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Going into training camp, the three-way battle for the sixth defense spot is probably the least discussed positional battle. It also might end up being the most important one.
With Pronger's health improving but still in question, the pressure is on the Flyers' other defenders to elevate their own play until Pronger is fully recovered. For veterans Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle, Braydon Coburn and Andrej Meszaros, that should not be an issue. All four played well during Pronger's prolonged absence last season and should be comfortable doing so again.
The challenge for the Flyers is to make sure the four aforementioned veterans aren't logging 25-plus minutes per game while Pronger recovers. By the end of the 2010-2011 season, it was clear the heavy workload had taken its toll on Timonen, Carle and even Coburn.
The team needs its sixth and seventh defenseman to step up in a big way and log significant minutes.
Lilja, the oft-injured former Red Wing and Duck, will be penciled in at the No. 6 spot. However, if he struggles during camp or is injured again, the position will likely come down to the smooth-skating Timonen clone Gustafsson vs. the talented but inconsistent Bartulis.
In terms of talent, the advantage clearly goes to Gustafsson, who has shown the potential to be a legitimate Top 4 defenseman at the NHL level. In terms of NHL experience and raw physical size, the advantage goes to Bartulis.
Further adding to the confusion here is the possibility that the Flyers could still bring in a seasoned veteran like Bryan McCabe should Pronger suffer a setback, or none of the current options at the No. 6 spot prove viable.