Demoting Oskars Bartulis and the domino effect: How one decision crushed the Flyers' defensive depth

NEWARK NJ - JANUARY 06: A fan taunts Oskars Bartulis #3 of the Philadelphia Flyers during his game against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on January 6 2011 in Newark New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

We published an Eric T. joint back in July, where our esteemed colleague detailed how every little decision the Flyers make can impact them in a very large way. It's the butterfly effect, right?

Well, this isn't exactly the same thing, but it's along those same lines. It's more of a domino effect. One relatively small decision that Paul Holmgren, Peter Laviolette and the Philadelphia Flyers made back in training camp just pushed itself into our nightmares, and really, we should've seen this coming from a mile away.

When Marc-Andre Bourdon and Kevin Marshall were forced into making their NHL debuts last night, it was the direct result of the Flyers' September decision to waive Oskars Bartulis and assign him to Adirondack while keeping Matt Walker in Philadelphia.

Yes, both Bourdon and Marshall filled in admirably for Chris Pronger and Braydon Coburn last night, but the simple fact is this: These guys are sixth NHL defensemen at best, and they've been playing as third and fourth defensemen in the American Hockey League this season. There's hope that they can be something more than that someday, but now? They are not. 

That they were pushed into NHL action like this -- combined, they played exactly half the hockey game vs. Carolina -- is pretty insane.

And it could have been avoided. After all, isn't the overwhelming strength of the Flyers supposed to be their depth on defense? Maybe not in the system, but certainly at the NHL level. When I read "depth and strength on defense," I don't imagine a team relying on two mid-level AHL defensemen to play 30 combined minutes in an NHL game. 

This all dates back to that decision in training camp to shun Bartulis and keep Walker. Let's examine.

Here's a look at the Flyers' defensive depth chart as it stood at the end of training camp. There's some opinion in here, but there's not much room for argument, at least when it comes to the way things shook out right on the cusp of the NHL/AHL divide.


Defense
1 Chris Pronger 4.921 Kimmo Timonen 6.333
2 Matt Carle 3.437 Braydon Coburn 3.200
3 Andrej Meszaros 4.000 Andreas Lilja 0.737
4 Oskars Bartulis 0.600 Matt Walker 1.700
players above this line count against the Flyers salary cap
5 Erik Gustafsson 0.900 Kevin Marshall 0.845
6 Marc-Andre Bourdon 0.875 Oliver Lauridsen 0.650
7 Dan Jancevski 0.520 Blake Kessel 0.975
8 Brandon Manning 0.900 Cullen Eddy xx
9 Tyler Hostetter 0.526 Denis Bodrov xx
10 Ricard Blidstrand xx Nick Luukko xx
11 Colin Suellentrop xx

Color key: White is NHL, purple is AHL, orange is ECHL, yellow is Europe, blue is Juniors, green in college/USHL. Technically, Brandon Manning has been with the Flyers this whole time, but that's just due to injury. 

You could flip Bartulis and Walker there if you'd like, but here's what it comes down to: It's just a marginal skill difference between the two, if anything, thus rendering Bartulis the more valuable player even despite his poor training camp, thanks to the $1.1 million in savings against the cap. 

What you see here is actually a pretty well-stocked system. You have a very, very strong top-4, an extremely serviceable third pairing, and two men who can each play the role as seventh defenseman admirably. 

In the event of injury, you have the ability to slot one of those seventh defensemen into the lineup as your sixth defenseman, and in the event of two injuries, you have the other defenseman right there.

Well, kinda. Teams don't keep $1.7 million players around to sit in the press box on a regular basis. It doesn't make any sense, especially when you're a team that's always up against the salary cap. 

But that's exactly what the Flyers did. They waived both Oskars Bartulis and Matt Walker at the end of camp, as could be expected. That's not an issue, as it gave them some flexibility and they knew they'd probably get through it with neither player being claimed. It's actually pretty smart.

The problem was that they then shipped Bartulis to the Adirondack Phantoms, leaving Walker in the NHL as the seventh defenseman getting paid $1.7 million. Again, that makes absolutely no sense. 


Defense
1 Chris Pronger 4.921 Kimmo Timonen 6.333
2 Matt Carle 3.437 Braydon Coburn 3.200
3 Andrej Meszaros 4.000 Andreas Lilja 0.737
4 Matt Walker 1.700
players above this line count against the Flyers salary cap
5 Oskars Bartulis 0.600 Erik Gustafsson 0.900
6 Kevin Marshall 0.845 Marc-Andre Bourdon 0.875
7 Oliver Lauridsen 0.650 Dan Jancevski 0.520
8 Blake Kessel 0.975 Brandon Manning 0.900
9 Cullen Eddy xx Tyler Hostetter 0.526
10 Denis Bodrov xx Ricard Blidstrand xx
11 Nick Luukko xx Colin Suellentrop xx

Maybe the argument is that the Flyers were trying to showcase Walker in hopes that some team would be interested in acquiring him via trade. They talked him up quite a bit at the end of training camp, and it seemed like they were putting on a good sell.

But in reality, we all knew Walker couldn't be had for a bag of pucks. Not at a $1.7 million cap hit, at least. He cleared waivers just seven months earlier, and what changed in seven months? Nothing, really. Same player, same price. Not worth taking a risk on. Teams don't pay seventh defensemen $1.7 million, you know?

But that's the position the Flyers put themselves in. When Walker did see action with the Flyers early on in the season, he was absolutely horrendous in every sense of the word. Again, something we could have expected. 

