-2011, adding some much-needed consistency to his game in all three zones. Flyer fans have known for some time that Coburn possesses a rare combination of size (6'5") and skating ability.
Last season marked the first time he was able to parlay his physical attributes into consistent on-ice success.
Despite his improvements, Coburn still must improve his all-around game. This is especially true in the offensive zone, where he has yet to post a truly exceptional season. Coburn does possess quite a bit of upside in that department, but it is not a facet of the game that seems to come naturally to him. In addition, Coburn must improve his physical play—he frequently does not use his tremendous size to his advantage, especially against smaller players.
The good news for the Flyers is that Coburn will be playing for his next contract in 2011-2012, which should provide him with some extra motivation to improve his game and take the next step. If he is able to refine his offensive game while improving his physical play, he could become a blue-line anchor for the team going forward.
If he reaches his potential, he could become the Flyers version of Brent Seabrook, which isn't a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination.
2011 Stats: 82 GP, 2G, 14A, 16P, +15
Projection: 82 GP, 5G, 17A, 23P, +18
The signing of Andreas Lilja was easily my least favorite of Paul Holmgren's offseason moves. The oft-injured Swede will be asked to replace the departed Sean O'Donnell on the third pairing, providing a steady, stay-at-home presence.
Lilja is an exceptionally good defender on the penalty kill and is very adept at shot-blocking, both of which figure to help the team overcome the losses of Richards, Powe and the aforementioned O'Donnell.
Despite his defensive abilities, Lilja is still susceptible to blunders in his own zone, especially when he is under pressure. He does not have any business skating into the offensive zone and he struggles to make respectable outlet passes. For a player of his size (6'3", 220 lbs), Lilja plays a very soft game.
The Flyers hope Lilja is able to stay healthy for a full season, minimize his defensive zone gaffes and effectively get the puck to his partner Andrej Meszaros without turning it over. If he can do that, the 2011-2012 season will be a success for him.
If not, the AHL awaits.
2011 Stats: 52 GP, 1G, 6A, 7P, -15
Projection: 38 GP, 0G, 5A, 5P, +3
Andrej Meszaros was easily one of the Flyers' best defenseman for much of the 2010-2011 season. He was a force on the offensive end, regularly generating scoring chances and getting the puck to the front of the net.
In his own zone, Meszaros regularly demonstrated his ability to play the body and force turnovers. He improved his positioning tremendously and was regularly in excellent position to alter a shot or break up a potential scoring chance.
Toward the end of the season and into the playoffs, Meszaros finally seemed to put all of the pieces perfectly into place. He embraced the physical aspects of his game, regularly imposed his will on opposing forwards and was dominant for long stretches of the game.
The Flyers hope that the reigning Barry Ashbee Trophy winner will continue to develop his all-around game, embrace the physical aspect of the game and consistently play at the level he has shown he is capable.
Meszaros has the skill set to be a dominant defenseman at the NHL level—he simply needs to realize it.
2011 Stats: 81 GP, 8G, 24A, 32P, +30
Projection: 81 GP, 10G, 34A, 44P, +32
The Boogeyman Returns.
I don't imagine there are many NHL defenseman that give opposing forwards nightmares. But if I had to take a guess, I'd venture to say that Chris Pronger is atop any list of blueliners that do.
When he's healthy, Chris Pronger is among the most effective defensemen in the league. His rare combination of massive size (6'6", 240 lbs), skating ability and ruthless desire to dominate his opponents is surely the cause of many sleepless nights among opposing forwards.
After an injury-riddled 2010-2011 season and four surgeries, Pronger and the Flyers have said he is finally 100 percent healthy and ready to go. If that is the case, it is great news for Flyers fans everywhere. Pronger is the heart and soul of any team he plays on, and he possesses the rare ability to unite a locker room behind a common purpose. The teams that skate alongside Pronger tend to take on his gritty, hard-edged persona—something that Peter Laviolette's teams thrive on.
A healthy Pronger is a productive Pronger. As long as he can stay on the ice, he'll produce at a high level.
2011 Stats: 50 GP, 4G, 21A, 25P, +7
Projection: 78 GP, 13G, 40A, 53P, +23
The best way to describe Kimmo Timonen is as a poor man's Nicklas Lidstrom. The Finnish defender is a smart, savvy, smooth-skating player who prefers to play a finesse game wherever possible. In the offensive zone, he has the ability to effectively lead an odd-man rush and put a deadly, accurate shot on net.
In the defensive zone, Timonen plays a cerebral game and anticipates the play extremely well. He is able to use his skating ability and smarts to outmaneuver larger players. Despite this, he does struggle occasionally with larger power forwards who are able to outmuscle him for the puck.
In order for Timonen to have a successful 2011-2012 season, he needs to stay fresh and healthy, continue to be aggressive and assertive in the offensive zone and use his shot more often from the point. If he can improve his offensive productivity and aggressiveness while keeping some gas in the tank for a postseason run, he will be a key contributor for the Flyers blue line.
2011 Stats: 82 GP, 6G, 31A, 37P, +11
Projections: 80 GP, 9G, 35A, 44P, +10