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Kurt R. | March 25, 2013

The future of the Flyers' defense

The Flyers defense is not any good, and there are absolutely zero easy ways to fix it. Thus, the biggest conundrum to face the Philadelphia Flyers in years.

There's been a lot of talk about how bad the Flyers' defense has been this year. There's also been a lot of talk about Chris Pronger this year, how he's never going to play hockey again and how awful that is, and how badly the team has been caught scuffling in its attempts to replace him.

So with the defense's struggles, the question has turned to how the Flyers can fill the gaping hole left at the top of their defense. Even if it's not Chris Pronger, a true No. 1 defenseman shifts everyone else's responsibilities to something they're more comfortable with. It'd make things easier for guys like Braydon Coburn and Kimmo Timonen (two good, No. 2 or No. 3-quality defensemen who have simply had to do too much this year) and those benefits trickle all the way down the lineup.

Obviously the Flyers know this -- why else would they have offered Shea Weber one of the biggest contracts in NHL history? But since that maneuver didn't work out and this season's pretty close to having gone down the drain, a lot of people have said "Well, let's just lose a lot of games the rest of the way and get Seth Jones! Or if that doesn't work, we're a lottery team anyways, so we'll draft one of these other top defensemen and develop him into a No. 1 guy. Done!"

If only it were that simple. Let's talk about why it's not. There are two points to emphasize.

1. The Philadelphia Flyers will probably not get the first pick in the draft, and will probably not have Seth Jones next year.

There. The sooner we admit it, the sooner we can move on. The Flyers, as of this writing, sit 27th in the NHL in points percentage. That gives them an 8.1 percent chance at the No. 1 pick, and even though those odds are better than all but four teams, they're hardly anything to be very optimistic about. People have been saying they could realistically fall as low as 29th behind everyone but Florida, giving them still-low but much-improved odds of 18.8 percent. That's led some to suggest that the Flyers start losing as many games as possible to improve their odds. Tanking, as you may know it. It happens sometimes in sports -- particularly in basketball, where it's almost a necessity for some teams, but sometimes in hockey as well.

But it's probably not going to happen here. If you're hoping the team just goes into an even deeper funk than they've already been in ... well, it's possible, but things can't really get much worse, right?

Eric's Score-Adjusted Fenwick rankings suggest that the Flyers are probably around an average puck possession team that's had some pretty bad shooting and goaltending luck. Even if they actually a bit worse than average, it's hard to expect them to drop much lower than they are right now just by sheer bad luck/bounces.

And if you're hoping they lose games intentionally, that's just not gonna happen. Peter Laviolette and Paul Holmgren are both trying to save their jobs and they know how much heat they'll take from the press and fans for a late-season tailspin, and Ed Snider is too proud to see his team be as bad as would be necessary.

Not to mention: Even if the Flyers were the worst team in the NHL, there'd still be a three-in-four chance that they would not be the ones picking first in the draft. (Not that we've encountered that situation in recent years or anything.)

Bear in mind, I'd LOVE to be wrong here. I'd lose every game in the rest of this bastard season in a heartbeat if it meant we could get Jones (the near-consensus No. 1 prospect in June's draft), and I'll gladly eat any crow if we're picking first overall in the draft. I'm just saying that we shouldn't spend much time penciling the guy into our Flyers bluelines for the next 15 years, because it's probably an exercise in futility.

That brings us to our second point.

2. Getting a stud defenseman will be either a very long process or a very costly one, and maybe both.

There have been 44 defensemen taken in the lottery portion of the draft in the years between 2000 and 2010. (I didn't include 2011 or 2012 because those guys are for the most part either rookies or still in juniors.) Of those 44, two are currently in the minors/juniors and seven are essentially busts and have almost if not entirely washed out of the league.