Ultimately, as injuries began to mount, the Flyers had no choice but to send Walker to the Phantoms due to his absurdly out-of-whack cap hit. The inevitable was delayed for a bit, but with Erik Gustafsson called up to replace Chris Pronger, and then once injuries to Danny Briere and Matt Read hit, something had to give. 

That something was Matt Walker. As we wrote at the time:

Sending down Walker and his $1.7 million salary clears that space, but it also sheds the seventh defenseman from the roster. With Pronger on IR, the Flyers are left with just six defensemen until -- at the very least -- one of Briere or Read is ready to return to the lineup. Once that happens, one of today's callups can be returned to the Phantoms and another defenseman can be called back up.

The problem? Only Kevin Marshall and Oliver Lauridsen seem like realistic, waiver-exempt options on defense to be called up from the Phantoms at this point. Walker would have to clear through re-entry, and if he gets claimed the Flyers would be screwed with half that cap hit stuck on their number for the rest of the year -- a silly risk to take. Same goes with Oskars Bartulis, although half of his $600,000 cap hit would be easier to swallow. It's still a number that the Flyers really can't afford to take on. 

It'll be interesting to see what happens there, especially considering Erik Gustafsson is already in Philadelphia. 

(Yes, we forgot to mention Marc-Andre Bourdon there. Forgive us.)

Maybe we couldn't have foreseen so many injuries at the same time. That's totally fair. But looking down the line and saying "Oh, maybe we won't be able to afford a $1.7 million salary for our seventh defenseman all year long" is something the Flyers shockingly didn't do.

They should have been able to foresee that, and because they didn't, this is what we end up with:


Defense
1 Chris Pronger 4.921 Kimmo Timonen 6.333
2 Matt Carle 3.437 Braydon Coburn 3.200
3 Andrej Meszaros 4.000 Andreas Lilja 0.737
4 Erik Gustafsson 0.900
players above this line count against the Flyers salary cap
5 Matt Walker 1.700 Oskars Bartulis 0.600
6 Marc-Andre Bourdon 0.875 Kevin Marshall 0.845
7 Oliver Lauridsen 0.650 Dan Jancevski 0.520
8 Blake Kessel 0.975 Brandon Manning 0.900
9 Tyler Hostetter 0.526 Cullen Eddy xx
10 Ricard Blidstrand xx Denis Bodrov xx
11 Colin Suellentrop xx Nick Luukko xx

That depth you once had is completely gone. 

There are plenty of teams -- the last two Flyers' opponents, Carolina and Winnipeg, included -- that would certainly pick up Matt Walker for $850,000 on re-entry waivers. That's the going rate for a sixth or seventh defenseman, after all. The Flyers cannot call him back up, because they then would be forced to pay the other $850,000, a number they cannot afford. 

(We should note that they could potentially squeak Walker back through re-entry, but the chances of that are slim. Certainly not worth the risk, which would be a death blow to the salary cap situation if he were to be claimed.)

Given this, it was inevitable that the Flyers would be forced at some point to render him useless by sending him to the AHL. They didn't have that choice -- although that's where we could get into the decision to acquire him in the first place.

The real issue here is that Bartulis was a perfectly serviceable seventh defenseman, and they needlessly sent him down in training camp, also rendering him useless. Somebody would definitely claim him for just $300,000 against the cap. Instead of just eliminating the NHL services of one depth guy, the Flyers did that to two depth guys. For no legitimate reason. 

And that's where the chain continues. If you eliminate Walker and Bartulis from the depth chart, which the Flyers have essentially done, you get something that looks like this:


Defense
1 Chris Pronger 4.921 Kimmo Timonen 6.333
2 Matt Carle 3.437 Braydon Coburn 3.200
3 Andrej Meszaros 4.000 Andreas Lilja 0.737
4 Erik Gustafsson 0.900
players above this line count against the Flyers salary cap
5 Matt Walker 1.700 Oskars Bartulis 0.600
6 Marc-Andre Bourdon 0.875 Kevin Marshall 0.845
7 Oliver Lauridsen 0.650 Dan Jancevski 0.520
8 Blake Kessel 0.975 Brandon Manning 0.900
9 Tyler Hostetter 0.526 Cullen Eddy xx
10 Ricard Blidstrand xx Denis Bodrov xx
11 Colin Suellentrop xx Nick Luukko xx

Marc-Andre Bourdon and Kevin Marshall suddenly become your top two options on defense in the system, and that's with one call-up already in Philadelphia: Erik Gustafsson, who probably isn't in the ideal position as a seventh defenseman sitting in the press box. 

Gus is injured now, but when he comes back, he's likely here to stay as a result of all of this. If he's in the Flyers lineup, that's wonderful, but if he's just sitting in the press box, he's not growing as a player. With the future of the system the way it is -- see: Age of Pronger, Chris; Timonen, Kimmo -- the Flyers need to continue to develop all the defensive talent they can. Gustafsson is at the front of that. 

Couple that need with the fact that they're always against the cap and you have an organization that needs to take literally every single precaution necessary to make sure they save money against the cap, grow the few prospects they have and keep their depth in tact. 

Foolishly, they've crushed that depth with one seemingly small decision in training camp that's kind of hard to understand. Coburn will likely be back on Wednesday night, and it's only a matter of time before Marshall and Bourdon are sent back to the Phantoms. But that'll only last until the next injury, where we'll again have to watch the team rely on one or two AHL-caliber defensemen.

Suddenly, the Flyers have almost zero defensive depth. Completely self-inflicted, completely unnecessary. 

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