2016-17 Flyers evaluation: Defensemen

2016-17 Flyers evaluation: Defensemen

We continue our series reviewing the Flyers' 2016-17 roster with a look at the defensemen. This is the second part of a four-part series. For our goaltending review, click here.

Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said during his end-of-the-season news conference that he blamed himself for keeping eight defensemen on the roster.
 
Hextall acknowledged keeping eight D-men caused problems on the back end and limited coach Dave Hakstol in terms of juggling his forward group, as they were often short one reserve.

When the Flyers report to training camp this fall, they will return five starters on defense. That leaves room for two more blueliners.

Right now, the incumbents to those spots are Sam Morin and Robert Hagg, both of whom made their NHL debuts during the final week of the regular season.

Then again that could change in camp given the presence of Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers. Nothing is certain except that there will be seven -- not eight -- defensemen next season.

"Just looking at it on paper right now," Hextall said, "I don't know the two kids or the one kid that's going to be in our lineup next year, but they're going to dictate that. But I like the pieces we have surrounding them.

"Robert's progression has been really, really impressive. He came over as a 19-year-old, played up in Glen Falls there and was OK. The American League is a tough league to play in at that age and he held his own. As a 20-year-old, he was not bad. And this year, he's taken it to another level.

"Sam understands more than ever what his game is. I remember seeing Sam back in junior, and Sam was on the power play. Sam knows what he is as a player and he's done a really good job of working hard, getting better every day. They've both done a real good job.

"Well see where it leads to in September. They have to fight for a spot."

Here is our take on the defense (alphabetically) this past season, minus Hagg and Morin who weren't here long enough.
 
Michael Del Zotto
Age: Turns 27 on June 25
Stats: 51 GP; 6G, 12A, 18 Pts.; minus-5; 19:30
Cap hit: UFA who earned $3.875 million

When Del Zotto signed here in free agency in 2014, he was a reclamation project. When he met with Hextall two weeks ago, he thanked him for rejuvenating his career and said he understood the club had even younger players than himself waiting in line. The irony is, Del Zotto's best overall season was his first one in 2014-15 when he scored 10 goals and 32 points with far fewer turnovers with the Rangers. He averaged 23 minutes last year, but because of rookie Ivan Provorov, every other D-man's ice time dipped this season. In Del Zotto's case, that was a four-minute hit. While he can move the puck, he is simply not as strong defensively as he needs to be, which is why he's gone through benchings the last two seasons. Del Zotto did finish third on the team in hits with 173. He will go to free agency.
  
Shayne Gostisbehere
Age: Turned 24 on April 20
Stats: 76 GP; 7G, 32A, 39 Pts.; minus-21; 19:35
Cap hit: RFA who earned $925,000

Though he finished just seven points shy of what he totaled in his rookie season (46 points), Gostisbehere's sophomore year was nothing like his first. He'd be the first to tell you it was a nightmarish season, though he finished on an upbeat note. For starters, last year's offseason surgery on his hip and abdomen caused havoc on him right into the second half of this season, much as it did for Claude Giroux, who had identical surgery. "Ghost" was a ghost of himself in terms of his ability to pivot quickly on the ice, recover off the wall or in transition while his once deadly-accurate shot sprayed all over from the point. His inability to cover one-on-one was compromised, as well. He was a turnover machine at times. Much of it had to do with his lengthy recovery from surgery. Hakstol benched him three separate times. It wasn't until early March -- just like Giroux -- when he started to resemble his former self. He finished second among the Flyers' defensemen in ice time. "Ghost" remains the first piece of the blue-line rebuild that began under Hextall and should be re-signed in weeks ahead.

Radko Gudas
Age: Turns 27 on June 5
Stats: 67 GP; 6G, 17A, 23 Pts.; plus-8; 19:18
Cap hit: $3.35 million

There is a reason why teammates voted Gudas the Pelle Lindberg Memorial Award winner as the club's most improved defenseman. Gudas was able to transform his game into legitimate, tough blue-line hockey minus all the cheap shots, reckless hits and dumb plays that ruined his 2015-16 season. His 93 penalty minutes were down from 116 a year ago. Gudas finally realized you can play hard without playing as a liability on defense and he turned in a career season (six goals and 23 points). He was the only defensive regular who was a plus player on a roster in which virtually everyone was a minus. Gudas led the Flyers with 280 hits -- third most in the NHL -- and was third on the club with 124 blocked shots. He had the fourth-highest ice time on the blue line, but missed the final four games concussed. Coincidentally, that injury came off a blind hit -- the kind he used to dish himself.

Andrew MacDonald
Age: Turns 31 on Sept. 7
Stats: 73 GP; 2G, 16A, 18 Pts.; minus-5; 20:06
Cap hit: $5 million

MacDonald has become the whipping boy among Flyers fans because of his salary, which has prevented the club in the past from making certain improvements. If he were an offensive juggernaut, no one would complain about his contract every time he turned a puck over. And therein lies a falsehood. He was fourth on the team in giveaways (50), not first as fans would suspect. He was also the one veteran the Flyers felt confident could play with Ivan Provorov and play effectively, while allowing the rookie to develop. MacDonald's 151 blocked shots were second on the team. Again, given others' plus/minus and the fact he again averaged 20 minutes, it's not as bad as it looks on paper. He could remain with Provorov or be split to assist either Morin or Hagg next season in their transition.
 
Brandon Manning
Age: Turns 27 on June 4
Stats: 65 GP; 3G, 9A, 12 Pts.; minus-12; 18:03
Cap hit: $975,000

Some people wondered why Manning didn't receive the Flyers Fan Club's Gene Hart Memorial Award given to the player with the most heart because it was an award that Manning richly deserved. No Flyer has stood up for others on this club like Manning, who had to work his tail off just to become an NHL player and then hold onto his job. Manning isn't expected to fight and yet he did nine times this season. True, he's not very good at it -- one win -- but he is always willing and that's why teammates lauded him. Over the past three seasons, Manning has worked his way up the ladder from an AHL call-up to a seventh or eighth defenseman to an every-night regular on the roster, while his ice time has risen accordingly. Manning's 121 hits were sixth most and third among Flyers defensemen. He will have to work even harder to retain his starting position if Morin and Hagg make the roster.

Ivan Provorov
Age: Turns 21 on Jan. 13
Stats: 82 GP; 6G, 24A, 30 Pts.; minus-7; 21:58
Cap hit: $894,167

For the second consecutive season, the Flyers had a dynamic rookie defenseman. Provorov plays the game -- as Hextall has noted -- like he's a 30-year-old veteran, not someone who began the season as just a 19-year-old. He led the team in ice time and established a rookie record for such by a Flyer. His 27:17 single-game record against Pittsburgh will be tough to break. He was second in the NHL among all rookies in ice time, too. Provorov has the physical strength and advanced skills you simply don't see very often at this age. He is a franchise defenseman and the only player on the Flyers' roster you can pinpoint as untouchable. It's been a long time coming for this franchise, but Provorov will be on this blue line for at least 10 more years. He led the team with 166 blocked shots. He also led the team with 81 giveaways. Yet given his ice time, the fact he plays in all situations and that he was a rookie, that was entirely expected. The only question is whether he remains with MacDonald next fall.
 
Nick Schultz
Age: Turns 35 on Aug. 25
Stats: 28 GP; 0G, 4A, 4 Pts.; plus-1; 15:15
Cap hit: UFA who salary was $2.25 million

Schultz closed out his three-year career as a Flyer in which he was expected to be a seventh or eighth defenseman who was a gap filler to buy time for younger players. But he actually became a starter for two seasons because of injury and trades. While he wants to lace them up for his 16th season, Schultz said he also doesn't want to move his family cross-country for one year. If that's the case, he said he would simply retire and move back to Western Canada with his family. Hextall thanked him for doing more than what was expected of him. Despite limited ice time and game action in 2016-17, Schultz had 61 blocked shots -- eighth most on the roster -- and every player above him was a full-time starter.
 
Up next: A look back at Part I of the forwards.

Flyers' outdoor game vs. Pens different because of football stadium

Flyers' outdoor game vs. Pens different because of football stadium

VOORHEES, N.J. -- He grew up as a youngster in Judique, Nova Scotia, as a Toronto Blue Jays fan even though the Boston Red Sox were closer geographically.

