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.

Ron Hextall: Vegas 'obviously did their homework' on Pierre-Edouard Bellemare

Ron Hextall: Vegas 'obviously did their homework' on Pierre-Edouard Bellemare

Flyers general manager Ron Hextall on Wednesday night reacted to losing alternate captain Pierre-Edouard Bellemare to the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL expansion draft (see story).

"There were a number of guys I felt like there was a chance we would lose," Hextall said. "And Belly was on that list.

"Vegas obviously did their homework and have themselves a good player. Pierre-Edouard is a character member of our organization and he'll be missed."

Bellemare is the Flyers' second alternate captain to depart the club in the same calendar year. Mark Streit, whose "A" Bellemare inherited, was traded to Pittsburgh via Tampa at the NHL trade deadline.

Streit will likely see his name engraved on the Stanley Cup. The Penguins plan to petition to get his name on the Cup even though Streit did not play in the Final against Nashville.

As for Bellemare, the 32-year-old center was left unprotected by the Flyers last weekend. He signed a two-year contract in March that carries a $1.45 million cap hit per.

Bellemare had 17 goals and 34 points in 237 games in three seasons with the Flyers after signing with the team in June 2014.

"He's a terrific team player and an even better human being," Hextall said. "He was great in the community and he'll be a real nice piece for Vegas."

NHL Notes: Marc-Andre Fleury leads expansion draft selections

NHL Notes: Marc-Andre Fleury leads expansion draft selections

LAS VEGAS -- The Vegas Golden Knights finally have some players to put on the desert ice this fall.

Stanley Cup-winning goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, defensemen Marc Methot and Alexei Emelin, 30-goal scorer Jonathan Marchessault and forwards David Perron and James Neal are among the veterans selected by the Golden Knights in the NHL expansion draft Wednesday night.

Golden Knights owner Bill Foley and general manager George McPhee announced their choices during the NHL's annual postseason awards show at T-Mobile Arena, where Vegas will begin play in the fall.

Fleury took the stage in a Golden Knights jersey to wild cheers from his new home fans. The three-time Cup winner lost his starting job with the back-to-back champion Penguins, but he'll get to start over in the desert with two years on his contract.

The picks included defensemen Trevor van Riemsdyk and Brayden McNabb, forward Oscar Lindberg.

The Golden Knights also announced additional acquisitions of a handful of veterans and free agents, including Anaheim defenseman Shea Theodore and Florida forward Reilly Smith.

The NHL wrote its draft rules to give the Golden Knights more opportunities to compete early in their existence, and their expansion draft choices certainly appear to form a solid core that could make noise in the Pacific Division.

"They're way past getting off the ground," Nashville general manager David Poile said. "I think this is by far the best expansion team ever" (see full story).

Oilers: 20-year-old McDavid wins Hart Trophy
LAS VEGAS -- Connor McDavid has won his first Hart Trophy. Hardly anybody in hockey believes it will be his last.

The Edmonton captain claimed the award as the NHL's most valuable player Wednesday night at the league's postseason awards show at T-Mobile Arena, the new home of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.

The league also revealed the results of the Golden Knights' expansion draft to an arena filled with new fans of the NHL's 31st franchise.

McDavid also won the Ted Lindsay Award, given to the league's most outstanding performer in a vote of his fellow players.

The honors capped a remarkable sophomore season for the 20-year-old center, who won the scoring title and led the Oilers back to the Stanley Cup playoffs after an 11-year absence. The former No. 1 pick beat out fellow finalists Sergei Bobrovsky of Columbus and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby.

"I'm so proud to be in Edmonton," McDavid said. "I'm so proud to be an Oiler, and so proud to play with the guys."

McDavid is the third-youngest player to win the award. Only Crosby and Wayne Gretzky claimed the Hart as teenagers (see full story).

NHL: Home openers announced; Golden Knights’ 1st game in Dallas
The expansion Vegas Golden Knights will make their regular-season debut on the road in Dallas on Oct. 6 and host the Arizona Coyotes on Oct. 10 in the first home game in franchise history.

NHL teams announced their home openers Wednesday with the full, 1,271-game schedule for the 2017-18 season set to be released Thursday.

Vegas will play its first two games on the road, visiting Arizona on Oct. 7 before the second leg of an early back-to-back for coach Gerard Gallant's club.

The Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins will raise another banner and begin their quest for a three-peat Oct. 4 against the St. Louis Blues. The Penguins visit the Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 5 in a matchup of the only teams to win the Cup three times in the salary-cap era.

The Western Conference-champion Nashville Predators open the season Oct. 5 at Boston. Nashville celebrates the longest playoff run in franchise history at home Oct. 10 against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Philadelphia opens Oct. 4 at the San Jose Sharks, who have the longest active season-opener winning streak at seven. The first night of the season also includes the Calgary Flames at the Edmonton Oilers and the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Winnipeg Jets, a matchup of the top two picks in the 2016 draft, Auston Matthews against Patrik Laine.

The Detroit Red Wings host Minnesota on Oct. 5 in the first NHL regular-season game at the new Little Caesars Arena.

The back-to-back Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals open their season at Ottawa on Oct. 5 and host the Montreal Canadiens in their home opener Oct. 7