In part two of our Flyers season preview by position series, we take a look at the newly revamped defense. Last season, the top six Flyers defensemen sorted by ice time were Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, Shayne Gostisbehere, Robert Hagg, Radko Gudas, and Andrew MacDonald. Now while just two of these players are not on the team this season (Gudas and MacDonald), this defense looks vastly improved heading into this season.
Gudas was dealt to the Washington Capitals for Matt Niskanen, and Justin Braun was acquired for draft picks, a second and third round selection. While the Niskanen trade didn’t make sense at the time — and still doesn’t now to be honest — both he and Braun hope to cure some of the Flyers’ penalty killing woes over the past few seasons and bring some quality leadership to a young defense core. The addition of Mike Yeo will also have some affect on how this defense plays, as he’ll be in charge of the penalty kill and defensemen.
There’s a lot to like with this defense from what we’ve seen so far in preseason, so let’s get into what we can expect from the back end this season.
Player by player
2018-19: 82 GP, 7 G, 19 A, 25 Pts, 47.58 5v5 CF%, 49.08 5v5 xGF%
The Flyers’ success or failure on defense this season all starts with Ivan Provorov. The recipient of a freshly-signed six year contract, Provorov will need to be better than he was last season if the Flyers are going to keep the puck out of their net. This season it appears he will finally have the luxury of having more stability on the blue line, with the additions of Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun. Provorov averaged over 26 minutes a night last season, an insane workload for a player in just his third NHL season. This year, we should see that number decrease with Travis Sanheim taking a step forward, and a hopeful bounce back season for Shayne Gostisbehere.
When on his game, Provorov is one of the most fundamentally sound defensemen this team has seen in quite some time, and can be a lethal offensive threat at times. He tied for the league lead in goals among blueliners just two seasons ago — and while that’s probably an outlier at the end of the day — I do expect him to return to at least the 40 point plateau this season.
2018-19: 82 GP, 9 G, 26 A, 35 Pts, 49.80 5v5 CF%, 52 5v5 xGF%
Arguably the most impressive aspect of Travis Sanheim’s 2018-19 season was how he impacted Provorov’s game when the duo became a pairing. When the Flyers brought Rick Wilson aboard last season, one of the immediate lineup decisions that followed was Sanheim jumping up to the top pairing with Provorov, who had been struggling. While the struggles for Provorov crept back up at the end of last season, it looked as though this pairing was something we could look forward to this season.
It depends on where Sanheim ranks in ice time and where he gets that ice time, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a big year from the 23 year old. I’d love to see him get an extended look on the second power play unit, but we’ll see what happens with the lineups come the regular season.
2018-19: 78 GP, 9 G, 28 A, 37 Pts, 50.86 5v5 CF%, 49.79 5v5 xGF%
Simply put, the Flyers need Shayne Gostisbehere to be better this season. The reason we don’t notice Gostisbehere’s defensive inefficiencies at times is because of his elite offensive abilities, but when he has seasons like last year, those weaknesses show more often. We know Gostisbehere is never going to be a defensive stalwart, that’s just not who he is. He’s an offensive dynamo and a fantastic power play quarterback, and the Flyers need him to put up better point totals.
Gostisbehere has seen a good amount of time with new acquisition Justin Braun this preseason and the duo has looked strong. Head coach Alain Vigneault has played with the lines of late though, and we could see Gostisbehere with a new partner come Friday.
2018-19 (w/San Jose): 78 GP, 2 G, 14 A, 16 Pts, 50.70 5v5 CF%, 52.19 5v5 xGF%
Although what the Flyers gave up to get Justin Braun will always be a bit of a question mark, Braun’s impact on this team won’t be. Puck moving, offensively gifted defensemen are a treat to have, but sometimes teams just need a guy like Braun. For a team that gave up the third most goals in the entire league, a defensive defenseman may not be the absolute worst thing.
Braun’s numbers were decent last season, and the Flyers are hoping that he can be a stabilizing force on the back end with one of our young exciting defensemen. As mentioned above, him and Gostisbehere looked good in the preseason together, but we’ll see if that remains a pairing to start the season. If Braun can be the shut down defender he’s praised to be, I think he’ll do just fine here.
2018-19 (w/Washington): 80 GP, 8 G, 17 A, 25 Pts, 47.15 5v5 CF%, 45.39 5v5 xGF%
Niskanen was acquired this offseason for Radko Gudas, and for some reason the Flyers felt the need to retain salary. This move might be the one we look back on and scratch our heads, but just like Braun, if Niskanen turns out to be a strong defender and a good penalty killer it won’t be the worst move. Niskanen had poor numbers last season on a good Washington team, so it should be interesting to see if he can turn things around in Philly.
If he’s able to take some of the load off of one of the kids and improve their defensive zone coverage, the trade still might not have been worth trading Gudas, but it won’t be something we resent. It might be a big if, but one that I still believe is achievable.
2018-19: 21 GP, 1 G, 1 A, 2 pts, 48.81 5v5 CF%, 39.17 5v5 xGF%
After being called up late last season, Myers showed some of the signs that make Flyers fans extremely excited about him. While we learned today he has been sent down — although it looks like purely a cap move — Myers is expected to be back fairly quickly. There are some concerns with Myers and his discipline and decision making, but if he can figure it out all the tools are there. Myers has the athleticism to make up for his mistakes, and the long reach that comes with being as big as he is. The key is not having to use those tools to make up for mistakes he’s made and tightening up his game.
If Myers does return to the team by the home opener — which is likely, though not guaranteed — one assumes he’d quickly work his way into the lineup. If he doesn’t, one would have to look at his discipline and if that’s improving or not.
2018-19: 82 GP, 5 G, 15 A, 20 pts, 44.25 5v5 CF%, 44.53 5v5 xGF%
It goes without saying but I’m going to say it anyway, Robert Hagg was really bad last season. Hagg was consistently a turnover machine and simply could not break the puck out to save his life. Everything we love about guys like Provorov, Sanheim, and Gostisbehere is what Robert Hagg isn’t. He’s known for his hitting ability but the hits really don’t separate players off the puck, he just bear hugs them against the boards. He just had a dreadful season.
Regardless of Phil Myers’ situation, Hagg will probably remain on this roster given Alain Vigneault’s preference to have eight defensemen on his roster. Now whether he only plays as a seventh or eighth option is to be determined, but after the preseason he had I can’t see a good reason to let him keep getting extended playing time.
2018-19: 5 GP, 0 G, 0 A, 0 pts, 47.17 5v5 CF%, 38.35 5v5 xGF%
Morin finally got to see some NHL playing time last season, after being injured until February. This preseason, Morin has looked solid for the most part, but nothing eye-catching. His biggest issue is what it always has been: his puck moving/carrying abilities. His defensive zone play has been strong from what I’ve seen, and his Corsi-For percentage has actually been a very impressive 60.49.
I think that if for some reason Myers ends up not being recalled, Morin should be getting that sixth and final spot on the blueline. He’s outplayed Hagg this preseason, and that gives the team the perfect opportunity to see what they truly have in him, and if he can be a NHL player. Is he one? Probably not given how skill driven the league is these days, but if it’s down to him and Hagg I don’t think there’s a single reason to not start him.
Overall, when looking at last year’s defense core, I think it’s an upgrade. That does depend however on Niskanen and Braun still having some left in the tank, and being able to be what the are hoped to be defensively. If Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere return to form from 2017-18, and Travis Sanheim continues to build off of last season, I think we’ll be looking at probably the best defense this team has seen since the beginning of the decade.