One thing a lot of fans are concerned about this season is how strong the Flyers' defensive corp will be. With the loss of Chris Pronger last season, many people believe the Flyers blue line is too weak without an elite defenseman.The loss of Matt Carle added more questions about the team's defense, mostly regarding point production. Dreams of a Shea Weber anchored defense danced in Flyers fans' heads for nearly a week, before Nashville matched the Flyers offer. And when those dreams were dashed, fans no longer saw the strong defensive-minded defense the team had been building since the trade deadline last season. They now saw a team with a gaping whole on defense. But, is having an elite defenseman all that necessary in the league today?
Look at the four teams who played in the Conference Finals last year. Los Angeles, Phoenix, and New York only had one point-producing defenseman, and only one of them (Phoenix's Keith Yandle) outscored the Flyers top scoring defenseman, Kimmo Timonen. The rest of those teams' defenses are made up of strong, physical defensive defensemen. The Eastern Conference Champion New Jersey Devils top scoring defenseman, Marek Zidlicky, had only 22 points and 14 of those points were with the Minnesota Wild. This is the type of defensive corp the Flyers have been trying to build. - point production from one or two guys and the rest are stay at home defensive monsters.
Nicklas Grossmann was the first player the Flyers brought in under this new defensive mantra. His point production was limited his whole career, but his size, strength, and sound defensive play caught the Flyers eye. He made an impact immediately after joining the team. In the 22 regular season games that Grossmann played, the Flyers averaged 2.68 goals against per game. In games Grossmann didn't play last season the team gave up an average of 3.41 goals a game. You may notice that includes Bryzgalov's shut out streak. I don't think it's any coincidence that Bryzgalov played his best after the Flyers brought in a stronger defensive defenseman. Paired with Braydon Coburn, who saw a noticeable improvement after being paired with the gargantuan Swede, the two became one of the best shut down defensive pairs in the league.
Adding Luke Schenn in the offseason was another step down this more defensive path. The older Schenn brother arrived in Philadelphia under a cloud of contention amongst fans, but I don't think it will take very long at all for Luke to ingratiate himself with Flyers fans. Luke Schenn has led all defensemen in hits for the last two seasons. He sounds like just the kind of player that Philly fans will love. That, paired with Schenn's huge potential could make him the break out star of the season. In Toronto, he played on a bad team, like Toronto Maple Leafs bad. He had too much pressure on him too early. In Philadelphia, he has relatively no pressure on him. He walks in as, at best, the third defenseman on the team, and not the defensive savior Toronto wanted him to be as an 18 year old. Here Luke has access to defensive tutelage from future Hall of Famer Chris Pronger, as well as his All-Star defensive partner Kimmo Timonen. I'm not the first to suggest that Schenn will thrive playing with his little brother in Philadelphia, but there is something for Schenn's detractors to know before they write him off. New York Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi, arguably the best defensive defensman in the league, didn't even play his first full season until he was 23, the same age as Luke Schenn. It took Girardi around four seasons to come into his own as an elite defensive defenseman, his fifth season in the league; Luke Schenn is heading in to his fifth NHL season.
Adding Kurtis Foster could be the final step in making up an elite defensive corp. Foster, who broke his femur in an on ice incident and nearly lost his leg following surgical complications, is still developing his style of play following the injury. Foster has mostly been used as a power play specialist over the last two seasons. He has spent over a fifth of his ice time on the man advantage. And while the Flyers also plan on utilizing his powerful canon from the point (he is skating with the second power play unit and the first 5-on-3 unit) he could develop into a stronger defensive defenseman with the team. Taking a regular shift with Andrej Meszaros could really help develop Foster. Meszaros' first partner in Philadelphia had one of the best seasons of his career paired with Meszaros. If Foster can play like O'Donnell or develop into a player like Hal Gill, another large slow moving defensive defenseman, the Flyers would easily have the best third pairing in the league.
These players, in addition to the defensemen we already know and love like Timonen, Coburn, and Meszaros, make up a defensive corp built in the model of successful teams like the Kings, Rangers, and Devils. A lot of people see this Flyers defense as the weakest its been in years. but while it is in a different style, it is still going to be an elite defensive unit that could propel the team deep into the playoffs.
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