You know things have not gone exactly as planned when a 23-year-old defenseman is considered a veteran by his coach.
But that’s the case this season for the Flyers, who have had 12 different defensemen suit up for them in 2013 – tied for the most of any team in the NHL. The current version of their blue line, for example, has just two regulars: Kimmo Timonen and the aforementioned “veteran,” Luke Schenn.
“I’m the same age as a lot of the ‘younger’ guys around, the guys that get called up,” Schenn said at Thursday’s morning skate. “It’s my fifth year already, though, so I’ve got a lot of experience. And you definitely learn as you go, and you already try to work to get better. But I don’t feel like a young guy or nothing like that.”
Thanks to injuries, penalties and line matchups earlier this week, Schenn found himself relied upon to eat up a significant amount of ice time. He played a career-high 32:51 in Montreal, after teammate Kent Huskins left the game with a concussion and another Flyers defenseman, Kurtis Foster, spent close to 20 minutes in the penalty box.
He played 24:39 the following night against the New York Rangers, bringing his ice time on back-to-back nights to an impressive 57:30.
Exhausting, sure, but he was pleased with the opportunity.
“It’s real nice getting the chance to play that much,” Schenn said. “Obviously, it’s kind of unfortunate how many injuries we’ve had. But that means a little more opportunity, a little more ice time, which any player will tell you they love.
“I just go out there. The odd time you make a mistake or whatever, you don’t really have to think about it when you come back to the bench, because you’re probably right back out there and moving on to the next shift. You just get in a groove and a rhythm a little bit more, I really enjoyed it.”
Schenn, who came to Philadelphia last summer from Toronto in exchange for James van Riemsdyk, had a bit of a rocky start with the Flyers but has improved significantly since then. The second half of his season, especially, has been solid.
His steadiness has only become more apparent as other key Flyers defensemen have gone down with injury – Andrej Meszaros, Braydon Coburn and Nicklas Grossman all remain sidelined. And it's worth noting that Schenn is a year younger than both Erik Gustafsson and Oliver Lauridsen, two call-ups from the Phantoms, and only months older than Brandon Manning, who played his first game of the season with the Flyers Tuesday night.
“His year has been a strong year for us,” said coach Peter Laviolette. “He’s taken on more minutes, again, I think based on necessity in certain situations and line matchups that have to happen for us. But I think he’s had a strong year. The minutes have gone up recently because of injuries on the back end, but you see him pushing almost 60 minutes combined in the last two games, and again, that’s an opportunity for him.”
Schenn, of course, isn't the only Flyers defenseman making the most of an opportunity as the season winds to a close. Gustafsson, who was called back up to the Flyers on March 28, has also seen his ice time increase in light of recent injuries. And Laviolette said his recent stretch with the Flyers is, perhaps, “the best he’s looked up here.”
“You go back to, maybe, Game 6 against the Penguins where he had a real strong game for us,” Laviolette said. “But consistently, I think this has been his best stint up here –- skating really strong, when he gets the puck, he makes quick decisions to find time and space with his head up and then he makes passes. He’s defended really well used in all situations for us. It’s been a good opportunity for him to gain some ice time, and he seems confident right now, as he should be, just based on the way he’s playing.”
It's been an inconsistent season, at best, for the Flyers, especially over the past few weeks. But the defense has been somewhat of a bright spot, especially over the past week, during which it's arguably played its best hockey of the season despite hitting the ice with a back end its own coach referred to as "patchwork."
Schenn stopped short of saying he was surprised by the defense's ability to hold its own despite such bad luck, but he is most definitely impressed by the perseverance of his teammates.
“It’s something you never really plan on happening throughout the year,” Schenn said. “Obviously, injuries happen every year and you learn how to deal with them, but for this many guys to go down at a time, it’s pretty rare, I guess you could say. Our team’s still found a way to compete every night, and defense is obviously a huge part in every game, moving the puck into the forwards’ hands and being solid defensively, and I think the guys who have come in have done a good job.”