Where's the Defensive Depth?

A lot was made before the season about how much Chris Pronger would help this team's defense.  By bumping everyone back on the depth chart, he was expected to make everyone better. 

Unfortunately, that hasn't really been the case.  Much has already been said about how much Pronger has helped Matt Carle, but the Flyers are giving up 2.78 goals per game this year, barely down from the 2.83 they gave up last year.  What's the problem?

The problem is a lack of depth.  Aside from the top three of Pronger, Carle, and Kimmo Timonen, the Flyers defense just hasn't performed.  Everybody is waiting for Braydon Coburn to step up, but even with his qualteam going from -0.204 to -0.016 since Stevens was fired, his GVT has only gone from 2.1 to 2.3.  His offense is down too, with 1 goal and 2 assists in his last 25 games, down from four and seven in his first 25.  He also registered a minus-4 in both 25 game intervals.

While Coburn has been disappointing, the real problem is that the team has to dress two defensemen worse than him every game.  So far this year, the team has seen Danny Syvret, Ryan Parent, Oskars Bartulis, and Ole-Kristian Tollefsen rotate in those two roles each night.  Needless to say, the third pairing has been awful for almost the entire season.  Even worse, the team doesn't have any players in the AHL ready to fill in right now.  Because of this, Tollefsen appears to have been benched yesterday and Paul Holmgren has publicly admitted to searching for a depth defenseman.

After the jump, a look at the four fill-ins and any potential replacements from within the system.

GP G A Pts +/- Corsi QoC Corsi QoT RPM OGVT DGVT Total GVT
Danny Syvret 21 2 2 4 1 -0.440 1.893 0.2 0.3 0.9 1.1
Ole-Kristian Tollefsen 16 0 2 2 -1 -0.729 0.155 -1.5 -0.1 0.3 0.2
Ryan Parent 28 0 2 2 -5 -1.567 0.881 -6.5 -0.6 0.2 -0.4
Oskars Bartulis 37 0 6 6 -13 -0.626 2.262 -14.3 -0.4 -0.4 -0.8

 

Anybody see a problem?  No one in this table is worthy of praise, except for maybe OKT simply because he stayed healthy enough to dress in 16 games. 

Surprisingly, Danny Syvret has separated himself from the pack, but he's still trailing Andrew Alberts in total GVT.  The fact that he's the least terrible defenseman in this group isn't much of a consolation.  There are still some positives to take out of his play so far though:  1) he isn't in the negative in plus/minus; 2) he's facing the stiffest competition in the group; 3) and he is doing it with less than Bartulis.  That last one isn't saying much, but Syvret had turned his season around before getting injured.

After all of the praise heaped upon Oskars Bartulis when he first came up and took the 6th defenseman job from Syvret, it's amazing how far he has fallen.  He's facing about the same competition as OKT with incredibly better teammates, yet he is still by far the worst defenseman of the group.  He showed some decent chemistry with Parent, but his play has deteriorated since then.  The day Parent got hurt December 26th, Bartulis had a 0.1 GVT.  Now, he has a -0.8 GVT.  How much of that can actually be attributed to Parent's injury is unknown, but pairing him with OKT couldn't help his confidence

For as bad as Tollefsen is, his numbers are better than expected.  He's facing bad competition with bad teammates and he's almost treading water.  The bar was set low for Tollefsen, but he isn't flying too far below it.  Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Lastly, Ryan Parent has to be the biggest disappointment in this table.  A lot of people - me included - expected a lot from Parent this year and he didn't come through.  For some reason, this kid just can't stay healthy.  He's only played 81 professional games the past two years (in the NHL and AHL) and he wasn't exactly remarkable.  With him expected to miss another 6 weeks, Paul Holmgren finally has to make a move.  This should have been made earlier since the team was essentially working with four NHL-level defenseman for most of the year, but Parent's injury makes everyone realize they need help.

The problem is that the team doesn't have anybody ready to step in from the AHL and pick up the slack.  In this regard, I'm incredibly jealous of Washington, who have two good young defensemen - Karl Alzner and John Carlson - unable to crack their roster.  Unfortunately, the Flyers' top prospects are still a year or two away.  The Phantoms currently have seven defensemen on their roster, five of which are 24 or younger.  Joonas Lehtivuori, Kevin Marshall, and Marc-Andre Bourdon are all 21 years old and not likely to be much better than Syvret, Bartulis, or Tollefsen right now.  Veterans Joey Mormina and Sean Curry also don't instill a lot of confidence in their ability to step in and play at the NHL level either, with a combined one NHL game played.  Phantoms' defensemen this year:

Name Pos GP G A PTS +/- PIM
Joonas Lehtivuori D 31 3 8 11 2 10
Joey Mormina D 42 2 9 11 -6 49
Marc-Andre Bourdon D 40 1 7 8 -8 47
Sean Curry D 36 1 5 6 -12 36
Kevin Marshall D 39 2 1 3 -5 43
Logan Stephenson D 30 0 2 2 -1 97
David Sloane D 12 0 1 1 -2 0

All of those players in the minus is troubling, but that's mainly the result of the Phantoms just being a bad team.  There are only two forwards on the team with a positive rating - Jon Kalinski and Lukas Kaspar.  Kaspar was a plus-2 in eight games before being released from his contract, and Kalinski is a plus-1.  Jason Ward has managed an even rating, for what it's worth.

While these stats don't show much of any good news, the two young defensemen appear to be struggling:  neither Bourdon nor Marshall have done much to warrant a call up.  Who is surprising though, is Joonas Lehtivuori.  I'm sure very few of you are aware of who he is or where he came from, but as the only defenseman to be in the positive, lead the blueline in points, and take so few penalties, he is suddenly the best defenseman the Flyers have in the AHL right now.

Lehtivuori was the Flyers' fourth round pick (101st overall) in 2006 and spent his entire career playing for Ilves Tampere in the SM-liga.  His best year was 2007-08, where he registered 8 goals and 13 assists in 48 games, adding a goal and an assist in 9 playoff games.  This is his first year in North America, and he appears to be adjusting very nicely.  As a puck-carrying defenseman he might have trouble finding a spot in the Flyers' lineup, but he's the biggest bright spot right now.

The guys with previous AHL experience - Mormina, Curry, and Stevenson - don't exactly exude confidence either.  In looking at their GVT while in the AHL, Joey Mormina has the best career GVT/G at 0.05, equal to what Danny Syvret is pulling in the NHL right now.  While that isn't exactly good news, there is some good news (which is also more bad news) on Mormina though:  He had his best AHL season last year for Wilkes-Barre Scranton, pulling in a 0.14 per game rating.  The bad news is that he had just a 0.02 per game career rating before last year.  Maybe last year was the start of a trend, but much more likely is that last season was an outlier.  That said, he still looks to be the second best defenseman on the Phantoms so far this year.

 

Conclusion

Maybe the Flyers could have gotten by with Parent and Syvret this year - the original plan - but with both of them down, there simply aren't any other defensemen playing at an NHL-level right now capable of stepping up.  There are some decent prospects - Marshall, Bourdon, and Lehtivuori - but none that could reasonably be expected to step in tomorrow and play. 

This is definitely something to keep in mind when Coburn, Parent, Tollefsen, and Syvret all become free agents this summer.

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