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Philadelphia Flyers 2017-18 Midterm Report Cards: Depth Defensemen

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The team’s three “veteran” defensemen have all had very different seasons.

Our research suggests that there might be no more completely average human being than Brandon Manning.
Kate Frese

On Wednesday, we looked at the seasons-to-date of the Flyers’ four younger defensemen, first by way of a glance at the “vets” of the group (Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere) and later at the team’s two rookies (Robert Hagg and Travis Sanheim).

In this space, we’ll look at the remaining three defensemen from this Flyers season — the “NHL vets”, so to speak. (Yes, Shayne Gostisbehere actually has more NHL games played than Brandon Manning, but let’s not let that get in our way here.) Enjoy.

(Stats below are from hockey-reference.com, NHL.com, corsica.hockey, and hockeyviz.com. Any statistics regarding ranks relative to the NHL are through Monday’s games.)


Andrew MacDonald

Overall Numbers: 1 G, 4 A in 27 GP; 20:24 TOI per game
5-on-5 On-Ice Performance: 44.9% Corsi-For, 48.0% Expected Goals For, 0.40 Points per 60

In short: Andrew MacDonald has been Andrew MacDonald.

How so? What else is there to say than that, really?

Long-time readers of BSH know that we’re not Andrew MacDonald’s biggest fans here. MacDonald, in all likelihood, is somewhere between a solid third-pair NHL talent and a high-end AHL defenseman. He has routinely struggled to push play in a positive direction, and most of his teammates tend to do much better at this when playing with someone else than they do with him. Despite this, the Flyers have regularly given him significant responsibilities, making him Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov’s main partners during their respective rookie seasons. There is a huge, nearly inexplicable disconnect between public opinion of MacDonald and the opinion of him that the Flyers seem to have, as exhibited by the way they use him in-game.

And this season for MacDonald has been ... pretty much the exact same as most of his other seasons in orange and black. MacDonald actually got off to a decent start to the year before injuring his knee blocking a shot on a penalty kill in a game against Edmonton (in what was, undoubtedly, a gutsy moment for him, as he was clearly in pain but managed to tough out the rest of the shift and game). But since coming back, MacDonald has been back at it, getting hammered by shot differential more often than not while the Flyers give him big minutes.

Most of this has happened alongside Ivan Provorov, who was struggling by way of shot differential as well until recently being put on a pair with Shayne Gostisbehere. (Curious, eh?) But even with a clear top pair emerging above him, MacDonald is still, at least, the No. 3 defenseman on this team in terms of role. His performance on the ice simply does not back up his being in that kind of a role.

Yeah, but: The Flyers ask a lot of MacDonald defensively. He faces top-line competition, and only two NHL defensemen with at least 300 5-on-5 minutes this season have a higher ratio of defensive zone starts to offensive zone starts. Context is key here, and given said context, his numbers are at least understandable, and the team’s willingness to put MacDonald in this situation frees up his teammates to succeed.

(Here is as good a place as any to note that I do not necessarily believe or endorse all of the counter-arguments that I make in these report cards.)

Still, though ... Defensive zone start usage as extreme as MacDonald’s does need to be accounted for, but it doesn’t by any means outright excuse how much the team gets butchered territorially when he’s on the ice. For one, here’s a list of the guys closest to MacDonald at the very bottom of the offensive zone start (ZSR) ratio leaderboard, and a look at how they perform on the ice despite those roles. A difficult situation from which to drive play? Surely, as evidenced by the presence of some guys who are faring as poorly as or even worse than MacDonald. An impossible one? As we can see from the two at the top of the list — two players at or above 50 percent in one or both of Corsi and Expected Goals while just barely getting more offensive starts than MacDonald — that’s not the case.

