Replacing Kimmo: Why Del Zotto is better than rushing prospects

Replacing Kimmo: Why Del Zotto is better than rushing prospects
August 6, 2014, 4:45 pm

The dark cloud that has hovered above the Philadelphia Flyers’ defensive corps ever since Chris Pronger’s devastating concussion once again opened up Tuesday afternoon and showered more bad news.

Flyers general manager Ron Hextall revealed on Tuesday that defenseman Kimmo Timonen is being treated at a hospital in his native Finland for blood clots in his lungs and leg.

It’s obviously a very serious health situation for Timonen, who has a history with blood clots. You may recall he missed the first four games of the Flyers’ 2008 Eastern Conference Final series against the Pittsburgh Penguins with a blood clot in his foot.

Hockey should be one of the last things anyone should worry about with a scary health situation like this one at hand. But, as they say, “The show must go on.”

And the Flyers’ show must go on without Timonen for an uncertain amount of time, an unquestionable blow to the team’s already patchwork blue line.

Like it or not, at age 39, Timonen is still the Flyers’ best all-around defenseman.

On the offensive side last season, he quarterbacked the team’s lethal first power-play unit, as evidenced by his 19 power-play assists, and led all Flyers defensemen with 152 shots on goal.  He finished second among the team’s defensemen with 35 points. The theme here is that is an offensive creator.

Luckily for the Flyers, they have guys like Mark Streit and Andrew MacDonald on the blue line that are more than capable of filling that void.

Where Timonen will really be missed is defending the opposition.

At plus-5, Timonen finished with the highest rating among Flyers defensemen last season. He played on the top defensive pairing on the seventh-best penalty kill in the league, which means more when you realize the Flyers were shorthanded 153 times last season, most in the league.

He was the recipient of last season's Barry Ashbee Award, which is given to the Flyers’ best defenseman. It was the third straight season Timonen won the award and the fifth time he won it in his seven seasons as a Flyer.

But toss the stats and accolades aside. Timonen played against the opposition’s best players night in night out and still played extremely well.

Think about it this way: Is there a defenseman currently on the Flyers roster that you would trust more than Timonen to regularly play against the likes Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, or John Tavares each night? Probably not.

That’s where Timonen’s absence will sting the most. He can be trusted to keep those kinds of guys in check for the most part. But that steady assurance is now gone, maybe forever.

As cruel and cold as it may sound, from an unfortunate situation like this rises an opportunity for someone else to step up.

Enter Michael Del Zotto, the free-agent defenseman whom the Flyers signed Tuesday evening to a one-year, $1.3 million deal to try and help fill the void left by Timonen.

You may remember Del Zotto from his earlier days with the New York Rangers, which sounds weird because he’s still just 24-years-old but he did play his rookie year of 2009-10 at age 19.

He’s known as a more offensive-minded defenseman and a puck-mover with some speed. But actual defending isn’t known as one of his strong points, as evidenced by his career minus-8 rating.

He burst onto the scene his rookie year with nine goals and 28 assists and finished eighth in Calder Trophy voting. His best season came in 2011-12 when he had 10 goals, 31 assists and a plus-20 rating while he helped the Rangers reach the Eastern Conference Final.

The Rangers thought they had a young, puck-moving blue-line anchor, but he reportedly fell out of favor with first-year Rangers Coach Alain Vigneault last season and was traded to the Nashville Predators.

He didn’t really fit in Nashville and found himself as a healthy scratch for numerous games before not being given a qualifying offer earlier this offseason, which made him an unrestricted free agent.

He’s a low-risk signing that could pay off if he finds his game. Hopefully for the Flyers, he will come to training camp motivated to show he can return to the level he was at before and prove his last two teams and coaches wrong. There will be pressure on him, but he’s played in the huge New York market and under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden so he knows that kind of pressure well.

Sure, he’s not a top-pairing, two-way defenseman who will fill the skates of a guy the caliber of Timonen. But he was the best choice on a razor-thin list of free-agent defensemen who were still on the market in August.

And he’s a better option than rushing a top defensive prospect through the system before he’s ready.

Sorry for bursting your Shayne Gostisbehere bubble.

It’s been said a million times recently, but the point needs to be driven home again that rushing a prospect through the system before he’s NHL-ready isn’t the Hextall way. It’s not what he did when he was part of the Los Angeles Kings’ player management nervous system and that philosophy has worked out pretty well for those guys.

So, it was already a long shot from the beginning that Gostisbehere or Sam Morin or Robert Hagg would be with the big club come the October 8th season opener, and Timonen’s health situation hasn’t really done much to change that.

Gostisbehere and Hagg each only played a handful of games with the AHL’s Phantoms at the end of last season while Morin spent all of last season with his junior club in Quebec.

The NHL is a whole different world. It’s not realistic or fair to those players and their development to throw them into the fire of a feverish hockey market like Philadelphia, especially in this situation when they’ll be compared to a guy like Timonen no matter what because he’s the guy they would be replacing.

Maybe a few years ago under different management the story would have been wouldn’t have been the same. But this regime will stick to its guns and not promote a player to the big club until it’s certain he’s ready.

This isn’t to say one of those guys won’t have an out-of-this-world camp and force themselves into a spot with the big club. Anything can happen. But the organization would be foolish to bank on something like that happening. Hence the signing of Del Zotto, who has more than enough experience.

So while absolutely nothing about this situation is ideal for the Flyers, bringing a guy like Del Zotto into the fold is right move at this juncture rather than rushing and putting unrealistic expectations on one of their top defensive prospects.