We're just days away from the Philadelphia Flyers 2014-15 season opener against the Bruins in Boston, and it's evident that the defense is a huge concern heading into the season. So let's take an in-depth look at how the unit is shaping up and what we should expect from them this year.
Top pairing moves on without Kimmo
In July it looked like the Flyers would be fortunate enough to return their rock solid first pairing of Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn. Yes, Timonen was 39 years old but he was coming off of a season in which he was arguably still the Flyers' best defenseman. He was an unrestricted free agent, but ultimately signed a team friendly one-year deal with only $2 million in base salary and another $2 million in bonuses -- bonuses which, for salary cap purposes, would most likely have rolled into the 2015-16 season.
Unfortunately, in early August it was revealed that Timonen would be out indefinitely with blood cots. A couple of months later and it's not looking optimistic that he will be able to return at all.
The other half of that pairing is Braydon Coburn, who is unquestionably the Flyers' work horse on the backend. He has his fair share of critics among the Flyers faithful, but the fact of the matter is it's extremely hard to find defenseman that are Coburn's size, with his skating ability, that can play in excess of 22 minutes a game.
In the past, however, Coburn has struggled with being asked to anchor a pairing while being asked to be the primary puck mover. Not having Timonen to pair with Coburn is a big blow.
It's looking like Andrew MacDonald is going to be tasked with replacing Timonen on the top pair, playing with Coburn. By now, if you're reading this site you probably are pretty familiar with my (and most of the staff's) opinion on Andrew MacDonald. He is an above average skater with above average puck skills, who at first glance seems to be strong in his own zone. However, his struggles in the neutral zone result in him almost always spending time in his own end and therefore sporting some atrocious possession numbers.
This pairing had a pretty brutal showing the other night versus the Rangers, and it's not helping to serve up the warm and fuzzies for the start of the season. I'm a fan of Coburn, but I've always felt he's best served as the "other guy" on a top pairing. With MacDonald, he's going to have to be "the guy".
Both players will likely be fixtures on the penalty kill (especially Coburn), and MacDonald may seem some time on the second unit power play as he did last season.
Will Grossmann, Streit keep up post-Olympic magic?
Fortunately for the Flyers, they are able to return their second pairing of Mark Streit and Nicklas Grossmann for the 2014-15 season. They began last season on separate pairings, and both had some less than stellar play to start the season. For a time, Streit was looking like a bust of a free agent signing that still had three years left after his age 36 season. Grossmann had a particularly brutal stretch in which he probably played his worst hockey as a professional.
Eventually the two of them found themselves paired together and while they really struggled for a time, after the Olympic break they found a bit of magic. Their playing styles could not be more different, but perhaps that is what makes it work for them.
Streit can, and should, do almost all of the puck handling, while Grossmann is then free to be the stay-at-homeiest stay-at-home defenseman of all stay-at-home defenseman. As a pairing, they finished the season getting 49.6% of all shot attempts when together; a pretty impressive number considering their early struggles together.
Grossmann will also be a mainstay on the penalty kill while Streit will be tasked with replacing Timonen on one of the league's top power plays. Streit is more than capable of adequately replacing Kimmo in that regard.
Del Zotto, Schenn have lots to prove
Luke Schenn returns to the Flyers' third pair for the season. After a pretty promising first season in orange and black, Schenn struggled in year two and it's beginning to look like he may not be anything more than a third pairing defenseman that can play some valuable penalty killing minutes. He was even a healthy scratch at times last season.
With Schenn will likely be Michael Del Zotto who was signed not long after it was announced that Timonen would miss significant time. The former first rounder had a very promising start to his career with the New York Rangers, posting 37 points and playing over 18 minutes a game with the Blueshirts.
Unfortunately, things kind of stagnated for Del Zotto and he was eventually traded to Nashville last year where he had a rough season. It was so rough that the Predators opted to not even make a qualifying offer to the restricted free agent, which then made him an unrestricted free agent. He sat on the market for quite some time until the Flyers called.
Del Zotto should have a real opportunity to resurrect his career on a Flyers' blueline that could really use his skill. He should also see some time on the second unit power play.
Likely serving as the Flyers' seventh defenseman is Nick Schultz, a veteran who signed a one-year deal with the Flyers this summer. He isn't a particularly good player, but in an ideal world, the Flyers won't have to use him for extended stretches as he fulfills his role as the seventh D.
Defense from the forwards
Believe it or not, I am aware that forwards are not defenseman. But ... they do need to play defense so I wanted to quickly touch on it.
Sean Couturier's line with Matt Read and Wayne Simmonds will continue to shoulder the tough defensive minutes among the forwards. Despite all of the talk of the coaches and management wanting to see more offense out of Couturier, I don't see the difficulty of his minutes (read: the toughest competition and frequent defensive zone starts) changing very much. He is still the only really strong defensive center the Flyers have.
The top line of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Brayden Schenn will be counted on to put up points and will often see the opposing team's best defensive forwards. With that said, Giroux is a more than competent defensive center in his own right.
Vincent Lecavalier appears to be sticking at center for the time being, with RJ Umberger and Michael Raffl on his wings. This is where the Flyers' biggest defensive weakness is among forwards, mostly due to Lecavalier at center.
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare will be the fourth line center to start the season and the wingers will be some mix of Zac Rinaldo, Jason Akeson and Blair Jones. It's tough to speak to Bellemare's defensive prowess but he certainly has some wheels. It would be nice if this line could help shoulder a bit of the defensive load to potentially free up Couturier for some easier minutes.
On the whole, the forwards are going to need to be diligent in their backchecking and defensive assignments to help out a less than stellar blue line group.
For all of the excitement about the future of the Flyers' blueline, there are a lot of questions with regards to their defenseman in the here and now. The surest thing in my book is the second pairing of Streit and Grossmann. While Coburn is a sure fire top-four defenseman, it's fair to question how he'll look with whomever he's paired with. Without at least one significant jump in play from a defenseman not named Braydon or Mark, it will likely be an uneasy group.