That leaves 35 lottery defensemen. Here's a list of them:

PLAYER DRAFT YEAR ROOKIE YEAR YEARS BETWEEN DRAFT AND ROOKIE
Victor Hedman 2009 2009 0
Drew Doughty 2008 2008 0
Zach Bogosian 2008 2008 0
Jay Bouwmeester 2002 2002 0
Luke Schenn 2008 2008 0
Cam Fowler 2010 2010 0
Dmitri Kulikov 2009 2009 0
Erik Johnson 2006 2007 1
Erik Gudbranson 2010 2011 1
Joni Pitkanen 2002 2003 1
Rostislav Klesla 2000 2001 1
Karl Alzner 2007 2008 1
Oliver Ekman-Larsson 2009 2010 1
Mike Komisarek 2001 2002 1
Tyler Myers 2008 2009 1
Steve Eminger 2002 2003 1
Jared Cowen 2009 2011 2
Jack Johnson 2005 2007 2
Cam Barker 2004 2006 2
Alex Pietrangelo 2008 2010 2
Ryan Suter 2003 2005 2
Ladislav Smid 2004 2006 2
Dion Phaneuf 2003 2005 2
Keaton Ellerby 2007 2009 2
Ryan Ellis 2009 2011 2
Marc Staal 2005 2007 2
Dan Hamhuis 2001 2003 2
Brent Seabrook 2003 2005 2
Ryan Whitney 2002 2005 3
Braydon Coburn 2003 2006 3
Brian Lee 2005 2008 3
Keith Ballard 2002 2005 3
Ryan McDonagh 2007 2010 3
Kevin Shattenkirk 2007 2010 3
Ron Hainsey 2000 2005 5

The players on this list took an average of 1.6 seasons between their draft and their first year in the league. That's not surprising -- 18-year olds aren't really expected to come in and make a huge splash in the NHL, nor should they be.

And that's especially true on defense. Getting a hold of the defensive zone at the world's most competitive level of hockey? It's not exactly an easy thing to do.

18-year olds aren't really expected to come in and make a huge splash in the NHL, nor should they be.

There's a reason why only one defensively-oriented defenseman -- Barrett Jackman in 2004 -- has won the Calder Trophy since the NHL expanded beyond the Original Six: because guys just take a long time learning how to get comfortable in their own end. You remember the big deal we made last year out of how awesome Sean Couturier was in suppressing Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins in the playoffs? He's a forward, but the same line of thinking applies.

(Side note: what does it say about the Flyers' recent struggles with developing defensemen that the best example of a young Flyer excelling defensively is a forward? But we'll get to that in a bit.)

Anyways, back to the chart. Take a look at the guys at the top, who made the jump right in their draft year.

You've got Drew Doughty, who was almost a no-doubter right out of juniors and is a sure-fire No. 1. You've got Jay Bouwmeester, who isn't at Doughty's level but is still a No. 1 guy.

But after those two, then what? There's our own Luke Schenn, who went straight to the NHL and for the most part mightily struggled for four years in Toronto before being traded. You've also got Zach Bogosian and Cam Fowler, two guys who seem to have a lot of promise but have obviously had some trouble putting it together at this level. Victor Hedman? A very good defenseman, but not quite what you'd hope for from someone taken No. 2 overall. Dmitry Kulikov? Young, so let's give him time, but he isn't quite there yet, either.

These are lottery pick players who, for whatever reason, aren't quite what you'd expect them to be at this point in their careers. Can we say for sure that bringing these guys up early screwed up their long-term development? No, but there's a case to be made there, especially when you compare it to the alternative.

Beyond Doughty and Bouwmeester (both top-3 picks), basically every one of the best guys on that list took some extra time before coming over to the big leagues. Karl Alzner took one year. Oliver Ekman-Larsson took a year, and didn't become a full-time fixture in Phoenix's lineup until the year after that. Alex Pietrangelo took two more years in juniors. Ryan Suter took two years in college/the AHL. Dion Phaneuf and Brent Seabrook both took two years. Kevin Shattenkirk and Ryan McDonagh took three.

And there's the problem the Flyers face.

I won't go through everyone, and surely there are some examples of guys who waited to make the jump and didn't quite pan out. But I think you get the idea. It's not reasonable to expect a defenseman to go into the NHL and be incredibly successful without some extra time in training in another league AND a couple of years of getting accustomed to the NHL.

And there's the problem the Flyers face.

We all know that the organization's had trouble in recent years developing good defensemen, but the issue at hand here goes beyond just that.

***

Lately the Flyers haven't picked in the first round that often, but when they do they've shown a tendency to want to get their first-round picks up to the NHL as soon as possible. It happened with Luca Sbisa and Sean Couturier, and it very nearly happened this year with Scott Laughton -- a guy who they came right down to the wire about keeping, even though he didn't put up any points in his five-game NHL tryout. Not exactly a ton of patience is being shown at the top of the organization.

