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Beyond the Big Four: Internal Third Pairing Options Going Forward

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Chris Pronger is done for the season. This is horrible news for Chris, his health, his career, his family, and his employer. And with the nature of the NHL these days, the news has quickly led people into speculation about what it means for the NHL, for player safety, and especially here, for the Flyers.

Looking at outside options would certainly be fun, but there's just so much that goes into that speculation. Is that player available? What would it cost to acquire him? Can the Flyers afford that player under the cap? And so much more.

So instead, we'll look at what we can easily look at: How the in-house options for the Flyers' third pairing has performed so far this season.

While we could look at how these players have performed in all situations, at five-on-five, in tied games, or a few others, what you see below is the performance at five-on-five in close games, defined as any game situation within one goal in the first and second periods, or tied in the third period.

All data is from the fantastic Time on Ice site. The table is sortable by column.

Name GP GF GA Shots% Fen% Corsi% Save% Shooting%
Matt Walker 3 1 2 55.0% 51.9% 54.1% 0.778 9.1%
Andreas Lilja 19 7 4 54.9% 51.6% 51.2% 0.938 8.9%
Team 30 42 26 53.2% 50.7% 50.9% 0.924 10.9%
Kevin Marshall 8 5 1 53.3% 48.2% 48.8% 0.952 20.8%
Marc-Andre Bourdon 11 4 4 46.0% 47.1% 48.9% 0.882 13.8%
Erik Gustafsson 5 4 2 42.4% 44.2% 44.3% 0.895 28.6%

The first thing that must be said is that this is obviously a limited sample. Second, there is no usage information - are they being used in the offensive zone, defensive zone, against fourth liners, against second liners, etc. - to help put these numbers in context. There aren't many conclusions that can be drawn from this because of that, but it's at least interesting to look at.

For players like Walker and Lilja, they have track records beyond their time in Philadelphia that would certainly help determine what we can expect from them going forward better than the above information.

What do I take out of this information? Well, all three of Marshall, Bourdon, and Gustafsson are below the team in Fenwick percentage and Corsi percentage while being above the team in shooting percentage. So the Flyers are spending more time in their own end when those three are on the ice than when those three are off, but the team is getting really lucky at the other end when those three are on.

Something I've seen written in a few places recently is that the return of Erik Gustafsson will help alleviate the loss of Pronger, as he deserves to play over at least Marshall. The numbers here don't bear that out. I've long expected that Gustafsson would be a fan favorite due to his offensive play, but he just hasn't shown that he belongs in the NHL yet.

Granted, none of the young trio has shown they belong in the NHL yet, which is why I don't understand how anybody - whether it be Marshall, Gustafsson, or Bourdon - can be said to have separated themselves from the other two.

What I think is important to remember here is that the Flyers are only looking for - at most - one of Gustafsson, Bourdon, and Marshall to play in the NHL. And they are only looking for one of them to be the sixth guy on defense. When Andreas Lilja returns, he will be on the third pairing. Maybe Matt Walker rejoins the team (shudder) and marginalizes the rookies back to the press box or Adirondack.

This is the whole point of having Andrej Meszaros on the third pairing - when you lose a top-4 guy, you only need to replace him with a third-pairing defender. Third pairing defenders are everywhere. The Flyers have about five of them already.

While the in-house options certainly don't look promising, but all three are 23 years old or younger. They are all rookies. And last year, the Flyers bottom-pairing guys ended the year like this:

Name GP GF GA Shots% Fen% Corsi% Save% Shooting%
Oskars Bartulis
13 1 4 43.4% 39.1% 40.2% 0.932 2.3%
Sean O`Donnell
81 30 19 45.2% 44.4% 45.2% 0.949 9.8%
Team 82 126 81 52.9% 51.8% 51.1% 0.930 9.7%
Danny Syvret
4 1 0 56.3% 55.6% 55.2% 1.000 5.6%
Nick Boynton
10 1 3 36.1% 35.9% 35.8% 0.923 4.5%
Erik Gustafsson 3 0 1 44.4% 42.9% 41.7% 0.800 0.0%
Matt Walker 4 1 1 33.3% 40.0% 35.2% 0.938 12.5%

That doesn't look any better than what the third pairing guys have done this year. The only difference is that Sean O`Donnell stayed healthy while Andreas Lilja hasn't. Is O`Donnell's health really the only reason nobody was calling for an immediate trade for one of the NHL's best defensemen when Pronger went down last year? I can't believe it was.

I'm sure Marshall, Bourdon, or Gustafsson can play as well as Bartulis, Boynton, Walker, Syvret, and Gustafsson did last year, when there was not a problem on the third pairing.

And if not, the Flyers could just re-acquire Danny Syvret again. They could certainly do worse.

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