May 1, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; New York Islanders defenseman Mark Streit (2) handles the puck against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the third period in game one of the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs at CONSOL Energy Center. The Pittsburgh Penguins won 5-0. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Grading the Flyers' Offseason, Part 3: Defensemen

Flyers

Luke Schenn fits the mold for exactly the type of defenseman the Flyers needed: young, big, and tough. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

In my previous post about the Flyers’ offseason, I discussed the status of the Flyers’ offensive corps. In this third portion, I’ll be looking into the Flyers strengths and weaknesses on the back end. Without further ado…

Defense

Ask the average joe what the problem is with the Flyers, and they’ll tell you it’s the goaltending. They’re not entirely wrong, given the rate of turnover in the meat grinder known as the Philadelphia crease, but responsibility must be shared with the defense, and not only has it been wrong for a long time, it’s not getting any better. Consider that the Flyers used 13 different defensemen in a 48 game span, tied for most in the league. They missed the playoffs, but the minor-league call-ups seemed to perform better than the organizational regulars. Now why is that?

First of all, the Flyers organization has an epidemic misunderstanding of the position; not since the Broad Street Bullies have the Flyers drafted a franchise defensemen, often because they’re too focused on drafting forwards. The result? They pay too much to get defensemen in trades and free agency, and they end up doing what they do best, but not what organization needs. Peter Laviolette sends his troops into battle with an offensive mindset, which is great if you like goals, but bad if you hate goals against. It has apparently been the intention of Paul Holmgren to supplement the already potent offensive unit with backend firepower in the personage of Braydon Coburn, Kimmo Timonen, Andrej Meszaros, and Mark Streit, with previous appearances by Matt Carle and Steve Eminger. The defensive side of things was expected to be handled by Sean O’Donnell, Ryan Parent, Andrew Alberts, Bruno Gervais, Kurtis Foster, Nick Boynton, Andreas Lilja, Matt Walker, and Kent Huskins. Those on the defensive end don’t really strike a chord with fans mainly because they had nary an impact, and consider that this is just over the last three years.

Put simply, the Flyers have assumed that good offensive defensemen are good defensemen, apparently aping the cancerous effusiveness of the Norris Trophy committee when giving the award to the best backend stalwart… with the most points. A precious few can chip in while handling their own affairs perfectly, but there’s a reason Chris Pronger, Zdeno Chara, Nick Lidstrom, and Duncan Keith are in an elite class of few. Defensemen who just score are like forwards who just backcheck; you like having a few, but if you stack the deck with them you’re missing the point.

With offense as the primary driver of the defense for many years, the goaltenders have been exposed to an ungodly amount of odd man rushes and two-on-ones down low that passive hockey fans see as a goaltender’s inability to guard the net, but when the attacker not carrying the puck is left open to receive a pass while in a scoring position, it’s not the goaltender’s fault, and that’s happened a lot because the Flyers’ defensemen were bred on the idea of pinching and are apparently incapable of understanding the ramifications of their ebullience.

Worse yet, it’s difficult to imagine the players getting used to the goaltender’s style or even getting used to their defensive linemates because of the carousel of chaos in the net and on defense. Last season was made worse when the  coach was supposedly implementing a better defensive system without the benefit of a training camp.

I digress. Defensive pairings are much easier to project than offensive ones, but the roster turnover and potential for both injuries and trades make this year more of a crapshoot than usual.

Kimmo Timonen and Luke Schenn would appear to be the first pairing, and if you were to cancel out Timonen’s age and wisdom with Schenn’s youth and exuberance, you’d have a perfect pairing. Timonen, despite his age, is one of the most effective offensive defensemen in the league due to his pairing of quarterbacking skills and his finesse-oriented cancellation of forwards; true, he’s made some gigantic mistakes on the backend (Bryz  shoulders about 25% of the blame here, but as the announcer states, why is Timonen passing to the goalie when the opposition is crashing him, especially when he knows Bryz isn’t a good puckhandler?), but it’s hard being an offensive force when strategies require that your partner pinch as well. Schenn can put up points, but finds his niche destroying the opposition in the defensive end; his 187 hits (187 is the police code for murder; coincidence?) would have come to about 325 hits in a full season, the highest mark in two years. Their unique attributes, with a more stabilized coaching and goaltending situation, will pay dividends.

Next up would most likely be Mark Streit and Braydon Coburn. Streit’s services as an offensive force (he once had 13 goals and 62 points in an 82 game season) and a leader in the locker room (did anyone other than Tavares so clearly carry the Islanders on their backs this past playoffs?) are well documented, but he is no replacement for Timonen, who is set to retire this coming offseason; Streit’s defensive shortcomings are just as apparent as his offense, the best example being that he’s only had one season as a plus player. Last season was uncharacteristically awful for Coburn; he’ll never return to the form that saw him post 36 points in 2007, but his size, speed, and dedication see him laying a lot of hits and blocking a lot of shots. It seems difficult for him to concentrate when his offensive game isn’t working, but with a full bill of health and a hunger to improve, he could prove his worth this season.

Andrej Meszaros and Nicklas Grossmann make up the final pairing on paper, and this could not be more lopsided. Meszaros had several promising seasons as a young gun on the Senators before cashing in and foundering on Tampa Bay. Returned to a supporting role on the Flyers, he helped lead them to a berth in the Stanley Cup Finals, but he’s had difficulty staying healthy ever since, particularly with a suspect shoulder. Like Coburn, he seems to lose focus when his offensive game is off, but when it’s on, he does everything well. There are nothing but plaudits for Grossmann; in a time when the Flyers needed dedicated defensive D, he proved to be the tonic with his no-nonsense physicality and intelligent gap control. It’s a gigantic relief to have at least one defenseman who never loses his nerve or forgets his role.

Flyers

Meszaros starts the season in the lineup, but this health will go a long way in determining the strength of the roster.  Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

After this, as we learned last season, there are a bunch of more-than-capable sophomores waiting in the wings. Eric Gustafsson (if healthy) leads the charge, patterning himself after the departing Timonen with his speed, offense, and defensive intelligence. After that, the crew likely goes Marc-Andre Bourdon (if healthy), Brandon Manning, Oliver Lauridsen, and Matt Konan in order of the likelihood of call-ups. Morin and Hägg are way too far off to even consider, while Gervais, Lilja, Huskins, and Foster have played themselves right off the roster with uneven, unreliable play and age. Hal Gill recently joined the corps on a tryout basis, but this is likely a move to galvanize those fighting for a roster spot. With this abundance of talent, Gill’s making the roster would be a bad, bad sign.

Generally speaking, the Flyers have a great collection of defensemen; this much is undeniable. However, the question marks outweigh the exclamation points, and as the Flyers have had defensive problems for nearly a decade (apart from Pronger’s tenure), it’s overly optimistic to assume that everything will be peachy in the 2013-2014 season.

Grade: C-

Tags: Adirondack Phantoms Andrej Meszaros Brandon Manning Braydon Coburn Chris Pronger Defense Defensemen Eric Gustafsson Flyers Flyers Defense Ilya Bryzgalov Kimmo Timonen Luke Schenn Mark Streit NHL Nicklas Grossmann Oliver Lauridsen Peter Laviolette Philadelphia Flyers Robert Hagg Samuel Morin

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