Those empty skates you’re going to see idly sitting on the blue lines of the Skate Zone and Wells Fargo Center throughout training camp and the early part of the season?
As you may guess, those skates will belong to Kimmo Timonen, who will be out for a still undetermined period of time after the discovery of blood clots in his lungs and leg a few weeks ago.
With Timonen, who has been the Flyers’ most consistent and best all-around defenseman the past few seasons even as his age continued to rise and has numerous Barry Ashbee Trophies to prove it, on the shelf, someone along the blue line is going to have to raise their game to another level this season for the Flyers to again reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the highly competitive Eastern Conference.
The simple answer is everyone.
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In all seriousness, out of all the defensemen currently on the roster, there is one who has the skill set, experience and just enough versatility to help fill the void… if he steps his game up this season. Not totally fill the void, but help fill it.
There’s almost no replacing Timonen with the the way the roster is currently constructed.
For reference’s sake, Timonen has recorded 35, 29 (lockout-shortened 2012-13 season) 43, 37 and 39 points in the last five seasons while having to defend the opposition’s best players night in and night out.
Prospects such as Shayne Gostisbehere, Sam Morin and Robert Haag aren’t being taken into account. They have yet to play an NHL game and Gostisbehere and Haag have played just a handful of AHL games each, so it’s not fair or realistic to put them in the conversation here.
Nick Grossmann just isn’t that kind of player, bless his heart. He’s the exact definition of a defensive defenseman. He doesn’t have anywhere near the speed and he’s scored just five goals in his eight-year NHL career.
Toward the end of last season and in the playoff series against the New York Rangers, Luke Schenn showed flashes of why he was the fifth-overall pick in the 2008 draft. He was arguably the most impressive Flyers defenseman in that playoff series. But we haven’t seen enough of that yet on a consistent basis. He’s just 24-years-old, so maybe it will come soon. But he’s not there just yet.
Braydon Coburn is what he is. And that’s too inconsistent. You just don’t know what Coburn you’re going to get on a given night. You don’t know if you’re going to get the guy who has helped shut down the Sidney Corsbys and Evgeni Malkins of the world or the guy who looked so far out of his league against the Rangers in the playoffs, was a turnover machine and finished the series a team-low minus-6. Plus, outside of 2007-08 when he put up 36 points, he’s not that type of point producer.
What Michael Del Zotto are the Flyers getting? Are they getting the guy who lit the hockey world on fire for the Rangers in 2011-12 to the tune of 41 points and a plus-20 rating? Or are they getting the guy who could barely find ice time in two places last season and outside of his outlier 2011-12 season has a career minus-37 rating?
Mark Streit can more than pick up the slack offensively. After his slow start last season, he finished with 10 goals and 34 assists. Those numbers will likely go up this season as he should get bumped up to the first power-play unit. But actual defense has never really been his forte and that won’t change as he enters his age 37 season.
That leaves one guy.
Looking your way, Andrew MacDonald.
MacDonald, whom the Flyers acquired from the New York Islanders at the last trade deadline and then signed to a six-year, $30 million contract extension shortly thereafter, is the defenseman who is most going to have to take his game to a whole new level this upcoming season in Timonen’s absence.
The spotlight and onus will be on the 27-year-old to perform this season, as his role on the team should increase without Timonen in the lineup.
There’s a reason he got that huge deal from the Flyers and probably could have gotten more on the open market if things had gotten that far.
He’s got experience in defending the top players in the Eastern Conference, as he was the Islanders’ top shutdown defenseman for a good portion of his time with them. He knows what it is like to see the Crosbys and Malkins of the world on a consistent basis.
Granted his plus/minus numbers aren’t so hot because those Islanders teams had pretty wretched goaltending and the lack of help from others, among other deficiencies, but that experience against that type of talent is invaluable. Plus, now he has more talent and help around him than he ever had on Long Island.
He won’t put up gaudy offensive numbers. The most goals he has ever scored in a season was five in 2011-12. Streit and the Flyers Hope Del Zotto will fit in there.
But MacDonald will have more of a chance to produce offensively with Timonen out of the lineup, especially if Del Zotto stumbles out of the gate. He could see power-play time, likely with the second unit. With the offensive talent the Flyers have, his point numbers, especially assists, could take a big jump this season.
MacDonald also has the capability to make that solid and quick first pass out of the zone to start the rush. We all saw how important that is last season when the Flyers struggled mightily at times to get the puck out of their own zone and into the offensive zone.
He’ll obviously have to cut down on the turnovers, but that’s the story for the entire team after what happened against the Rangers.
There's no denying it will have to be a group effort along the blue line to replace Timonen.
But MacDonald got the big deal he wanted from the Flyers. Now, with Timonen gone maybe forever, it’s time for MacDonald to prove he's worth it and take his game to another level. If the defense stays the way it’s currently structured, MacDonald raising his game to another level could be an essential element in the Flyers' quest to return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.