Figuring out the Flyers: Defense Part I

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Figuring out the Flyers: Defense Part I

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.

Best of NHL: Before visiting Flyers, Devils fall to Canadiens

Best of NHL: Before visiting Flyers, Devils fall to Canadiens

NEWARK, N.J. -- The toughest thing Montreal Canadiens goalie Al Montoya had to do against the New Jersey Devils was stay awake.

The Canadiens limited the Devils to a season-low 17 shots, and Shea Weber and Max Pacioretty each scored a power-play goal during a major penalty early in the third period of Montreal's 3-1 victory Friday night.

"I'd take this any night," Montoya said after the Canadiens snapped a two-game skid. "Your team is playing fantastic in front of you. Halfway through the game it's 1-1 and all I'm really focused on is making that next save. These guys did a phenomenal job and I just wanted to make that next save, and the power play was terrific. The guys were mainly terrific all night."

Alex Galchenyuk added a goal and two assists, and Alexander Radulov had three assists as Montreal ended the Devils' three-game winning streak (see full recap).

Big 2nd period helps Penguins roll Hurricanes
RALEIGH, N.C. -- The Pittsburgh Penguins have been beatable away from home this season. Good thing for them this felt nothing like a road game.

Phil Kessel had a goal and an assist during Pittsburgh's four-goal second period, and the Penguins routed the Carolina Hurricanes 7-1 on Friday night.

Conor Sheary scored twice, and Evgeni Malkin had a late goal and an assist. Carl Hagelin and Chris Kunitz joined Sheary in scoring during the second for Pittsburgh.

"In a win like that, I think it was a really complete effort from all the guys," said Sheary, who has four goals in three games. "It's fun to win on the road,” (see full recap).

Blackhawks beat Bruins on Hossa's late goal
BOSTON -- Blackhawks backup Scott Darling insists he isn't trying to take playing time away from No. 1 goalie Corey Crawford.

"I don't know if you guys know who my goalie partner is," Darling said with a smile after beating the Boston Bruins 1-0 on Friday night. "He's one of the best goalies in the world, hands down, no arguments. So I'm just pretty happy to get any games I can."

Marian Hossa scored with 1:26 left to break a scoreless tie, and Darling stopped 30 shots to post his second shutout of the season. Darling is 12-4 and he brought a 2.34 goals-against average into the game, even better than Crawford's 2.54 (see full recap).

Okposo gives Sabres OT win over Red Wings
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Kyle Okposo scored a power-play goal 4:34 into overtime and the Buffalo Sabres rallied to beat the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 on Friday night.

Ryan O'Reilly had a goal and an assist, and Sam Reinhart also scored to help the Sabres overcome a pair of one-goal deficits. Anders Nilsson made 32 saves for Buffalo, which has won two straight against Detroit in one season for the first time since 1989-90.

Darren Helm and Frans Nielsen scored for the Red Wings, and Petr Mrazek was sharp in stopping 33 shots.

The Red Wings had their three-game winning streak snapped and took a rare loss to Buffalo. They fell to 8-0-2 in their past 10 meetings with the Sabres and 31-4-3 with a tie in their past 39 (see full recap).

Flyers look to limit goals against, improve 5-on-5 play in second half

Flyers look to limit goals against, improve 5-on-5 play in second half

VOORHEES, N.J. — As bad as things have been for the Flyers — just three wins in their last 14 games — there was no massive shakeup during their mandatory five-day bye week.
 
General manager Ron Hextall didn’t make a trade, nor did he make any roster moves involving a call-up from the Phantoms.
 
Coach Dave Hakstol took one day off, then got back to watching video and live games, almost in a scout mode.
 
When the players hit the ice Friday afternoon at Skate Zone, Hakstol’s lineup was pretty much the same.
 
The only change saw Matt Read re-enter the lineup on the top line with Claude Giroux and Michael Raffl after missing two games with a skate cut.
 
The lines and defensive pairs remained the same. Goalie Michal Neuvirth will start Saturday against New Jersey at the Wells Fargo Center.
 
“For me, the biggest thing is our overall performance,” Hakstol said. “Coming out of a break, that may be a tough thing to do — to put it all together. But I think the energy will be there both mentally and physically. That’s important. The overall performance.
 
“The results are important on a different level when you start looking at the playoff picture and the race. At the end of the day, two points are going to be important, as well.”
 
The Flyers begin anew (see story) with back-to-back games against New Jersey here on Saturday and then the Islanders on Sunday in Brooklyn.
 
They will play four Eastern Conference opponents between Saturday and next Thursday before they begin the three-day All-Star break.
 
Three of these games are against Metropolitan Division opponents while the fourth is against Toronto. The Maple Leafs happen to hold the second wild-card spot that the Flyers previously had going into the bye week.
 
“Guys realize the situation we are in,” Brayden Schenn said. “We know the circumstances. The break came at a good time, mentally ... guys know what we’re coming into there with the back-to-backs.
 
“You were kind of scoreboard watching. We know where we’re at. We’re in a dogfight battle with teams for those wild-card spots. There’s a lot of hockey left. It’s no secret. Everyone pays attention where we’re at.”
 
Hakstol said after his one-day off, he went right back to work in evaluating where this team is. That the team remains intact without any kind of moves seems to send a message to the players.
 
That message is: it’s on you at this point. Don’t count on getting help from the outside. It has to come from within the current roster.
 
“Anything we’ve talked about is us as a group doing things we do well,” Hakstol said. “We’ve had a rough couple weeks where we haven’t been able to do the things we need to and want to consistently.
 
“I’m very confident in this group and this team. For us, what the players said is true. It was a real good time to have a mental and physical break. Now it’s time to get back to work.”
 
What has to improve right from the get-go is the Flyers' 5-on-5 play. Forget for a moment they have scored 75 goals and are 13th in the NHL averaging 2.76 goals a game.
 
The critical factor is 5-on-5 goals against. The Flyers have allowed 98 goals in that situation — only Colorado (100 GA) has allowed more. The Flyers' 3.13 goals-against number is 28th worst in the league.
 
Unless those numbers improve significantly, the Flyers won’t be in the playoffs.
 
“We have to stay within our system,” defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere said. “We give up too many odd-man rushes. Especially in those final games before the break. That’s a big thing.
 
“When we’re giving up that many, it’s not going to be in our favor. It’s not fair to judge our goalies in those games because we didn’t give them too much help out there.”
 
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who plays on a checking line, said the 5-on-5 goals against is a telling stat.
 
“You have it right there,” he said. “You don’t have to say much more than that. You cannot be a consistently good team in the league if you are that low in goals against. It’s something we have to all work together at, as players.”
 
Hakstol said the Flyers enjoyed success 5-on-5 when they were winning because their team play was “consistent” game to game.
 
That hasn’t been the case during this 3-8-3 stretch.
 
“Our 5-on-5 game hasn’t necessarily regressed, but the consistency of it has,” Hakstol said. “That’s when you see the holes defensively. That’s when you see some of the problems you run into.
 
“We’ve got to get back to it. Back to a full 60 minutes of good 5-on-5 play. That’s up to each and every one of us, taking that responsibility and making the push to do that.”