Figuring out the Flyers: Defense Part I

Figuring out the Flyers: Defense Part I

May 7, 2013, 9:00 am
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Nicklas Grossmann, left, Braydon Coburn, middle, and Erik Gustafsson all dealt with injuries during the 2012-13 season. (USA Today Images)

As much as the Flyers’ goaltending was both praised and maligned this past season (see story), nothing dominated the team’s overall consciousness like its defense.
 
Start to finish, the Flyers were mostly a reconstruction project on the blue line because of injuries and a poor offseason.
  
From the get-go, the Flyers were worse off than last season because Chris Pronger wasn’t coming back and Matt Carle was headed back to Tampa Bay. When GM Paul Holmgren struck out with Ryan Suter and Shea Weber, the Flyers were doomed.
 
Four games into the lockout-shortened season, the club lost Andrej Meszaros and was still waiting for Erik Gustafsson to recover from injury with the Phantoms, fielding an immobile blue line that wasn’t very skillful with the puck under pressure.
 
Before the season ended, the Flyers had lost four of their starting six from the season opener and would play 13 different defensemen just to survive.
 
Pronger? He won’t ever play again. His money will continue to hang in the balance for use when the Flyers need to place someone on long-term injured reserve.
 
Neither Marc-Andre Bourdon (post-concussion syndrome) nor Matt Walker (dual hip injuries) played a game for the Flyers. Walker is an unrestricted free agent this summer.
 
Kurtis Foster and Kent Huskins were previously evaluated last week in CSNPhilly’s story on UFA Flyers who might not return (see story).
 
If Holmgren does nothing else this summer, fixing the blue line is paramount.

Here’s a look at our first installment of players under contract, plus pending restricted free agents expected to be re-signed:
 
Braydon Coburn
Age: 28
Games played: 33
Stats: one goal, four assists
Plus/minus: minus-10
Average ice time: 22:36
Cap hit: $4.5 million for next three years
 
Talk about a player whose game has fallen off the charts. Coburn has had declining numbers since 2007-08. His once-mighty shot from the point has vanished while his puck handling has been sloppy.
 
His point production this season was a career-low 0.15 a game.
 
The Flyers were alarmed with his drop-off, which makes Coburn vulnerable to a trade this summer.
 
You can make an argument Coburn wasn’t as effective when split from Kimmo Timonen in 2010-11, then split again from Carle after the latter left in free agency last summer. Yet Coburn’s overall game suffered with too many turnovers and mental mistakes, while his ice time went to 22:36 this season –- two minutes less than the career-high he set in 2008-09.
 
Coburn missed the Flyers' final 15 games with a left shoulder separation. If he’s back, the Flyers need a major rebound year from him.
 
Bruno Gervais
Age: 28
Games played: 37
Stats: one goal, five assists
Plus/minus: minus-17
Average ice time: 17:07
Cap hit: $825,000 (2013-14 is his final year)
 
Though Gervais has a year left on his deal, he could easily become a cap casualty in an overall defensive upgrade this summer. He’s OK in short doses, but not cut out for every night's regular duties, especially logging 17 minutes a game.
 
He is an adequate seventh defenseman only, and frankly, Huskins would be far better in that role. Gervais' minus-17 rating in 35 games was the worst among all Flyers.
 
Nicklas Grossmann
Age: 28
Games played: 30
Stats: one goal, three assists 
Plus/minus: minus-1
Average ice time: 18:19
Cap hit: $3.5 million for next three years
 
Since coming to the Flyers prior to the 2012 trade deadline, the big Swede has had two concussions, a groin pull and a knee injury that cost him significant missed time, including the final 18 games this season (concussion).
 
At the time of his concussion, Grossmann was among the NHL leaders with 82 blocked shots. He is a perfect stay-at-home guy, and a pairing with a more mobile partner is ideal for the Flyers.
 
Positionally, he is among the smartest guys around. What the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Grossmann brings is physicality. The assumption is he won’t experience post-concussion syndrome next season, but it bears watching. 
 
Erik Gustafsson
Age: 24
Games played: 27 
Stats: three goals, five assists 
Plus/minus: minus-1
Average ice time: 20:08
Cap hit: restricted free agent this summer
 
Gustafsson took giant leaps forward this season, and you have to give him every credit because he overcame a leg fracture that was hard to diagnose during the lockout.
 
The Flyers didn’t want to thrust him into having to play upwards of 24 minutes a night, yet it became a blessing in disguise. Though still a little on the small side, Gustafsson has improved his skating and vision to move the puck. He had 39 blocked shots in 27 games.
 
A pending restricted free agent, Gustafsson should start next season regardless of what happens this summer.
 
Matt Konan
Age: 21 
Games played: two
Stats: no points
Plus/minus: even
Average ice time: 16:15
Cap hit: restricted free agent this summer
 
Incomplete. Konan dressed for the final two games of the regular season. He remains a call-up from the Phantoms.