By comparison, patience is what we should want. Unless Seth Jones falls into the Flyers' laps (and maybe even if he does), they would almost unquestionably be better off keeping whoever they pick in juniors for a bit. And even when he comes up, you can't expect him to step in and be the savior right away. It's a long process.

We all see the problem with those conflicting ideas, right? As Travis said a couple weeks ago, basically summing up the point of this entire drivel in one paragraph:

Alternatively, the Flyers could draft a stud defenseman with a high draft pick this year (presuming they keep losing), but developing an 18-year-old prospect into a No. 1 anchor is not a quick process, even if he has the potential to be an elite NHL defender. There would likely be a long period of losing in the interim -- a period that could eat into the prime years of those core players, including Giroux -- and that's not acceptable to us as fans or to the 80 year old owner who really wants to see his team win the Stanley Cup again while he's still a living, breathing thing on this planet.

Every year of that long process is a year that Claude Giroux gets a bit older and closer to the end of his prime, that Jakub Voracek gets a bit closer to unrestricted free agency and surely a massive payday that we just might not be able to afford, that Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier get close to what will probably be their third, more expensive contracts, that Braydon Coburn/Nicklas Grossmann/Luke Schenn all inch closer to the end of their current contracts...again, I think you get the idea.

There's talent on this team, but it's not all going to be here forever, and the longer it takes to get a top-quality defenseman ready, the higher the chance that one or more of those core guys is going out the door. And Ed Snider and Paul Holmgren realize that, which is why there's legitimate concern that they'll make what's probably the wrong decision and bring their top pick up immediately. Here's hoping they prove us wrong, and that doesn't happen.

But then if it doesn't, and everything goes right and the Flyers draft and develop a guy who becomes a top defenseman in (let's optimistically guess) four years or so, the problems detailed two paragraphs above this one still apply. Before you know it, a huge portion of this core's window of contention will have passed by, which is hardly ideal.

So the alternative, of course, is to go find someone who's already that guy that can shoulder the load on your defense and make everyone else's life easier.

Back on Sunday the 17th, Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun reported that the Flyers have asked the Flames about the aforementioned Jay Bouwmeester as a potential trade target. Bouwmeester, who's 29, is probably overpaid ($6.68 million through this and next season), and you can argue about exactly how big an impact he'd make. But he's an excellent defenseman who's spent his entire career facing the toughest minutes a defenseman can possibly face, and he's looked pretty good in the process. He would instantly slot into the top pairing here in Philadelphia, would face those minutes, and make everyone else's job at least a little bit easier.

Dustin Leed over at The Hockey Guys followed up on this later that Sunday, saying that a source suggested that in return for Bouwmeester, Calgary would want one of Sean Couturier or Brayden Schenn, or Matt Read plus more. That request was met, based on a later tweet from Leed, with some degree of incredulity and defiance from Flyers fans, because there's no way the Flyers could trade one of their young core players, right?

There's no way the Flyers could trade one of their young core players, right?

And there's the problem the Flyers face, part two.

If you can't wait for a defenseman to develop, you can outbid and overpay in free agency or you can trade valuable pieces to get your guy. The former is a separate issue entirely, but we know by now that no one wants to do the latter.

This isn't just a Flyers thing. This isn't just about Bouwmeester or Couturier or Schenn or anyone specific. Ask any fan of any team how they feel about trading [young, promising core prospect/rookie] for [valuable prime player on other team]. Even fans of teams in win-now mode. More often than not, they're not going to want to do it. If you're a GM, and you've got your fanbase excited about visualizing these players on your team for the next decade, you run the risk of losing a lot of goodwill for dealing those guys in almost any situation.

And that's what's going on here. In this case, it's two guys who have played less than three full seasons' worth of NHL games combined. We aren't even willing to consider the thought of letting either go. This was true during the Five Days of Weber last summer and during P.K. Subban's pre-contract limbo back in late January, so of course it's true for Jay Bouwmeester at the trade deadline.

Hell, that outraged reaction at Leed's tweet came in the midst of long stretches of poor play for both of the Flyers' young centers. If they don't want to make that trade now, it's never going to happen.

This isn't as much about the specifics of this one case. I'm not advocating trading Sean Couturier or Brayden Schenn for Jay Bouwmeester. I would not do so. I'm just noting, this is kind of how obsessive sports fandom works. Fanbases grow so infatuated with their young potential studs that the mere mention of the possibility of a trade seems to anger their fans.