Heavy Zone Start Defensemen

Player ZSR TOI% QoC CF% QoC xGF% Rel xGF% CF% Rel CF% P/60
Player ZSR TOI% QoC CF% QoC xGF% Rel xGF% CF% Rel CF% P/60
Nick Holden 36.26 29.32 50.41 52.99 5.35 45.43 -0.39 0.81
Nikita Zadorov 36.25 29.24 49.96 50.91 4.49 50.75 2.59 0.89
Braydon Coburn 36.24 28.94 49.9 46.54 -7.57 48.37 -4.58 0.9
Andy Greene 34.75 29.52 49.94 49.98 -0.6 42.47 -7.81 0.54
Andrew MacDonald 34.2 29.59 50.36 48.01 -3.06 44.92 -4.37 0.4
Anton Lindholm 33.54 28.32 50.3 34.5 -11.58 42.17 -5.74 0

(Here’s the part where we note that most players’ shifts start on the fly and that, even at the extremes, the impact of heavy defensive zone starts on performance tends to be a bit overblown. Discussion for another day, though.)

In some ways, the logic that we applied yesterday to Travis Sanheim’s rookie season applies here in reverse. In Sanheim’s case, it was “if you succeed in limited/easier minutes, it’s time to try more/harder minutes”. With MacDonald, the Flyers would probably be better-served to not throw him in the situations that they’ve put him in, since he’s proven that he can’t handle those minutes without getting caved in.

I don’t think that the Flyers and their coaches are idiots. I don’t think that they’re oblivious to the fact that the Flyers get outshot and spend a ton of time defending with MacDonald on the ice. I think that they believe that having him handle a lot of defensive responsibility is for the best on the team. I just don’t agree, and I think it’d take an extended bad spell of goals-against with MacDonald on the ice for them to change their thinking on the matter.

Grade: D+. MacDonald’s play itself puts him in the C to C- range, and the fact that he’s doing this in a ton of minutes drops him a bit lower. That may or may not be entirely fair to him — he’s not the one playing himself 20-plus minutes a night, after all — but if your opinion on Andrew MacDonald coming into this season was that he’s nothing special at the NHL level and is being given too much responsibility (which, yes, was ours), what you’ve seen this year shouldn’t have changed that opinion at all.

Poll

How would you grade Andrew MacDonald’s play in the first half of the 2017-18 season?

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    A+
    (9 votes)
  • 0%
    A
    (2 votes)
  • 0%
    A-
    (4 votes)
  • 1%
    B+
    (11 votes)
  • 2%
    B
    (17 votes)
  • 4%
    B-
    (24 votes)
  • 10%
    C+
    (64 votes)
  • 21%
    C
    (126 votes)
  • 17%
    C-
    (103 votes)
  • 8%
    D+
    (52 votes)
  • 11%
    D
    (69 votes)
  • 6%
    D-
    (37 votes)
  • 12%
    F
    (71 votes)
589 votes total Vote Now

Brandon Manning

Overall Numbers: 4 G, 5 A in 27 GP; 18:42 TOI per game
5-on-5 On-Ice Performance: 50.3% Corsi-For, 51.3% Expected Goals For, 1.10 Points per 60

In short: Brandon Manning has been a totally fine third-pair defenseman who for some reason keeps playing over people that fans want to see more than him.

How so? Manning, depending on who you ask, is probably either a steady, unflashy guy who a coach can count on, or one of the worst defensemen in hockey. (Or, if you ask someone from Edmonton, he’s Satan in the flesh.)

I happen to think he’s somewhere between those two endpoints. Manning is a fine enough third-pair defenseman in today’s NHL, and his performance this year has been ... reflective of a fine enough third-pair defenseman. Arguably a little better than that, even. He’s been more or less break-even in possession and expected goals, while playing in slightly defensively-oriented minutes with good partners (his three most common pairmates this season are Radko Gudas, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Travis Sanheim). That’s a set of average results, more or less; pair them with the fact that Manning has been surprisingly productive offensively (his scoring rate at 5-on-5 leads all Flyers defensemen, curiously enough), and Manning’s been fine. Not much more or less than that.

Manning, basically, is just a guy, and this season for the Flyers he’s been just a guy while healthy (he missed most of December with an injury). He probably doesn’t deserve a lot of the vitriol he receives, but nothing about what he does is irreplaceable.

