Philadelphia Flyers 2013-14 Year In Review: Nicklas Grossmann

Drew Hallowell

The Flyers' burly stay-at-home defenseman had a solid finish to the 2013-14 season, but was it enough to make up for his preceding struggles?

Nicklas Grossmann

Age: 29 (January 22, 1985)
Contract Status: $3.5 million per year through 2016

2013-14 Stats

GP TOI/GP Goals Assists Points
78 19:07 1 13 14
Corsi For % Corsi Rel % Quality of Comp. (TOI%) Zone Start % PDO
47.2 (8) -4.2 (7) 28.6% (3) 45.2% (8) 99.2% (8)

(Numbers in parentheses indicate descending rank among regular Flyers players at his position, i.e. one of the team's top eight defensemen or top 13 forwards.)

Most frequent defensive partners

Partner Goals For% Corsi For% OZ/DZ%
Mark Streit 47.3% (+26 / -29) 49.7% 51.2%
Braydon Coburn 33.3% (+9 / -18) 46.9% 35.7%

Grossmann and the "New NHL"

Nicklas Grossmann will never be a flashy defenseman. His skillset does not lend itself to highlight reels or end-to-end rushes, and any offensive contribution that the 29-year old Swede provides is an unexpected gift. No, the Philadelphia Flyers traded for (and later signed) Nicklas Grossmann to play the role of a physical, porch-clearing, stay-at-home defenseman.

In the post-lockout NHL, some have argued that this type of defenseman will go the way of the dinosaur, replaced by a new wave of smaller, swifter "puck-moving" blueliners. Others hold that one-way, defense-first types are not only important, they're invaluable to a balanced blueline corps.

The truth, as usual, likely lies somewhere in the middle. There's certainly something to be said for pairing a pinching defenseman with a more conservative, steady one to protect against counterrushes. Stay-at-home defensemen also tend to be efficient penalty killers. And defensemen who do not hesitate to take the body to break up a play or block a shot in a key moment truly are pivotal contributors to winning teams, even if high hit and shot block totals don't necessarily correlate to strong overall defensive play.

But looking at the teams remaining in the postseason, even the defensemen who provide little offense on the scoresheet tend to be above-average skaters and puck-movers. Niklas Hjalmarsson and Anton Stralman may not be regular point producers, but they have enough offensive ability to kick-start a rush and enough skating speed to recover when in trouble defensively. It's not that every defenseman has to be Mike Green - it's that in the new NHL, defensemen need to have a base level of offensive acumen to remain useful.

And that brings us to Nicklas Grossmann.

The worst of Grossmann

There's no use in sugarcoating it - for the first half of the season, Nicklas Grossmann was not an effective defenseman for the Philadelphia Flyers. Through the first month of the year, he was primarily paired with Braydon Coburn, his partner from 2013. The pairing was only marginally more effective than it was in 2013 - that is to say, it wasn't very good. But around the start of November, new coach Craig Berube settled upon a new tandem - Grossmann and new acquisition Mark Streit.

The thought process seemed sound. Put an offensively-oriented defenseman with a stay-at-home player to allow the former to freelance a bit more, knowing that the latter would protect against counterattacks. Functioning as the second pairing, the two hovered somewhere between passable and slightly below-average for most of November and December. Then, the floor absolutely fell out from under Grossmann.

A month that will probably go down as his worst as a Philadelphia Flyer, Grossmann was absolutely horrific during January. Flyers' opponents scored 16 goals with him on the ice at even strength, and his Shot Attempts For Percentage (Corsi) fell below 40% for the month - a threshold better suited for fourth line enforcers, not second pairing defensemen.

Using the eye test, it was fairly easy to determine what was wrong. Grossmann had never been particularly adept at helping his teammates to exit the defensive zone, and his passing was especially off in January. Also, the usually-defensively sound Grossmann was a mess without the puck in his own zone as well, blowing assignments consistently and allowing the opposition to sustain a forecheck on almost every shift.

