Max Nason The Hockey Writers
Flyers’ Defensive Plan Feels Uncertain As Postseason Looms
The NHL trade deadline has come and gone, which means rosters are becoming finalized. Give or take some call ups from the minors, rosters aren’t changing much as we pull into the final leg of the regular season.
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For the Philadelphia Flyers, the deadline was a quiet one. With the only real additions to the team coming in the form of centers Nate Thompson and Derek Grant, there weren’t exactly any big names heading in or out of Philadelphia.
As those were two of only three moves at the deadline for the Flyers, their defensive core stayed exactly the same. For most of the season, they’ve rotated through seven defensemen with the odd appearance of an AHL callup. So, as they currently sit in a position to make the playoffs, their plan to either run with six or seven defensemen in the lineup feels wildly unclear.
The rotation of defensemen for the Flyers is an entirely mixed pot. It features young players looking to prove they’re worthy of a top-six spot and veterans showing they’ve still got plenty to offer. It’s composed of guys that have been fixtures in the Flyers’ system and some new additions as well.
Overall, it’s a great mix of stay-at-home defensemen manning the defensive zone with blocked shots and excellent breakouts as well as offensive-minded d-men who love to create scoring opportunities from the point and get their name on the score sheet.
The seven defensemen that have earned their spot in the Flyers roster are as follows: Justin Braun, Shayne Gostisbehere, Robert Hagg, Philippe Myers, Matt Niskanen, Ivan Provorov, and Travis Sanheim. Out of those seven, there are probably four that are undisputed locks, barring any injuries, to play every remaining
As their top blueliner, earning himself a lucrative six-year contract in the offseason, Provorov is a staple of the Flyers’ top-four on the back end. Working on an iron man streak of his own, having not missed a game through his first four seasons, the young Russian is a certain lock to help the Flyers earn a playoff spot and compete for a championship.
There are plenty of Flyers fans out there that were sad to see Radko Gudas go. However, there’s no way any of them can complain about the way Niskanen has performed in his first season in the orange and black.
Even though he’s tied with Provorov for most points among defensemen, it’s everything Niskanen does off the score sheet that has made his 13th NHL season so spectacular. He’s a lock in the Flyers’ lineup and arguably one of their most important players anytime he hits the ice.
Although he doesn’t bring much flash or offensive prowess to the Flyers’ lineup, Justin Braun has been solid this season. There are certainly some holes in his game, but overall he’s added to the blue line another physical defenseman who prioritizes success in the defensive zone over racking up points. He’s also got the experience, especially in the postseason, that the Flyers are going to need desperately down the stretch.
Along with Provorov, fellow 23-year-old Sanheim has been one of the Flyers’ top emerging players. He’s been a consistent member of Philadelphia’s defensive core, appearing in all 64 games so far this season.
He’s upped his average time on ice by nearly a full minute from last season, and could still match his 35-point total from the 2018-19 season as well. After struggling to crack the lineup for several years, Sanheim has made himself a lock in the top four as he looks to make it two consecutive seasons playing all 82 games.
Up in the Air
Robert Hagg and Philippe Myers
None of this is to say that Myers or Hagg haven’t earned their time and spots in the lineup or shouldn’t be a part of the top-six down the stretch and into the postseason. I’ll also preface this by saying I don’t think that either Hagg or especially Myers will lose their lineup spot. However, based on the way they’ve rotated those two in and out of the lineup this year, it’s safe to say they’re probably the most vulnerable.
Myers is slowly transforming into an elite top-four NHL defenseman right before our eyes. He’s averaging over 17 minutes of ice time through 46 games, with 16 points and a commendable plus-15 rating. Although he can falter at some points, as many young defensemen do at the start of their pro careers, he constantly embraces his size on the defensive end with the ability to dazzle in the offensive zone at both even strength and on the powerplay.
Of all the Flyers’ defensemen currently in the lineup whose spot could be in jeopardy, Hagg probably ranks highest. He’s been decent in 44 games this year, with some glaring mistakes that have seen him removed and replaced in the lineup throughout the year. One aspect of the game Hagg should be praised for is his physicality. Not only does he lead the team in hits, but he’s also been an absolute machine when it comes to blocking shots. He offers size and strength to the lineup and, like Myers, has a terrific plus-15 rating to add more reasons to keep him around when the postseason comes.
The 2019-20 season has been a brutal one for sixth-year defenseman Gostisbehere. After three consecutive seasons playing 75-plus
As of late, Gostisbehere has been sidelined with a knee injury that’s caused him to miss 20 of the last 22 games over the course of seven weeks. Now, he’s completed a conditioning stint with the American Hockey League’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms and is back with the Flyers. However, that doesn’t mean he’s set to rejoin the lineup any time soon.
All the time Gostisbehere has missed with injury hasn’t done him any favors in a season full of on-ice struggles. That combination of injuries and meager performances has made him one of the biggest question marks on the Flyers’ roster and most importantly, for their defensive core.
Before the deadline, plenty of people believed Gostisbehere would be traded, but general manager Chuck Fletcher made it clear that the idea never crossed his mind. Now that Gostisbehere is here to stay, it’s time to wonder what the plan is heading forward.
In the event that the Flyers make the playoffs, they’ll most likely move forward with the same six defensemen they’ve used over the past two months. Unfortunately for Gostisbehere, that means he’ll have to serve as a reserve in case of an untimely injury.
The Flyers, however, haven’t explicitly made clear how they intend on dealing with Gostisbehere or their defensive rotation going forward. It’s odd to think he may just remain sidelined as he’s been a central component of the Flyers’ defense for the past five seasons.
While they could move through the rest of the season without it causing much of an issue, it will certainly be something they need to address once playoffs roll around and, of course, in the offseason. Unless they plan on utilizing a seven defensemen lineup, they’ll have to strip someone of their starting role. Only time will tell who that might be.
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