The Flyers must walk a fine line in developing their defensive prospects

Jamie Squire

The Flyers finally have a strong group of defensive prospects, but in developing them, they'll have to walk a fine line that they haven't be able to navigate in the past.

The Flyers have a number of high profile, high ceiling defensive prospects in the pipeline for the first time in a very long time, and the conversation has quickly changed from acquiring prospects to developing them.

The Flyers have struggled with when and if to give a young blueliner an opportunity in the NHL in the recent past, and finding that line in the sand will be crucial in developing the team's big-four defensive prospects: Samuel Morin, Shayne Gostisbehere, Robert Hagg and Travis Sanheim.

Drafting and developing defenseman has been a priority for most teams in the NHL since the 2004 lockout. The game changed, and it continues to change, to one that emphasizes skill and speed more than size (but if you can manage both, more power to you). For a brief period of time, the Flyers had their bona fide "No. 1 defenseman" -- a true rock on the backend that could do it all in Chris Pronger.

But since Pronger's career ending injury, and to some extent even while he was still playing, the Flyers have been allocating an exorbitant amount of salary cap space to their blue line. They attempted to replace Pronger with an offer sheet to Shea Weber in 2012, but that failed, and in the two years since, it's become even more clear that throwing money at free agents is not an effective or sustainable method of building a defense corps.

In a mere two calendar years however, there's been a lot of good news: the Flyers have established that "big four" core of defensive prospects, all through the draft: 2012 third rounder Gostisbehere, 2013 first rounder Morin, 2013 second rounder Hagg and 2014 first rounder Sanheim.

To a lesser extent you can factor in Mark Alt, Brandon Manning, and Oliver Lauridsen, as well as other 2014 draftees Mark Friedman and Jesper Pettersson. Those five don't really have anywhere near the ceiling of "the big four" but all have at least a shot of becoming an NHL player.

Bill Meltzer recently wrote a piece on the Flyers' abundant blueline prospects and offered the following:

Nevertheless, the Flyers are setting themselves up to finally cure the long-term problem of struggling to draft and developing homegrown defensemen. If three of the aforementioned players -- i.e., half of an NHL starting blueline corps -- blossom into Flyers regulars in the years to come, the organization will have done a fine job. Even two would be quite acceptable. Four would be spectacular. Five would be the hockey equivalent of winning the powerball jackpot (don't ever expect it but it's a beautiful dream).

And thus the conversation now turns from acquiring the right prospects to developing those prospects.

As excited as I am that the Flyers have strong reinforcements on the way to help a struggling group of defenseman, I must admit that I question their ability to not only develop defenseman but to be able to identify when to "pull the trigger" and give young prospects an opportunity at the NHL level -- a question based off a recent history of doing otherwise.

Ron Hextall appears to not only preach but also practice patience as general manager. In his short time we've already seen a promising draft and an uneventful (which, one could argue, is actually nice) free agency from him. It certainly seems like things will be a bit different under Hextall than under Paul Holmgren.

A history of opting for veterans over prospects

Despite this, the past five years have shown a tendency to let young blueliners toil in uncertainty while NHL jobs were repeatedly handed to veteran defenseman who, more often than not, had an underwhelming amount of talent.

My biggest fear is that that doesn't change soon enough.

2009-10

The Flyers haven't entered a season with a young defensive prospect slotted into their starting six since Ryan Parent in 2009-10. (You could argue that maybe Danny Syvret would qualify in that same year as well. It's also worth noting that Parent was a former first rounder, and a highly touted prospect.) They surrounded Parent that season with Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle, and Braydon Coburn as an extremely impressive top fou, and the rest of the defense corps rounded out with Parent, Syvret and Ole-Kristian Tollefson.

Early in that season Parent and Tollefson had some injury issues and Oskars Bartulis was a bit of a surprise recall. More surprisingly, Bartulis did quite well for himself and actually got a contract extension after only 10 games. He went on to play 53 games that season with another seven games in the playoffs.

We all know the story by now. The Flyers went on a bit of a magical run with Michael Leighton between the pipes. Unfortunately, trotting out a third pairing of combo of Lukas Krajicek, Parent and Bartulis didn't cut it. Making a run all the way to the Stanley Cup while relying so heavily on your top four didn't prove to be effective.

