Flyers Have a Defensive Problem
Since the Flyers’ run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010, the organization has done an excellent job of acquiring talented defensive players. Because of this, they find themselves with too many good defensemen in the organization. It’s a good problem, but a problem nonetheless. Now they have to decide who will be the Flyers of the future, who are short-term solutions, and who will need to beef up their resume for other teams.
Finding the right combination of All-Star talent, veteran leadership, and youthful exuberance is key for any organization and the Flyers already have that combination if they make the right decisions.
The Key Players
There isn’t much to say about Gostisbehere. He is already one of the most prolific scoring defensemen in the game in his third season with the team. He joins the elite, like Brett Burns, Shea Weber, and Erik Karlsson, as one of the best passers and scorers from the blue line.
The Flyers recognized his unique talent and signed him to a six-year extension in 2017. The Ghost will be on the Orange and Black’s top pairing through the 2022-23 season.
In only his second season in Philadelphia, Ivan Provorov has proven to be a top blueliner. He makes a perfect partner for the offensive-minded Gostisbehere because he is reliable and consistent. Provorov is okay letting others shine and this allows the Ghost Bear to do what he does best without fear of leaving his teammate out to dry. When he has an opportunity to attack and contribute on offense, he takes it. On the penalty kill, Provorov leads the team in TOI and blocked shots. He simply does everything that is expected of him.
In his first season, the blueliner had 30 points and is on his way to breaking that mark this season. His plus-6 is one of the best on the team for a guy who logs the most minutes on the roster. The Gostisbehere and Provorov duo have 54 points combined as of Jan. 15, the third most among all defensemen pairings behind Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev of the Tampa Bay Lightning and P.K. Subban and Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators.
Provorov has one more year on his contract and should expect a big extension before the end of next season. He is a Flyer to stay.
Robert Hagg was drafted by the Flyers in the second round of the 2013 entry draft. He has been one of the most consistent defensemen on the roster and also in the NHL. In his rookie season, he has a plus-14 which is 11th best among defensemen in the NHL. He has been the anti-Gostisbehere in all the best ways. As good as Gostisbehere is on offense, Hagg has been equally good on defense and he attacks his opponents as one of the NHL’s leaders in hits.
Hagg is not expected to score. He is there to disrupt the opposition’s offense and in doing so, he has given his teammates ample opportunity to score while he is on the ice. Does he make mistakes? What rookie doesn’t? Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. But Hagg has cemented a spot in the Flyers’ lineup for many years to come. A restricted free agent at the end of the season, he should be priority number one for the Orange and Black.
The Veteran Keepers
You would be hard-pressed to find a Flyers fan that wants to keep Andrew MacDonald. He is a keeper for this team solely for the reason that he is owed $11.25 million over the next two seasons. He has contributed to the stress and headaches suffered by Flyers fans over the years and at the ripe old age of 31, MacDonald will be on the decline moving forward, meaning he has seen the last big payday of his career.
No team will trade for MacDonald and give any sort of quality return. That means, for the short-term, MacDonald will stay a Flyer. It isn’t the worst thing. He is a veteran leader who has been successful in the league. His influence on young defensemen has been made public by players and coaches. It is hard to put a price on the importance of a good locker room guy, and that is exactly what MacDonald is. On the ice, he is still a quality penalty killer who isn’t afraid to block a shot.
When his contract is up, Gostisbehere and Provorov will be considered veterans, meaning MacDonald should be the last “old guy” on the blue line unless the Flyers bring in another player just to keep everyone in check and help groom the young players.
The Flyers Future Stars
These are the players that a veteran leader would help groom. They are the most promising prospects in the organization. Their success is already written. They just need to make it to the big dance and shine.
If Samuel Morin can stay healthy, he is going to be one of the top Flyers defensemen for years to come. Drafted the same year as Hagg, Morin’s skillset is NHL-ready. His health has been one of the main reasons he is not with the Flyers right now.
At the beginning of the season, however, Hextall seemed to prefer the offensive upside of Travis Sanheim over the massive frame and defensive capabilities of Morin. With Sanheim struggling, Morin would be deserving of a promotion were he healthy.
Moving forward, there will be an opportunity for Morin to take over a roster spot. Brandon Manning will likely not be re-signed and Morin should take his place next season. Morin was a first-round pick with high expectations but patience is key. He will be a star for the Orange and Black.
Philippe Myers is 6’5″, can skate, and score yet he was undrafted. He never let that fact get to him and instead continued to work on his game. He is now considered one of the top prospects within in the Flyers organization. He is only 20-years-old and already has Bob McKenzie saying “he looks NHL ready, or close to it.” Myers can do it all as a defenseman at the size that will intimidate any player on the ice.
In his first season with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, Myers has 10 points through 23 games and a plus-5 rating. Before that, he earned a silver medal with Team Canada at the 2017 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships. This bodes well for him as he already has experience playing against some of the best young talents in the world, many of whom will be on an NHL roster soon. In his four-year career with Rouyn-Norando in the QMJHL, he had 92 points in 203 games and 156 penalty minutes.
