One thing has become abundantly clear for the Philadelphia Flyers after their first seven games of the 2014-15 NHL season: the team’s defense just isn’t good enough as it is presently constituted for this team to be a true Stanley Cup contender. This creates a difficult dilemma for general manager Ron Hextall and the rest of the team’s management.
The numbers are fairly straightforward, even though we are still early in the season. Through seven games, Philadelphia has allowed 28 goals. The team’s GAA is 3.71, which ranks it 28th in the NHL—ahead of only the Arizona Coyotes and Edmonton Oilers.
The Flyers are also allowing an average of 30.9 shots per game, which ranks them 21st in the league. This means that the Flyers are likely giving up a lot of quality scoring chances, something that does not bode well for the team.
The Flyers goaltending has not been outstanding, but it hasn’t been bad for the most part either. The true issue lies with the team’s overall defensive play.
On paper, Philadelphia has enough offensive talent on its roster to keep up with almost any team in the league. But any team, no matter how talented, will have difficulty scoring four or more goals night in and night out. That’s what the Flyers would need to do to overcome their inconsistent defensive play.
The current group is primarily made up of veteran players with very little upside, with the possible exceptions of 24-year-olds Luke Schenn and Michael Del Zotto. Otherwise, Nicklas Grossmann and Braydon Coburn are 29, Nick Schultz is 32, Andrew MacDonald is 27 and Mark Streit is 36. Coaches and scouts pretty much know what they have with those types of players. They may have a slightly better stretch of games now and then, but a huge jump in statistical performance is highly unlikely.
That leaves Hextall with some tough choices to make throughout this season.
One option is to promote some younger players. The Flyers do have some highly touted defensive prospects in the team’s system that could help the current group. They include Samuel Morin (19), Shayne Gostisbehere (21) and Robert Hagg (19).
But during the preseason, Hextall told Adam Kimelman of NHL.com that he didn’t want to rush any of these players to the NHL before they were ready to thrive in the world’s best hockey league.
“I don't want to put a kid in a situation who is not ready for it," Hextall told Kimelman. "The way to protect yourself is to add a veteran if possible."
Rushing a young player to the NHL before he is ready can create problems in the short and long terms. If the player doesn’t play well right away, that hurts the team on the ice immediately. A young player can also lose confidence and have his development delayed or stunted so that he never develops into the player he could have become had the organization showed patience. This approach may be tempting, but it is not the best answer in the long run.
The second option is to orchestrate a trade for a solid defensive defenseman and maybe even a checking forward who can upgrade the team’s performance right away.
The big obstacle with this option is cap space. According to CapGeek.com, the Flyers are approximately $1.48 million under the cap ceiling right now, and that’s with veteran defenseman Kimmo Timonen on long-term injured reserve.
Acquiring a quality defensive defenseman is usually not cheap because demand usually outstrips supply. Hextall would have to unload a significant contract in order to make this possible.
Over the summer, Vincent Lecavalier was rumored to be a possibility. But the veteran center has a high cap number, a no-movement clause and has already missed time this season due to injury which cannot help his trade value.
Acquiring a checking forward is usually less costly but would also have less of an impact on the team. This can, and should, be done during the season if the right player becomes available at the right price.
The third real choice Hextall has is to stay the course. This means accepting the fact that this year’s team is too weak defensively to be a true Stanley Cup contender.
That doesn’t mean the season is lost or that the Flyers are giving up. They may have enough offensive firepower to sneak into the playoffs this year; they would just be long shots if they did qualify, and the team’s style of play would not be typical of successful playoff teams in recent years.
It may mean trading away some veteran defensemen later in the year for a younger defenseman, a prospect or additional draft choices that can be used as ammunition to complete more trades next summer.
It would require patience, something the organization has not exhibited a lot of historically, although chairman Ed Snider told Sam Carchidi of The Philadelphia Inquirer just before camp started that the team would have more this year.
Hopefully, Snider keeps his word. In the long run, being patient with the prospects and aiming to rebuild the defense next season is the best course. It gives Hextall more time to trade away some of the players with bad contracts that were handed out by his predecessor, which would free up cap space. It also allows the young defensemen more time to mature physically and gain more experience.
Right now, the Flyers defensive play may be frustrating to fans and the coaching staff alike. But if the team takes a long-term approach, the defense and the entire team could have a very bright future before too long.