It's at this point that the Flyers seemed to commit to not letting that happen again.

2010-11

Heading into the 2010-11 season the Flyers acquired Andrej Meszaros and Matt Walker via trade. They also signed veteran Sean O'Donnell, giving them a total of eight defensemen entering the season (including the same top four from the year prior and Bartulis).

Bartulis -- the lone young player in the group -- only went on to play 13 games that year.

2011-12

The Flyers began 2011-12 with the same eight defensemen as the year prior, plus Andreas Lilja, who they signed to a two-year (35-plus) contract to replace O'Donnell. It's at this point where the uncertainty about what to do with a young defenseman like Bartulis started to become a problem.

Bartulis was no longer exempt from waivers in 2011-12, but regardless, he was waived before the season began. He cleared, and was sent down to the AHL so the team could keep veteran Matt Walker as the seventh defenseman. Bartulis was never to be seen again, because he would've had to clear re-entry waivers to return to the NHL, and someone would likely have claimed him at a paltry $300,000.

It's early in this season that another rash of injuries -- this time to Pronger, Coburn and Lilja (at different times) -- led to the recall of Marc-Andre Bourdon and Kevin Marshall. Despite being third- and second- round picks, respectively, neither prospect was really thought to be on the verge of cracking the NHL, but were finally given a chance because of injury.

Marshall didn't show much, but Bourdon had an impressive showing. He seemingly came from out of nowhere, going from an intriguing third round pick to an NHL afterthought (we profiled his AHL struggles late in the 2010-11 season), back to a legitimate NHL prospect, though his career has since been derailed because of concussion issues.

Later in that same season, Brandon Manning was recalled because of additional injuries to Timonen, Meszaros and the since-traded-for Pavel Kubina. Manning had a relatively impressive four game showing, but was not seen again at the NHL level that season.

2012-13

Following the 2011-12 season, the Flyers let Matt Carle walk via free agency, and by that time it was also clear that Pronger was not returning to the NHL. In terms of acquisitions, Nicklas Grossmann, who was acquired during the previous season, was given a four-year contract extension, James van Riemsdyk was traded for Luke Schenn, and Kurtis Foster (one year) and Bruno Gervais (two years) were signed as free agents.

This left the Flyers with a defensive group of Timonen, Coburn, Schenn, Meszaros, Grossmann, some combination of Lilja, Foster, Gervais, and Erik Gustafsson (who we'll discuss more shortly) as the sixth and seventh defensemen heading into the lockout-shortened 2012-13 year.

In March of that season, injuries to Coburn, Grossmann, and Meszaros led to the recall of seventh-round pick Oliver Lauridsen, who had a surprisingly effective 15-game stint at the NHL level. He has not been at the NHL level since. Manning also was recalled in April and played in the final six games of the Flyers' season.

Erik Gustafsson and 2013-14

Gustafsson gets his own little subsection here because frankly, he's a bit different than the likes of Bartulis, Manning, Bourdon, and Lauridsen. He simply was and is a better prospect. Gustafsson is closer to the Flyers current "Big Four" prospect group than he is the aforementioned group. For that reason, I think his handling is a bit more applicable to this discussion than others.

Gustafsson was signed as an undrafted free agent in the spring of 2010. He got his first taste of NHL action, only three games, in the 2010-11 season after injuries to Pronger and O'Donnell. He received his first extended action in 2011-12 after the Pronger injury, seeing time over the likes of Lilja and Walker. He played a total of 30 games with another seven in the playoffs.

The following season, the lockout shortened 2012-13, the Flyers opted to sign Gervais to a two-year deal and to bring in Foster, giving them eight defenseman. Gustafsson was on the outside looking in. Eventually, the Flyers waived Lilja and sent him to the Phantoms, recalling Gustafsson. He played 27 games that season, including some in a top-4 role in April following more injuries.

Gustafsson simply was and is a better prospect.

This brings us to this past season, 2013-14. Not unlike Bartulis two years earlier, Gustafsson was no longer waiver-exempt and the Flyers still didn't seem to know what they had in him, forcing them to make a decision they probably weren't ready to make yet.