Yeah, but: If he’s just a guy, then WHY THE HELL IS HE PLAYING SECOND-PAIR MINUTES WHILE RADKO GUDAS IS ON THE THIRD PAIR AND TRAVIS SANHEIM IS GETTING SENT TO THE PRESS BOX? If Manning is average, let’s play some people who have the potential to be better than average.

Still, though ... Easy with the caps lock, tiger.

Still, I hear you, and I don’t disagree. To a smaller extent, the aforementioned disconnect between fans/observers and the coaching staff/front office on Andrew MacDonald is sort of on display here with Manning. But not quite to the same extent; Manning has been a healthy scratch six times this year, and at some point or another, barring another defensive injury, he will likely head back up to the press box when the team decides it’s time for Sanheim to play again.

The truth is that the Flyers see Manning, 27, as something resembling a reliable veteran on this team. And to them, on a team with a lot of young pieces on its blue line, there’s value in that. But at some point, whether it’s next week, next month, at the trade deadline, or at the end of the season when Manning is an unrestricted free agent, they are going to have to make him pass his baton along to one of these young guys and start trusting them.

That’s what makes Manning (or, maybe more accurately, his role on the team now) so frustrating for the fans. From a talent perspective, most would probably agree that Manning is either the sixth- or seventh-most talented defenseman currently on the Flyers’ roster (we’ll ignore the guys in Lehigh Valley for now, though their presence and successes at lower levels undoubtedly add to the grousing about Manning from fans). And since we’ve all just kind of accepted that the Flyers aren’t sitting down Andrew MacDonald any time soon, Manning has become the de facto “why is he still playing?” punching bag.

Is the difference between Manning and whichever more talented defenseman he’s playing over going to be what prevents the Flyers from making the playoffs? In all likelihood, no, probably not. But the idea that the coaching staff sees him as a superior option to the point where he’s in-and-out of the lineup vis-a-vis a 21-year old who has shown off serious potential already and is undoubtedly going to be a key piece of this team’s future? That’s what probably irks fans the most here.

Manning, again, is a solid third-pair defenseman and injury fill-in, and he’s been a fine enough bridge guy for the Flyers as they attempt to hand their defense over to the younger generation of defensemen. But at some point soon they’re going to have to reach the end of that bridge.

Grade: C. Manning is what he is. He’s not as bad as some fans want to believe, and has been OK enough for the Flyers this year. And it’s not his fault that the team keeps playing him over other players that we like more than him and are more excited by than him. It’s really not. But we have to hold that against someone. Sorry, pal. Life’s not fair.

Poll

How would you grade Brandon Manning’s play in the first half of the 2017-18 season?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    A+
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    A
    (2 votes)
  • 0%
    A-
    (1 vote)
  • 1%
    B+
    (8 votes)
  • 6%
    B
    (36 votes)
  • 14%
    B-
    (75 votes)
  • 24%
    C+
    (125 votes)
  • 28%
    C
    (146 votes)
  • 13%
    C-
    (68 votes)
  • 3%
    D+
    (16 votes)
  • 4%
    D
    (21 votes)
  • 0%
    D-
    (5 votes)
  • 2%
    F
    (11 votes)
515 votes total Vote Now

Radko Gudas

Overall Numbers: 0 G, 4 A in 30 GP; 16:04 TOI per game
5-on-5 On-Ice Performance: 55.1% Corsi-For, 56.1% Expected Goals For, 0.58 Points per 60

In short: Radko Gudas has been Radko Gudas. (Apologies for the lack of originality here, but it’s as true here as it was for our friend Andrew.)

How so? Gudas, a throw-in for the Flyers in the Braydon Coburn trade at the time he was acquired, has become one of the few pleasant surprises of the Dave Hakstol era. The burly Czech defenseman’s aggressiveness, when kept under control, has been a huge positive for the Flyers, who have routinely controlled the run of play while he’s on the ice.

And this season, Gudas’ third in orange and black, has been no exception. After pulling together successful underlying numbers with the likes of Michael Del Zotto and Brandon Manning in the past two seasons, Gudas’ main partner this year has been Travis Sanheim, and he and the rookie have teamed up to form probably the Flyers’ best play-driving pair of the first half of the season.