It got so bad that we at Broad Street Hockey even advocated for Grossmann to take a seat, or at least be removed from the second pairing. His obvious weaknesses as a player (lack of skating speed, poor passing, nonexistent offensive instincts) were totally overshadowing his strengths (physicality & strong positional play without the puck).

A Bad Season Salvaged?

But Craig Berube did not make a change. The Streit-Grossmann pairing limped to the Olympic break, seemingly leaving Philadelphia as a one-pairing squad entering the stretch run.

Luckily for the Flyers, Streit and Grossmann roared out of the gate following the Olympics, and didn't look back. Streit's play justifiably received most of the focus, as his pinches became more and more well-timed and his offensive production began to spike. But credit needs to be given to Grossmann as well. His defensive zone misadventures from January became a thing of the past, and his steady, conservative game finally became the ideal complement to Streit's aggressive style as the Flyers envisioned it would.

Nicklas Grossmann: the good

After posting a 43.70% Corsi For before the Olympics, Grossmann's shot attempts for percentage jumped to 52.64% after the Games, and the pairing's solid play continued into playoffs before Grossmann's season was cut short by an ankle injury in Game 4 against the Rangers.

For a player who may have deserved a benching in January, the fact that Grossmann was truly missed by the Flyers during the final three games of their season is pretty remarkable.

Grossmann a product of Streit?

It's difficult to argue that the Grossmann-Streit pairing did not work as intended over the final two months of the season. During March and April, Nicklas Grossmann was able to play a role as an effective 5v5 second pairing defenseman, helping to alleviate one of Philadelphia's main issues - a lack of top-end blueline talent.

But would Grossmann succeed with anyone else? As 2013 showed, the Coburn-Grossmann pairing is not an effective combination, most likely because Coburn does not have the necessary instincts to carry the entire puck-moving load. And pairing the Flyers' worst two possession defensemen in Andrew MacDonald and Grossmann seems a recipe for disaster.

At this point, it seems that Grossmann may only be capable of taking second-pairing minutes when used in tandem with Streit. And that assumes that Streit does not see an age-related decline next year, as he turns 37 in December. If Streit's play starts to slip, it's entirely possible that Grossmann goes back to being a third-pairing defenseman for the Flyers with a new partner, or the Streit-Grossmann pairing begins seeing sheltered, third pairing minutes.

Preseason expectations

Let's check back on our season preview for Nicklas Grossmann and see what we thought could happen with him this year.

Best Case:
Grossmann can stay healthy, bounce back to the level he played at around the time the Flyers traded for him
, and make the third pairing a strength, chips in on the top-4 on occasion when needed, and does a good job on the penalty kill.

Worst Case:
Grossmann continues to have significant trouble staying on the ice, and while he's on it, whatever strengths he has in his own end continue to be outweighed by his lack of mobility and ability to get the puck out of the defensive zone like they were last season.

Verdict

For the most part, Grossmann did stay healthy, in the sense that he only missed four regular season games, even if he played through numerous in-season injuries and saw his postseason end prematurely. But Grossmann was not used as a third pairing defenseman - the Flyers employed him as a top-four blueliner consistently at 5v5.

The results were mixed. To start the season, Grossmann looked like a player not capable of taking the minutes, culminating in a disaster of a January. But after the Olympic break, Grossmann helped form half of an undeniably effective second pairing alongside Mark Streit. His penalty killing also remained strong throughout the season.

An optimist would say that Grossmann finished the season on an upward trajectory, and finally found his niche on a key pairing. A pessimist would point to his glaring physical deficiencies, his below-average full season statistics, and the fact that his effectiveness likely depends upon a soon-to-be 37-year old defenseman continuing to play great hockey.

In the end, the Flyers got two good months, two average-to-below-average months, one bad month, and one disastrous month out of Nicklas Grossmann this season. Take that for what you will.

***

Feel free to vote in the poll below to grade Nicklas Grossmann's season on a scale from 1 to 10. Vote based on your expectations for him coming into the season -- i.e. 1 being "he was incredibly disappointing and I want him out now", 10 being "he was outstanding even beyond my craziest expectations".

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