Just a few short months ago, Braydon Coburn's Philadelphia Flyers career was at a crossroads.
At the start of the lockout-shortened 2013 season, Coburn was assigned the role of No. 1 defenseman on the depth chart, essentially by default. After all, Chris Pronger's career-ending injury had created a void, the team had failed in its pursuit of Shea Weber, and Matt Carle had been allowed to leave via free agency.
With Kimmo Timonen entering his age-37 season and unlikely to hold up to heavy minutes, the Flyers had little choice but to turn to Coburn. The then-27 year old defenseman was asked to log the heaviest, most difficult minutes on the team, while elevating the play of inferior defensive partners.
Unfortunately for Philadelphia and Coburn, the results were disastrous.
Paired primarily with Nicklas Grossmann and Bruno Gervais, Coburn delivered his worst season as a Flyer. Repeated defensive miscues, almost no point production and poor possession statistics combined to create a perfect storm of awful for the usually-reliable Coburn.
Yet Coburn survived the silly season, and despite some early hiccups, he has re-established himself as the same dependable defenseman who justifiably earned a four year, $18 million contract in 2011. His point production, possession statistics, and goal prevention numbers have all rebounded to rates close to or better than his career averages.
But how has he done it?
Still taking tough minutes
When explaining Coburn's poor 2012-13 season, many pointed to his deployment as the top minutes man facing the toughest competition out of all Flyers defensemen. The implication was that Coburn was simply incapable of thriving in this role, and his performance suffered as a result.
However, a quick glance at the statistics reveals the truth -- Coburn is largely taking the same minutes this season as last year.
Coburn led all Philadelphia skaters in TOI last season, averaging 22:36 minutes per game. But instead of decreasing his workload, the Flyers are actually giving Coburn more ice time this season. The 28-year old defenseman is averaging 22:45 minutes this year, a slight increase from 2012-13.
Apparently, it's not the minutes.
Nor is it the quality of competition. Coburn's Time On Ice Quality of Competition statistics are almost identical to last season, and he is again ranked in the top-25 (15th) among NHL defensemen in terms of toughest matchups.
The only real difference in his assignments comes in his zone starts. Last year, he received 37.7% of his zone starts in the defensive zone, while this season, the percentage has dropped to 30.5%.
The zone starts have helped to lighten Coburn's load, without a doubt. But do seven percentage points explain the entire turnaround?
As it turns out, there is a much simpler theory to explain Coburn's bounce back year.
The Kimmo effect
Kimmo Timonen was called many names at the start of the season -- old man, pylon, and most damning of all, finished. While strong play in November and December staved off the obituary writers temporarily, there is still a growing consensus that Timonen is playing his final NHL season.
Yet there are two skills that Timonen has retained -- his ability to drive play, and his ability to elevate the performance of his defensive partner.
Last season, Timonen spent most of his 5v5 ice time with Luke Schenn, and was the driving force behind Schenn's solid first season as a Flyer. With Timonen, Schenn posted a 53.1% 5v5 Goals For% and a 53.4% Corsi For%. Without Timonen, his statistics were 43.2% & 46.6%, respectively.
Prior to last season, Coburn and Timonen had become inseparable. The two defensemen were paired together for three straight seasons, starting in 2009-10, and the duo never finished a year with a negative goal or possession differential.
But in 2012-13, Coburn was tasked with lugging Nicklas Grossmann and Bruno Gervais around the ice at even strength. Clearly, the coaching staff hoped Coburn was ready to anchor his own pairing, but their hopes were unfounded as Coburn floundered.
This season, the coaches have not made the same mistake. Coburn is spending more time with Timonen than any other Flyers defenseman, and unsurprisingly, the results have been impressive. The Flyers are both winning the 5v5 goals battle (54.8%) and the possession battle (55.4%) with the Timonen-Coburn pairing on the ice.
Not only is Coburn spending less time with below-average defensemen, he's getting more minutes with the veteran who is still the Flyers' best at even strength, a defenseman with whom Coburn has a long history of success.
A creation of Timonen?
The Flyers' decision to reunite Coburn with Timonen has been the driving force behind his resurgence. But is Coburn merely a product of a superior defensive partner? Is he incapable of strong play when away from Timonen?
The initial numbers are not in Coburn's favor.
This season, Coburn is losing the 5v5 goals battle (37.5%) and shot attempts battle (47.6%) when apart from Timonen. His statistics away from Timonen also were measurably worse between 2009 and 2012, when the two defensemen were paired together extensively.
Braydon Coburn undoubtedly plays better when paired with Kimmo Timonen. But if he was solely a creation of Timonen's skill, the Finnish defenseman would likely improve when separated from Coburn, no longer obligated to drag him around the ice.
In fact, the opposite is true. Timonen may make Coburn better, but it appears Coburn does the same for Timonen.
Most observers would agree that Timonen has lost a step this season, even compared to last year. His offensive production is down (mostly due to power play struggles) and his lack of acceleration has led to numerous recovery-related minor penalties.
But despite another year on his tires, Timonen has performed better in 2013/14 with his primary defensive partner (Coburn) than he did last season with Luke Schenn.
So Coburn is a superior defenseman to Luke Schenn. That alone is not enough to prove that the Timonen-Coburn pairing is mutually beneficial.
This time, however, the stats are on Coburn's side.
Between 2009 & 2012, Timonen posted a 52.4% Corsi For% with Coburn, and a 51.0% rate without Coburn. The trend has repeated itself this season, as Timonen has a 55.4% rate with Coburn and a 53.8% percentage away from him.
The numbers imply that Timonen does indeed see an uptick in overall production when paired with Coburn. They appear to be the ideal pairing - a combination that plays better together than as individuals.
The Timonen-Coburn combination has always made intuitive sense, even moreso now that Timonen has lost a step. Coburn's size, physical tools and barely-existent offensive instincts serve as an ideal complement to the cerebral, offensively-creative, but slowing Timonen.
The Flyers have issues on defense, but their top pairing is not one of them. And Braydon Coburn is an active contributor to its success, not a passive observer.
From possible Edmonton trade bait to nightly top pair defenseman, Coburn has seen his stock this year fluctuate more than a late 90s dot com company.
But unlike many of those failed ventures, it seems likely that Coburn's play will stay strong considering his long-term track record. With every passing game, his disaster of a season looks more and more the result of poor teammates, an ensuing lack of confidence and the dissolution of a long-successful pairing rather than his skillset falling off a cliff.
Of course, the Flyers will need to find a new partner for Coburn once Timonen eventually hangs up his skates. Mark Streit or Erik Gustafsson come to mind as possible options for the future if the Flyers want to replicate the style of the successful Coburn-Timonen pairing. But for now, Coburn is just fine so long as he has Philadelphia's only Finnish Olympian playing beside him.