Do the Philadelphia Flyers need to make any changes to their roster? Over the past seven games they have looked like a new and improved team, but there is always room for improvement. There are those out there who say that the Flyers need a top-tier winger to play alongside Claude Giroux. Pair Giroux with a Thomas Vanek or Bobby Ryan, and you have an unstoppable top line. Well, it is hard to buy that argument while the Flyers have scored over four goals a game in five of their last seven. They have received balanced scoring from their top three lines and Giroux has averaged over a point per game.
The other need that is pointed out is the need for a top pairing defenseman. The idea of acquiring a #1 defenseman has been thrown around ever since the loss of Chris Pronger. GM Paul Holmgren clearly believes that this is a need, offering both Ryan Suter and Shea Weber long-term contracts with $7 million+ AAV in the summer of 2012 and being consistently linked to players like Keith Yandle.
Two questions arise from this discussion. First, what kind of #1 defenseman do the Flyers need? And second, in light of their recent play, how desperately do they need this kind of player?
Top pairing defensemen are not created equal. Zdeno Chara and Erik Karlsson are both considered #1 defensemen, yet their styles of play are very different. Chara is 6’9”, plays a very responsible defensive game, and peaks at about 50 points a season. Karlsson on the other hand is only 6’0”, is a world class puck mover, and averages nearly a point per game. This is not to say that Chara is worthless when moving the puck and that Karlsson is terrible in his own end. What I am saying is that the two players play a different style of hockey. Flyers fans need to be aware that #1 defensemen come in all shapes and sizes. A 6’9” bruiser like Chara would help Philadelphia, no doubt, but he would not have the same impact that a Karlsson or a Subban would have.
The Flyers have plenty of good, shutdown defensemen. Coburn, Grossmann, L.Schenn, and Gill are all big, stay-at-home defensemen. No, they are not flashy or fun to watch, but they fulfill their role well. I have confidence, and so does Craig Berube apparently, that Coburn can be the shut-down half of a top pairing. Also, both L.Schenn and Grossmann can fulfill a second or third pairing shut-down role. Where the Flyers are weak is with puck movers. Kimmo Timonen has rounded back into form, but is still long past his prime. Mark Streit is a talented puck mover, but is 35 years old and far from top pairing material. Erik Gustafsson has shown flashes of brilliance in his young career, but is still most effective in a second or third pairing role with limited power play time. The bottom line is that though Coburn can fulfill a top pairing shut down role, the Flyers have no defenseman who can fulfill a top pairing, puck moving role.
So, having established that the Flyers need a top pairing puck mover, the next question must be addressed. How desperately do the Flyers need one? Many fans and writers would have us believe that the Flyers defense is the worst thing on the face of the earth and can barely win a pee-wee game. Others will point to the Flyers current hot streak to say that the Flyers defense is good enough to make them Stanley Cup contenders. Well, as usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Having watched numerous Western Conference games this week I can tell you that the forwards over there will skate circles around guys like Grossmann, Schenn, and Timonen. However, the defense is clearly good enough to give the Flyers wins in six out of their last seven. This defensive unit is good enough to make the Flyers playoff contenders, and in the salary cap era, any team that gets into the playoffs can get hot and instantly become a Cup contender. Therefore, to say that the Flyers desperately need a #1 defenseman or that their current defense “won’t win anything” is a bit too much. However, it would make everyone much more comfortable with their chances if the Flyers acquired that elusive top pairing puck mover.
At this point people a few notes of caution are necessary. First, do not forget the system that Craig Berube employs. Berube’s system demands team defense. His system has consistently masked the fact that the Flyers lack a top pairing defenseman. To his credit, Berube has tailored his system to the personnel that he has to work with. Therefore, he has instilled confidence in management and the fans that the Flyers do not need to make a panic trade. Berube can win with what he has.
Second, having a top pairing defenseman does not guarantee Stanley Cups. It has become easy to attribute every Flyers’ failure to the lack of a #1 defenseman. Whenever the Flyers are slumping, fans immediately explain why they could be the best team in the NHL if they only had a top pairing defenseman. Simply put, tell that to the Nashville Predators, Phoenix Coyotes, St. Louis Blues, or Minnesota Wild. Shea Weber, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Alex Pietrangelo, and Ryan Suter have zero combined Stanley Cups. Hockey isn’t magic. It takes a team to win a championship, not just one player.
The Flyers need a top pairing, puck moving defenseman. A guy like Dimitry Kulikov or Cam Fowler would be a huge upgrade for years to come on the Flyer blueline. Moving forward, acquiring such a player should be Holmgren’s top priority. However, there is no reason to gut the organization of their good young talent, thus opening a hole in the line-up, to acquire one player. It does not matter who that player is.