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.

Flyers' trip to Ottawa brings back 'fond memories' for Travis Konecny

Flyers' trip to Ottawa brings back 'fond memories' for Travis Konecny

OTTAWA, Ontario — Exactly one year ago, Dec. 1, 2015, Travis Konecny was a member of the Ontario Hockey League’s Ottawa 67’s.

He had just learned that he had been invited to the Team Canada selection camp for the World Junior Hockey Championship and he was at the Canadian Tire Centre spending time with future Flyers teammates during the morning skate as they prepared for a game that night against the Ottawa Senators.

Fast forward one year to today, Dec. 1, 2016, and Konecny is back at the CTC, this time to face the Senators alongside his current Flyers teammates as a key part of the team’s offense.

Quite a step forward in just one calendar year for a kid not named Crosby or McDavid.

“It’s crazy how fast it happened and I’m definitely humbled I was given the opportunity. They believed enough in me to make the jump this year and it definitely hits me every day that I get the opportunity to play in the NHL,” said Konecny, who has scored four times and added nine assists through the first 25 games of his NHL career. He has also added a team-leading 33 penalty minutes and that goes a long way in explaining the type of game he plays.

“I don’t know what happened. I’ve never been like that before," Konecny said before the Flyers' 3-2 overtime win Thursday (see game story). "When you’re playing in the NHL, some guys will run over you all game if they can so I think part of these penalties I’m taking is me just having to step up and I’m just setting an example of sticking up for my teammates."

It wasn’t until his second game in the league that he took his first penalty, but he was on the score sheet before that having collected two assists in his debut Oct. 14 in a 4-2 win over the Kings in Los Angeles.

His first goal came Oct. 25 in a 4-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres. The key for his success in making the jump from junior to the NHL is simple.

“Just keeping things simple," he said. "Learning in the NHL is about reading off mistakes. You can’t always make a play, you have to be smart and make sure you’re doing what’s right for the team and I think just keeping my game simple is what got me here." 

There is one main difference between the two levels, Konecny added.

“The speed, and I don’t necessarily mean just skating," he said. "Thinking wise and how fast plays happen. Guys like [Senators defenseman Erik] Karlsson, he’s thinking so fast and he knows his play two or three steps before the next guy does, so you just have to try and outthink guys and to me that’s been the biggest jump.”

Konecny is not foreign to the Senators’ home ice surface. He spent part of his time in junior playing there while the 67’s home arena was being renovated.

He had to leave several passes for friends and family for the game Tuesday night, his first as a pro in the city that was dazzled by his play in junior for 2½ seasons.

“It was a lot of fun and it brought back a lot of memories," Konecny said after going scoreless in 14:13 of ice time. "We didn’t play in front of as many fans as we did tonight but definitely a lot of games played here and a lot of fond memories.

“Even flying in [Wednesday] was something special and driving around the city looking at the roots where I was for three years.”

Best of NHL: Hossa gives Blackhawks OT win over Devils

Best of NHL: Hossa gives Blackhawks OT win over Devils

CHICAGO -- Marian Hossa scored his team-leading 12th goal through a screen at 1:31 of overtime to lift the Chicago Blackhawks to a 4-3 victory over the New Jersey Devils on Thursday night.

Hossa's shot through traffic from high in the slot beat Cory Schneider on the glove side, moments after New Jersey's Mike Cammalleri hit the post on a prime chance against Chicago's Corey Crawford.

New Jersey's Travis Zajac scored his third goal of the game at 8:49 of the third to tie it 3-all after scores by Chicago's Artem Anisimov and Niklas Hjalmarsson late in the second period had put the Blackhawks ahead.

Marcus Kruger also connected for Western Conference-leading Chicago to end a 22-game drought as the Blackhawks won their second straight and played beyond regulation for third consecutive time. They are 3-0-1 in their last four.

The Devils have dropped four straight (0-2-2) (see full recap).

Crosby, Penguins run away from Stars
PITTSBURGH -- Sidney Crosby broke the game's final tie and assisted on another score in the third period as the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Dallas Stars 6-2 on Thursday night.

Crosby scored his league-leading 16th goal in the second period and assisted on Conor Sheary's sixth as Pittsburgh scored three goals in the final 4 minutes. Eric Fehr's third of the season was the 100th of his career and Patric Hornqvist's seventh came on the power play. Nick Bonino and Ian Cole both scored their third for Pittsburgh, which avoided consecutive regulation losses for the first time this season.

Marc-Andre Fleury made 33 saves for Pittsburgh. Fleury, who won for the first time in five starts, has six wins in his last nine home games.

Tyler Seguin scored his eighth and Devin Shore his second for the Stars, who continue to struggle on the road. Dallas has lost its previous five away from home and has three wins in 14 road games this season. The Stars have lost three straight and seven of their last 10.

Antti Niemi , playing in his 400th career game, stopped 34 shots (see full recap).

Eichel helps Sabres knock off Rangers
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Jack Eichel scored two goals in the third period, and the Buffalo Sabres beat the New York Rangers 4-3 on Thursday night for their second straight victory.

Buffalo's winning streak coincides with the return of Eichel, who missed the first 21 games with a high ankle sprain. The 20-year-old center had a goal and an assist in Buffalo's 5-4 win in Ottawa on Tuesday and has recorded a point in seven straight games dating to last season.

In his first home game of the season, Eichel scored on a power play with 7:15 remaining and netted the winning goal 1:43 later. Buffalo is now 10-3-1 when Eichel has more than one point (see full recap).