PHILADELPHIA PA - JANUARY 20: Blair Betts #11 of the Philadelphia Flyers defends against Ryan Shannon #26 of the Ottawa Senators on January 20 2011 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Casual fans of the Philadelphia Flyers will scoff at the fact that we're making a big deal about losing a fourth-line role player. But it's not only the fact that the team lost Blair Betts to the Montreal Canadiens via waivers today, getting absolutely nothing in return, that pisses us off.
It's what such a move says about the philosophy of this organization that's so frustrating.
First, let's stick with Betts, a guy who plays his role better than just about every other player in the NHL. Sure, he's not Wayne Gretzky. He's never going to score goals in bunches and thus, he's never going to be truly appreciated by most who watch the game.
But his defensive prowess is something that's absolutely vital to the success of a hockey team.
For starters, Betts spent a ton of time on the penalty kill last season. Of his average 10:26 per game in ice time, 3:37 of that was spent while the team was shorthanded. That's second in overall shorthanded ice time on the team behind only defenseman Kimmo Timonen. Betts still played a larger percentage of his overall ice time on the PK than any other Flyer.
But okay, a penalty killing horse is replaceable. There are plenty of players like that in the NHL. In fact, new Flyer Maxime Talbot did much of the same in Pittsburgh, playing 2:55 in shorthanded ice time per game last year, second amongst Penguins forwards.
Despite his reputation as a fantastic penalty killer, that's not the department where we'll really miss Blair Betts. We're going to miss him much more in critical situations at five-on-five. Sure, Betts played fewer minutes at five-on-five than any Flyers regular not named Jody Shelley last year, but just look at his contributions there.
Amongst Flyers centers, Betts started just 26.9 percent of his shifts in the offensive end of the ice, meaning that the (huge) majority of his shifts were started in the defensive end of the ice. When without Shelley dragging him down as a linemate, actually, he started just 15.8 percent (!) of his shifts in the offensive end of the ice. Which is just ridiculous.
By comparison, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, two wonderful two-way centers in their own right, started 46.8 and 46.3 percent of their shifts in the offensive zone, respectively. The man replacing Betts on this Flyers team, Talbot, might actually have better overall faceoff numbers, but he started 54.2 percent of his shifts in the offensive end last year. Those aren't the numbers of a trusted defensive player.
Betts, meanwhile, was trusted by Peter Laviolette to play absolutely brutal defensive minutes, and he thrived in that role. How do we best judge a defensive forward? We can do so simply by seeing how he's pushing the play toward the opposing goal, and Betts did that better than any other forward on the team.
In fact, it's not even close. While starting just 26.9 percent of the time in the offensive end of the ice, Betts finished his shifts at that end 44.1 percent of the time. That difference of 17.2 percent is extremely impressive, and nobody else on the 2010-11 Flyers came even close. Darroll Powe, with a 9.8 percent difference, and both Andreas Nodl and Carter with an 8.1 percent difference were the closest to Betts in that sense.
Betts' replacement, Talbot, started 54.2 percent of his shifts in the offensive end of the ice last year. He finished just 49.8 percent there. That's what they call a negative difference.
Betts is a phenomenal defensive forward -- the best on the Flyers and one of the best in the league, and at his tiny $700,000 price tag he was an absolute steal -- and the team just gave him up for absolutely nothing without a real replacement to take his place. Why did they do that?
Well, it's quickly becoming evident that they want to keep Sean Couturier around for the entire season, and in order to do that, a contract spot had to be cleared under the limit of 50. Paul Holmgren knew Betts would clear waivers, thus removing a contract.
But this was about more than just losing a contract. There were plenty of other ways to do that, after all, whether it's avoiding the signing of Blake Kessel during camp or simply swapping a minor league player under contract for a draft pick or future considerations or something. There are ways to keep Couturier and Betts both on this team.
It's a matter of philosophy. Remaining on the opening night roster are both Zac Rinaldo and Jody Shelley, while Betts is off to bleu blanc et rouger pastures. That says all you need to know right there. The Flyers clearly value an overpaid goon and a crazy, suspended-four-times-last-year pest than they do one of their best defensive players.
It makes absolutely no sense.