Myers is not exceptional in any one area but he is very good at all aspects of the game and plays well in all three zones. He has a high hockey IQ and a good feel for when he should attack or play conservatively. He also provides the Flyers with something they are lacking: a right-handed shot from the blue line. Assuming he doesn’t suffer any more injuries, Morin will be the next player called to the NHL with Myers following shortly after him. The thought of a Morin and Myers pairing should help Flyers fans sleep soundly at night.
Star might not be the right word for Friedman but he will be donning the Orange and Black in the near future and it will be easy for fans to fall in love with him. He gives 100% effort 100% of the time. Just like Myers, he is a right-handed shot. This gives him (and Myers) an edge over other players in the organization. He is not going to dazzle with his offensive numbers and that is okay. He can be the recipient of the perennial hustle award and be a fan favorite for the effort and consistent play he provides.
The Flyers have needed consistent play and strong effort. Playing like that can be contagious. With Provorov and Gostisbehere controlling the top pairings, alongside Morin and Hagg, Friedman will be the perfect compliment on a bottom pairing. It is unclear when he will get the call but it is coming. All he has to do is continue to give the effort and energy that caught the organization’s eye.
The Ones to Let Go
Brandon Manning is a solid player who will sign somewhere else next season. He will have a productive NHL career and be a consistently good fourth or fifth best defenseman on a team. At 27-years-old, he still has plenty of good years left. Those years just won’t be spent wearing Orange and Black because the team has better prospects waiting for their chance to play and younger stars already shining above Manning.
When it comes to scoring as a defenseman, few do it better than TJ Brennan…in the AHL. Brennan has led his team in scoring three times in his career and is second all-time in goals scored among AHL defensemen, a record that demonstrates his offensive skills but also how long he has been in the AHL. He has played 53 NHL games with the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs but there is no indication that he will return to the NHL as a member of the Flyers.
Manning and Brennan are quality players who find themselves in a bad situation because of the number of high-quality defensemen in the organization. They will be okay, however, as Manning will find a new home and the Flyers should utilize Brennan’s trade value now before he gets too old for the NHL to care. Getting a third-round pick or a quality penalty killer under contract in return for Brennan would be a win-win situation for the player and organization.
Gudas made his way onto the team as an enforcer and has since turned into a quality low-pairing defenseman. The fans love him for his toughness and blue-collar work ethic. No city represents the blue-collar work ethic and respects a tough-nosed hockey player that fights for his team like Philly.
Unfortunately, Gudas’ style of play as a bruiser meant to knock around the other team and strike fear into their hearts doesn’t exist in the modern NHL. The hard hits into the boards and cross-checks at center ice result in penalties, doing more harm than good for the team.
Gudas has cleaned up his act considerably and worked on his game to become a productive player on the third and fourth lines, but is it enough to keep him around long-term? Teams still look for players who make others hesitate before putting their heads down. Gudas can be that guy but maybe Morin or Myers or Hagg could be that player as well as being effective offensively. His contract expires the same year as MacDonald’s, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Gudas becomes a regular healthy scratch or gets traded before his contract is up.
Due to injuries, Alt had the chance to play a few NHL games. He showed potential but nothing special in his short stint with the team. He didn’t do anything bad, but he didn’t do anything great either though he’s a solid defenseman.
Alt is a big body and has good footwork for a man his size. If he can play aggressively and accept a role as a defensive-minded player looking to hit, block shots, and be an effective penalty killer, then he may be able to find a spot on the team and threaten to steal a roster spot from players like MacDonald or Gudas.
Selected in the fifth round of the 2012 Entry Draft, Reece Willcox was never a player people expected much from, rather he is a quality stay-at-home defenseman. He would play very well with Sanheim if his offense ever got going or even with a big offensive force like Gostisbehere. Willcox is a big body at 6’4″ and 207 pounds and is a right-handed shot which helps his chances of making the roster except that the team has younger, right-handed shots that they are more excited about.
Willcox is not a bad player, it’s just that he’s surrounded by talented defensemen that are younger and more skilled than him. He could have a successful NHL career but it’s unknown if it will be with the Flyers.
Sanheim was the first pick made by Ron Hextall when he became general manager of the Flyers. It may be a surprise to see him on this list but he really hasn’t proven himself in his first season as Haag did this year or Provorov last year. He has the worst plus/minus on the team at minus-10 and is not part of the power play or penalty kill. He doesn’t hit, with only 18 through 35 games, and any offensive expectations have been dismally unfulfilled, he has only five points this season. If it feels like the team is playing a man down when you are on the ice, you are doing many things wrong.
Granted, he is young. He was drafted in the 2014 Entry Draft and is only 21-years-old. Mistakes are expected and growing pains will occur. The Flyers are going to give him another year to develop and his projections have been off the charts, comparable to Ryan McDonagh. If he reaches the skill level of McDonagh, then Hextall will look like a genius for recognizing this talent and drafting him as his first pick as the GM.
His role has already diminished this season but Sanheim will be back with the Flyers next year. His head, however, should remain on a swivel. There are only so many spots on an NHL roster and four of them are locked down. The rising stars are coming to take over and Sanheim will be in a contract year next season. The Flyers will re-sign him but his play will determine for how long. If he doesn’t play well, his time with the big club will be much shorter than expected.
Having a plethora of options on defense is a good problem to have. Amidst the inconsistency of the Flyers and the constant question marks surrounding the team, it is nice to have a problem where there really is no wrong answer.
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