And not only is Gudas good at controlling the shot clock, he’s been good at actually defending as well. His overall expected on-ice Fenwick save percentage is the best among all Flyers skaters. That’s huge when he’s frequently playing with a rookie like Sanheim, who has struggled a bit in his own third of the ice.

Ultimately, Gudas has been the steady player that Dave Hakstol has come to expect. Well, except...

Yeah, but: You already knew where I was going with this, but I actually have two questions. First, the easy one: how much do you dock Gudas for his 10-game suspension? And second, if he’s been so good and steady, why have the Flyers given him so little ice time? He’s averaging much less than he has in his first two seasons.

Still, though ... The suspension hurt, and it’s a black mark on what’s otherwise been a strong season. Zero doubt about it. While I don’t think Gudas meant to essentially slash Mathieu Perreault in the neck, it happened because he lost control of his stick, which a guy with his track record and reputation simply cannot afford to do. And it was clear that the team missed him while he was off the ice — they lost their first seven Gudas-less games, then were heavily outshot and outpossessed on a three-game Western road swing (in which, to be fair, they won all three games). Gudas has greatly solidified this team’s third pairing, and putting a Mark Alt or Brandon Manning in his place leaves — and has left — the Flyers meaningfully worse off.

As for his ice time, I think that simply has been a matter of process of elimination. The two most logical guesses that don’t involve thinking that the Flyers simply don’t trust Gudas anymore (and, given that he received heavy defensive minutes last year, I don’t think that they lost faith in him that quickly) are that either:

  1. The team really wanted to give Shayne Gostisbehere (understandably) and Robert Hagg (more curiously) more ice time, and decided that those minutes were going to come at Gudas’ expense rather than at Andrew MacDonald’s.
  2. The team just doesn’t trust Sanheim with more than third-pairing minutes at this point, and Gudas, his main partner, just has to take the hit for it.

I think it’s a combination of the two, but moreso the former. We discussed this a bit in our season preview for Gudas — when the team decided it was really time to give the young guys a chance, Gudas seemed as likely as anyone to be the one whose ice time would suffer as a result (emphasis mine):

It’s possible that, while guys like Morin, Hagg, or Sanheim get their feet under them, Gudas is asked to do even more than he has been in recent years. On the other hand, if any of those guys really get out to a hot start to their NHL careers, it wouldn’t at all be surprising if any increase in responsibility given to them comes at the expense of Gudas’ ice time.

Which, fine. If you’re going to take his minutes, go ahead and give them to the young guys. But Gudas isn’t the only veteran in the lineup who could have taken that hit, and it’s somewhat infuriating that Brandon Manning and Andrew MacDonald are both averaging minutes more per game than Gudas.

If the Flyers are serious about trying to make the playoffs, Gudas should be getting significantly more minutes than he is. He drives play and plays well defensively. The coaching staff should re-find the trust that they had in him over the previous two seasons and apply it again.

Grade: B. The 10-game suspension was an absolute killer for this team, and it became clear as soon as he returned that the Flyers had missed his presence. Given how much he brings just by way of his availability, that has to be held against him one way or another. And the fact that he’s only been playing third-pair minutes for most of the season hurts his case for a higher grade. But his work on the ice has once again been excellent, and the Flyers would be very well-suited to bump his responsibilities up to where they’ve been in past seasons.

Poll

How would you grade Radko Gudas’ play in the first half of the 2017-18 season?

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    A+
    (6 votes)
  • 1%
    A
    (9 votes)
  • 3%
    A-
    (19 votes)
  • 13%
    B+
    (68 votes)
  • 29%
    B
    (148 votes)
  • 26%
    B-
    (132 votes)
  • 9%
    C+
    (46 votes)
  • 8%
    C
    (41 votes)
  • 3%
    C-
    (18 votes)
  • 1%
    D+
    (7 votes)
  • 0%
    D
    (5 votes)
  • 0%
    D-
    (4 votes)
  • 0%
    F
    (3 votes)
506 votes total Vote Now

Previously in Flyers 2017-18 Midterm Report Cards: