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.

After battling himself, Shayne Gostisbehere grasps mental side of NHL

After battling himself, Shayne Gostisbehere grasps mental side of NHL

Shayne Gostisbehere wasn't up against anything physical.

He didn't fight injuries or lingering effects from offseason hip/abdominal surgeries.

In reality, he fought himself.

Gostisbehere entered his sophomore season with expectations that were "probably not fair," according to general manager Ron Hextall in early February. That was because the precocious defenseman spoiled fans with a nearly unblemished rookie performance, finishing second in the 2015-16 Calder Memorial Trophy race.

He spoiled fans with history and heroics. His offense and ability at the point were captivating.

"My rookie season was sort of a dream season for anyone," Gostisbehere said.

Then came Year 2.

Gostisbehere was benched a total of fives times. Playing in 12 more games than his first year, he scored 10 fewer goals. He went from a plus-8 to a minus-21.

At Flyers cleanout day last Tuesday, Gostisbehere refused to make excuses.

"My hip didn't bother me once this season," he said. "I haven't gotten treatment on it once this year. I took care of it, did what I had to do. It's definitely a tough pill to swallow this season. Obviously, it wasn't the season I wanted but I learned a lot about myself, not only as a player on the ice but off the ice, too, just getting through hard times."

When asked about his hip again, Gostisebehere expanded with some conviction. He opened up about the mental aspect of the game and all that comes with it. This season, it was his biggest hurdle.

"I know you guys want me to admit it's my surgeries, my injuries, but it's honestly not," he said. "You can tell who doesn't have confidence on the ice when they have the puck -- you can tell. If it's a guy who's bringing it up and he's looking everywhere and he doesn't have confidence, then you can tell it's confidence. 

"I make plays on the blue line, there are plays that I have to do quick, I have to react and I have to have the confidence to do them. I can't do them if I'm thinking like, 'Oh, what if his stick goes there,' I can't. You just have to have a free mind and you have to go out there and play and let your abilities take over. That's what I was learning more and more as the season went on, realizing I had the skills, I just have to trust my abilities."

When Gostisbehere was benched three straight games in early February, he vowed to focus on defensive principles. But Gostisbehere's offense is what totally changes a game. It's what put the Flyers over the top and into the playoffs last season.

In his first 40 games of 2015-16, he started fast and never stopped, erupting for 34 points on 12 goals and 22 assists. This season, Gostisbehere had 19 points (four goals, 15 assists) through 44 games -- a true confidence blow for a 23-year-old.

"I wasn't questioning myself, I honestly thought, 'I'm hitting a lot of posts here, some things aren't going in,'" he said. "My confidence on the ice comes through my offensive ability, when I make plays, when I jump up there and make a good breakout pass. I like blocking a shot every once in a while, but the offensive part of my game is what drives my confidence and when I don't see pucks going in the net or offense isn't there, it's hard for me to stick with it and it's something I just have to realize."

Gostisbehere rediscovered himself by being himself.

"It's pretty cliché but I just said I'm going to go out there and have fun. I'm going to make plays and I don't care if I get yelled at," he said with a smile, "but I'm going to play my game and make my plays. People can look at is as risky but most of the time it works out for me."

Playing stress-free, Gostisebehere finished the season with eight points (one goal, seven assists) over his last eight games, a stretch in which he was a plus-3. In his final 24 games, he recorded 17 points.

To set up a Wayne Simmonds goal in the season finale, Gostisbehere made a play at the blue line that was reminiscent of the rookie "Ghost."

"I'm definitely going to take pride in that," Gostisbehere said of his positive finish. "In January, not being where I wanted to be as a player, obviously I went through a tough patch there, a healthy scratch for three games in a row and it was a good reflection period. Valuable workdays and practice days for myself. I think I really just learned a lot about myself."

Gostisbehere, who turns 24 years old on Thursday, can become a restricted free agent this offseason. The Flyers will undoubtedly get something done.

"Free agency, I can't answer that question right now," Hextall said last Thursday. "We've got the expansion draft, we've got preparation, we've got to sign a goalie, we've got Ghost to sign."

After that, Gostisbehere will be ready for anything in Year 3. He'll also use his experiences to help the Flyers' new youth on the blue line.

"If they want to bounce some ideas off me," he said, "I'll let them know because I've got some wisdom now."

Flyers-Hurricanes 5 things: Finding meaning in the season finale

Flyers-Hurricanes 5 things: Finding meaning in the season finale

Flyers vs. Hurricanes
7 p.m. on CSN, streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports app. Pregame Live begins at 6:30.

And so we've reached the final curtain.

The Flyers will cap off an underwhelming campaign when they host the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday evening in the season finale for both Metropolitan Division clubs.

But just because this is the final game of the year for two teams out of the playoff picture doesn't mean we're without things to keep an eye on.

Let's take a closer look at the final NHL game in Philadelphia until October.

1. Remember the name
Players taking part in Sunday's finale have pride to play for. Some have more than that to play for -- they have jobs on the line, whether here in Philadelphia or in another NHL city.

Sunday marks the Flyers' last chance to make an impression on Ron Hextall and prove they should still be wearing orange and black by the time next season rolls around.

After the final buzzer hits Sunday night, five Flyers are set to be restricted free agents and five more are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents. The RFAs include Nick Cousins, Roman Lyubimov, Mike Vecchione, Shayne Gostisbehere and Anthony Stolarz. The UFA group includes Chris VandeVelde, Jordan Weal, Michael Del Zotto, Nick Schultz and Steve Mason.

With the way the Flyers underperformed this year and with another season of experience under the belts of talented prospects, change will be inevitable over the summer. And don't forget about that pesky expansion draft for Vegas, either.

There are 60 minutes left to make a lasting mark in the boss' mind for the summer.

2. Another Stolie audition?
Mason started and beat the Blue Jackets on Saturday afternoon. With the back-to-back set, Mason's swan song with the Flyers may have already come and gone as all signs point to Anthony Stolarz getting the starting nod against the 'Canes. Michal Neuvirth is out with an upper-body injury.

In six appearances (three starts) this season, the 23-year-old is 2-1-0 with a 1.93 goals-against average, .932 save percentage and a shutout. He last played last Sunday against the Rangers, when he took his first NHL loss on the chin in a 4-3 defeat that officially booted the Flyers from the playoff picture.

The Flyers' goaltending picture is currently in a state of flux as Mason will be a UFA, Stolarz will be an RFA and Neuvirth, who recently inked a two-year extension, is eligible for the expansion draft. Remember, Vegas GM George McPhee was Washington's GM when the Capitals selected Neuvirth in the second round of the 2006 entry draft.

So if Stolarz does indeed get the start Sunday evening, it's a big chance to show he's worthy of being a part of the Flyers' plans next year and into the future.

3. Principal Skinner
The 'Canes aren't going to the playoffs, but that doesn't mean Jeff Skinner still can't torch the Flyers.

Skinner has owned the Flyers to the tune of 13 goals and 18 assists for 21 points in 25 career games against the Flyers.

Even worse news for the Flyers is that Skinner comes into Philadelphia riding high off a two-goal performance in Saturday's shootout loss to St. Louis. The 24-year old now has a career-high 37 goals and a team-high 63 points. Three points on Sunday and he'll set a new career mark.

Oh, and by the way, he's got 14 goals in his last 13 games.

4. Keep an eye on
Flyers: Has any Flyer looked more dynamic over the last month or so than Shayne Gostisbehere? Ghost has once again looked like the play-making, impact defenseman who took the league by storm and finished second in Calder Trophy voting last season. His shiftiness and booming, on-target slapper from the point have both shown up on a consistent basis over the last several weeks as he's shaken off whatever lingered from that offseason hip and abdomen surgery. And remember, he's haunted the Hurricanes with four goals and four assists in eight career games against them.

Hurricanes: Skinner's been so good he deserved his own section in these game notes. But how about 19-year-old rookie winger Sebastian Aho? He's had an excellent rookie campaign with 23 goals and 25 assists while playing in all 81 of the games on the schedule. You may recall the hat trick he recorded on Jan. 31 when the 'Canes routed the Flyers in Raleigh in the first game back from the All-Star break. He's a key piece of what looks like a bright future in Carolina.

5. This and that
• Defensive prospect Robert Hagg has been called up and is available to make his NHL debut against the ‘Canes. For more on Hagg’s call up, click here.

• The Hurricanes have now missed the playoffs for eight straight seasons, the longest active drought in the NHL. The Edmonton Oilers qualified this season for the first time in 10 years, passing the torch to the ‘Canes.

• Sunday marks the fifth meeting of the season between the Flyers and Hurricanes. The Flyers own a 3-1 advantage this season. The Flyers own a 7-2-1 record in the last 10 meetings with Carolina at the Wells Fargo Center.

• Coming into Sunday, six Flyers have played all 81 games so far this season -- Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Ivan Provorov and VandeVelde

• In their history, the Flyers are 22-18-8 in regular-season finales.