Is that fair? I don't know, but it sure makes it challenging for those who make the decisions.

***

So the best I can see it, the Flyers have five options to fill the hole at the top of their defense.

  • Pray every night to win the top pick in the draft and get Seth Jones, and then hope that he turns into that all-around stud that he's supposed to become.
  • Draft someone else to be that guy, and rush him up despite the obvious risks.
  • Draft someone else, and patiently wait to develop him while the team continues aging.
  • Take a chance on finding that guy in free agency (which, as we know, doesn't always work either).
  • Trade young, talented, core-type players to go and get that guy.

Let me know which of those plans sounds good to you. I don't like any of them.

I don't envy Paul Holmgren right now.

I don't envy Paul Holmgren right now. Sure, a lot of this is his own doing. You can fault him for failing to properly develop any quality defensemen from his farm system. He obviously misplayed this past summer, mentally hitching his wagon to guys he didn't even have like Ryan Suter and Shea Weber while watching a steady guy leave in Matt Carle.

But the Flyers' recent issues with developing defensemen date back well before Holmgren's time as GM and well before Chris Pronger took a stick to the eye from Mikhail Grabovski two Octobers ago. The team's other issues (i.e. core that can win in a couple of years, really old and impatient owner) still remain at hand no matter what Holmgren has or would have done.

Now he finds himself in a spot where any one of his five choices will piss off someone important or just involves far too much risk to be a safe option for the future. Let a guy develop? Annoy your slowly-aging core and owner. Rush a guy up to the top pairing? Risk the chance of screwing him up for good. Trade young guys for an established vet? Piss off your fans who already bought their jerseys. And so on, and so forth.

Paul Holmgren's in a very tough situation when it comes to the Flyers' defense, and how he manages it will go a long, long way, for better or worse, towards figuring out the future of this team.

Knowing the national perception of this team since the Ron Hextall-era ended, that's a bit ironic, no?

***

The joke, as it has been told for decades, says that the Flyers can't do anything right until they get a good goalie. Ilya Bryzgalov's general struggles in the last season and a half, after being deemed The Savior™ upon his arrival, have done nothing but give even more weight to that joke.

But even if the premise of that joke is true (and as we've argued, it's a bit overexaggerated), is that really what's important? Let's close out with a quick two-part thought exercise.

Of the seven teams to win a Cup since the 2005 lockout, how many of them had a real elite, sure-fire established goaltender? It's probably not as many as you think. For my money, the answer's one: Boston, and Tim Thomas. All the other winners were decent to above-average goalies who either were in the middle of a single incredible season (Jonathan Quick, Cam Ward) or just an incredible playoff run (Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Chris Osgood).

Now let's try the other side of that equation: How many of those Cup-winning teams didn't have at least one sure-fire guy at the top of their defense corps?

Again, I think the answer's one: Carolina, in 2005, which was led by a decent if not spectacular group. Every other winner had one, if not two, of those guys the Flyers are currently craving. Guys like Zdeno Chara, Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith, Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Pronger, Anaheim edition.

We can complain and laugh about how the Flyers don't have a great goalie, but the truth is that Ilya Bryzgalov is, at worst, a guy who could get hot at the right time and help the team win a Cup. He's shown that in stretches, both here and over his career in Anaheim and Phoenix, he can be that guy. (Whether or not he should be that guy for the Flyers, given his current contract, is another debate entirely.)

But without a Pronger? Or without someone to adequately take his place at the top of the lineup? Lacking that guy is something that cuts down the Flyers title chances substantially. You can rationally argue that, with their current core of players, the Flyers are really only a couple of years of maturing and just a few crucial pieces away from being a legitimate title contender in the NHL. But it's hard to over-emphasize how big of a deal it is that they get that one big piece on defense, nor is it really possible to overstate exactly how hard it's going to be.

That's why the Flyers' current problem on defense -- moreso than any issue they've had regarding goaltending or anything else -- is the biggest problem they've had to face in a long, long time.

Credit

  • Author: Kurt R.
  • Design and editing: Travis Hughes
  • With design assistance from Josh Laincz and the SB Nation Product Team
  • Photos: Getty Images, USA Today Sports Images

About the Author

Claude_doop

Kurt R. is an associate editor at Broad Street Hockey. He is not actually Claude Giroux, regardless of what his Internet persona to the left might indicate.

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