At midway point, Flyers' defense still an issue

At midway point, Flyers' defense still an issue
January 2, 2014, 11:00 am
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At 38, Kimmo Timonen has clearly lost a step but still remains the Flyers' top defenseman. (USA Today Images)

DENVER -- Defense and goaltending.

That’s what wins in April, May and June.

Whether general manager Paul Holmgren wants to admit it, his defense remains the Flyers’ weakest link at the halfway mark while the goaltending is not an issue.

It needs upgrading, although coach Craig Berube staunchly defended the defense, saying there have been lapses -- such as on this trip -- but it’s not as bad as people make it seem.

“We didn’t defend well in Vancouver but that is something that happens every once in a while,” Berube said. “That happens to every team. I don’t like that. I don’t like giving up those chances and all those odd man rushes.

“That kills you. You will give up chances on the power play and d-zone coverage because that stuff happens. But if you give up odd-man rushes for no reason, that is unacceptable.”

Too often this season, the Flyers’ defense has looked very slow and immobile, especially against teams that move the puck quickly.

The James van Riemsdyk trade for Luke Schenn still favors Toronto. The Flyers gave up speed and goal scoring, neither of which Schenn brings on the back end.

Schenn hits -- his 117 leads the defense -- and blocks shots (45), but his gaffes with the puck and in making sound decisions in his own end remain a concern. Meanwhile, JVR has more goals (15) than any Flyer and more points (30) than any Flyer besides Giroux.

The inconsistency on the defense is seen with Andrej Meszaros and Braydon Coburn, as well. One night they look fine, the next they have multiple turnovers that lead to good scoring chances by the opposition.

Braydon Coburn’s partner, Kimmo Timonen, has clearly lost a step but remains their No. 1 blue liner, regardless of how you cut it. Nick Grossmann seems to be the most consistent defenseman and is one blocked shot away from tying his career-high (100).

No one moves as well as Erik Gustafsson, but he has had some rough moments on the ice this season and is currently sidelined with a sprained knee after showing an upgrade in his game.

While Mark Streit has produced some offense lately, his ability to carry the puck end to end, on many nights, is compromised by turnovers. He also needs to do more on the power play, on which he has just seven points this season. The Flyers obtained him with the hope he would be a major contributor to the power play.

Goaltending remains the Flyers’ strength with Steve Mason and Ray Emery, just as it was at the quarter pole. The two goalies often make up for the mistakes the team’s defense commits.

Despite a couple of rough outings in December, Mason has 16 wins, a 2.38 goals against average and a .922 save percentage. He’s won five straight starts.

Emery, who has a 3.03 GAA and .890 save percentage, is still trying to find a rhythm within a schedule that doesn’t see him get many starts.

He was very strong in Calgary despite sitting nine of the previous 10 games.

“Ray’s done a good job and I thought he was really good in Calgary,” Berube said.

How about Mason?

“He’s been great, our MVP for sure,” Berube said.

Mason exudes confidence and it carries over. One reason the Flyers are 3-3 in the shootout this season is that Mason has given them confidence that he will make a stop.

Teammates know Mason doesn’t have to be perfect because they’re no longer squeezing sticks. Special teams continue to get better and Berube expects the power play, which was 29th as late as early November, will crack the top 10 at some point. It’s 16th now.

The Flyers’ overworked penalty kill units have been strong all along -- 10th in the league.

“We’re moving in the right direction, but we need to improve individually,” Berube said. “We got young guys who need to grow and get better. We got guys who don’t have their games where they need to be right now. We need improvement.”