As we all know, the Flyers traded for and signed Mark Streit. They also signed Hal Gill in training camp. This left Gustafsson and Gill as the seventh and eighth defenseman. Gustafsson was in and out of the lineup and found his way into just 31 games plus an additional two in the playoffs.

By the end of the season it was pretty clear that Gustafsson, a restricted free agent, wasn't a big part of the Flyers' plans. Some of that is Gustafsson's fault and some of it isn't. Rather than sign a contract extension with the Flyers (or signing elsewhere and probably having the Flyers match it), Gustafsson opted to sign overseas in the KHL where he could (a) play consistently and (b) get some more money.

Now, I don't want to come across as a Gustafsson apologist who believes he was God's gift to the Flyers' blueline. For all my criticisms of the Flyers not giving young players a true opportunity to take the reins and run with it, Gustafsson has to shoulder some of the blame for not being a very consistent player.

The point, however, is that the Flyers put both Gustafsson and themselves in a difficult position because they didn't know what to make of their best/most-ready defensive prospect, because they repeatedly opted to sign and play veterans over him.

An undeniable trend

When it comes down to it, in recent history the Flyers have opted to repeatedly go to a veteran (or veterans) as opposed to giving one of their prospects an opportunity. On two different occasions (three, if you count trading for Walker) they felt the need to acquire a seventh defenseman type with multiple years on their contract.

In the case of Lilja and Gervais, it's especially perplexing because they were free agents and the Flyers opted to give more than a single season to seventh defenseman. It's also worth noting that all three of these players spent significant portions of their contracts in the AHL and all three of them finished their Flyers careers with the Phantoms. I've never quite understood the need to commit so strongly to your seventh defenseman.

In addition to Lilja, Gervais, and Walker, the Flyers brought in O'Donnell, Foster and Gill at different times for depth. In some way shape or form each of these veterans were chosen over prospects in Bartulis, Manning, Bourdon, Lauridsen and Gustafsson. All of them, with the exception of Gustafsson, only got their opportunities because of a string of injuries.

I'd rather commit to a young player as a sixth defenseman as opposed to a veteran

And despite the fact that, to varying degrees, each of those five prospects had decent to solid showings for themselves, most of them were sent right back down when the team got healthy, and were pushed even further down the depth chart when the Flyers brought in the next seventh-defenseman-type during the subsequent offseason.

I've always been of the opinion that I'd rather commit to a young player as a sixth defenseman as opposed to a veteran. Players like Lilja, Gervais, Foster and Gill can be obtained during the season if truly necessary. I don't see the need to commit to your sixth and seventh defenseman in July.

I personally would have liked to see players like Gustafsson, Manning, Lauridsen, etc. get an extended opportunity as an NHL regular to begin an NHL season. The worst case scenario is that they flop and now you can go out and find your Andreas Lilja. The best case scenario is that maybe the light goes on for them. If that's the case, maybe you never get forced into tough waiver decisions with Bartulis or Gustafsson. Maybe you discover that Marc-Andre Bourdon can actually cut it in the NHL earlier than we did actually discover it.

At the minimum it should help clarify things, for better or worse.

So what's next under Hextall?

Patience is wonderful, and Hextall seems to both have it and preach it. However, it's a very fine line. At a certain point prospects need experience, or else you'll find yourself with a prospect who's no longer waiver exempt and you're not quite sure what you have in them (see Bartulis, Gustafsson, and now Manning).

This isn't advocating that any of the "big four" make the the Flyers' roster out of training camp this season. In fact, I'd probably argue the opposite at this point in their careers. However, I can't help but look ahead to the 2016-17 offseason and see the Flyers' need to re-sign Jake Voracek, Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier. Coburn, Luke Schenn, and Grossmann will all have expiring contracts then as well.

The Flyers are going to have some decisions to make because those forwards are going to command some big money. It would sure be nice to know which of the defensive prospects the Flyers can count on by then. I'd much rather ease some of them in with bottom-pairing minutes before the Flyers are forced to give them top-four minutes.

As many have said, it's far easier to ruin a prospect's career by bringing them along too soon as opposed to too late; and that's why it's such a fine line. How can you determine the right balance between AHL/CHL seasoning and needing to make NHL decisions based on impending contract extensions and waiver status? It's not easy.

photos via Getty Images, USA Today

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