“My brother was the Red Sox fan,” Andrew MacDonald said.

While hockey was his passion, MacDonald loved to watch baseball. Joe Carter’s walk-off home run in the 1993 World Series clinched it for Mac, then a 7-year-old.

“Didn’t see it for a while though because we only had two TV channels,” MacDonald laughed.

“Yeah, I was Blue Jays fan from Canada.”

On Saturday, the Flyers visit Heinz Field for an outdoor game against their most bitter rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2017 Stadium Series.

MacDonald was a starter for the Islanders during the 2014 Stadium Series game held at the new Yankee Stadium against the Rangers. He likes outdoor games in baseball stadiums even though that is not where this game will take place.

“When I had been to New York, I had gone to a few Yankee games at Yankee Stadium,” MacDonald said Thursday after practice. “Obviously, I got to take in the experience of being a fan there. It’s a pretty great stadium. To be on the field, although it’s a different sport and setting, it was pretty special.”

Michal Neuvirth was the backup goalie for Washington in the 2011 Winter Classic held at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

“It’s just as big as if you played inside for two points,” Neuvirth said. “I just backed up that game there but it was awesome. The big crowd and we won the game with Washington. A good feeling afterward.”

MacDonald said his experience at Yankee Stadium was similar.

“It was great,” he said of the Bronx affair. “Not everyone gets to play in one of those games, so it was special. Just being in that outdoor environment and the capacity of the crowd. Really like a center stage, special experience.”

In both previous Winter Classics involving the Flyers, they were held in baseball stadiums -- Fenway Park in 2010 and Citizens Bank Park two years later. Incidentally, Claude Giroux is the only Flyer to have played in both of the franchise's two Winter Classics.

This “Stadium Series” game will offer a different “look” for players and fans because it occurs in the Steelers’ football stadium.

“Obviously, the setup of the ice surface will be right in the middle of the field as a rectangular field as opposed to baseball where it’s kind of on a different angle,” MacDonald said.

“It’s good. We’ll get a good skate in. A family skate. Yeah, I hope [weather cooperates]. It might not be the best ice, but hopefully, it goes according to plan and go off without a hitch.”

Hot temperatures Friday followed by heavy rain on Saturday could make things difficult.

“Tough to say as to what to expect,” said Neuvirth, who will start in goal. “For me, I am going to prepare myself for 8 o’clock and play my game.”

The most unusual thing that players say affect them during outdoor games is not having fans on the glass. They’re far away in the stands.

Yet in a baseball stadium, some of those fans are a lot closer to the ice than the setup in a football stadium.

“Yeah, it was kind of unique and took a while to get used to,” MacDonald said. “There’s no fans on the glass. You are kind of isolated by yourself there on the middle of the field.

“It’s not until the TV timeout where you can look around and take it all in. It's almost a practice-type mentality when you are first on the ice and then you get acclimated.

“Obviously, once the puck drops you are ready to go and know what to do. It’s definitely a unique experience once you get going.”

When he played at Fenway Park as a freshman at Union College, Shayne Gostisbehere said his only regret was not taking time out to just stop and absorb what was happening around him.

He was so focused on the game against Harvard that day in 2012, he forgot to cherish the moment.

MacDonald said that is something NHL players sometimes forget to do, as well. Take it all in because it might never occur again.

“Everyone is a little different,” he said. “You do have to play it as if it’s like every other game. There is a little adjustment period there with the fans so far away.

“That being said, you have an opportunity to embrace the moment. At the same time, you have to focus on what we’re trying to accomplish out there. Try to get the win like any other time.”

Loose pucks
• Flyers forward Jakub Voracek left the ice early Thursday with a slight limp. He was not available after practice but general manager Ron Hextall confirmed Voracek is fine and will play Saturday. The Flyers' leading scorer was hit with a deflected puck earlier this week in practice in his groin area but played without incident during Wednesday's game against Washington. 

• The Flyers left for Pittsburgh this afternoon.

Flyers skate update: Matt Read's 400th game; Andrew MacDonald scratched

Flyers skate update: Matt Read's 400th game; Andrew MacDonald scratched

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Matt Read did not have to worry about being an NHL draft bust.

He did not impress scouts enough to be drafted at all while playing collegiate hockey at Bemidji State in Minnesota. Instead, the Flyers' winger had to make the NHL the hard way — as a free agent.

“Out of college, I signed with the Flyers and was just doing everything I could to get an opportunity to make the team,” Read, 30, recalled after the team’s morning skate before the Flyers take on the Vancouver Canucks.

His hard work and determination were rewarded here as he drew into the Flyers lineup for his 400th NHL career game.

“If you told me as a 12-year-old self I was playing 400 games in the NHL, I’d be pretty happy, obviously,” Read said. “I don’t have enough words to describe (what the accomplishment means.) Every day in the NHL is a blessing, I guess. You show up every day, work hard and have fun. As a kid, I wanted to be a professional hockey player, and I get to live it out everyday, which is amazing.”

Read originally signed as a free agent with the Flyers in 2011. Unlike many other NHLers, he has played his entire career with the same organization.

“The opportunity to play for the same team for six years is almost unheard of in the National Hockey League these days, so (I) take advantage of it and enjoy it,” Read said.

What has enabled him to stick?

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m just showing up at the rink every day to work hard, have fun, be a team guy and do as much as I can to make this team better.”

Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said he has a “solid level of trust” in Read.

“There’s a lot of different pathways towards the NHL,” Hakstol said. “I think what you see in that guys that are able to hit a milestone like 400 is, there’s a level of dedication and consistency in terms of work habits to get there. Obviously, Matt has demonstrated those. It’s a hell of a milestone. (But) probably first and foremost on his mind, I would think, tonight is playing a good hockey game and helping our team.”

MacDonald gets night off
Flyers defenseman Andrew MacDonald received the night off as Hakstol made him a healthy scratch. The move was somewhat surprising, because MacDonald has played every game since he was scratched Nov. 19 against Tampa Bay.

Hakstol said MacDonald needed a rest. As a result, Brandon Manning was shifted to the right side from the left and paired with Ivan Provorov.

According to the coach, Manning has not had trouble switching sides this season.

“He’s done a pretty good job,” Hakstol said. “If you look at it, particularly this year, he’s been pretty efficient in making that transition. Is it easy? No.”

Neuvy gets the nod again
Hakstol did not think goaltender Michal Neuvirth needed a rest. He got the nod for his fourth straight start and sixth in the last seven games overall.

“He’s been the guy that’s been in a rhythm for us and he’s done a pretty good job and he’ll go back tonight,” Hakstol said.

Neuvirth was not complaining about the heavy workload.

“It’s good to be playing,” Neuvirth said. “The more I play, the more comfortable I feel. It’s been good.”

He also prepared to be comfortable with the risk of added fatigue.

“It is what it is — you’ve gotta be ready anytime, any day,” Neuvirth said. “It’s a good opportunity for me and it’s gonna be a good challenge.”

Former Flyers coach enshrined
Late former Flyers coach Pat Quinn has been honored with a life-sized statue outside the home of the Canucks. The monument, funded by a group of Quinn’s friends and business partners, was unveiled over the weekend.

Quinn began his coaching career with the Flyers in 1977-78 before holding coaching and managing positions with the AHL Phantoms and four other NHL clubs, including the Canucks. He guided the Flyers to a 35-game unbeaten streak — a record for North American sports — in 1979-80, when they reached the Stanley Cup finals.

Loose pucks
• The Flyers’ .667 winning percentage in Vancouver ranks as their best in any current NHL city. 

• Despite outshooting their opponents in 15 of 20 games dating to Jan. 1, the Flyers are 5-8-2 in the 15 contests.

Scratches: Defensemen Andrew MacDonald and Nick Schultz

Lineup
F: Schenn-Giroux-Simmonds

Weise-Couturier-Voracek

Raffl-Cousins-Read

VandeVelde-Bellemare-Lyubimov

D: Provorov-Manning

Gostisbehere-Streit

Del  Zotto-Gudas

G: Neuvirth