On Monday, Brad wrote a great piece looking at and, ultimately, praising the seasons had so far by the two veteran defensemen that Chuck Fletcher brought in this past offseason, in trades that many (including, full disclosure, yours truly) believed at the time that the Flyers got the short end of. Those two guys — Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun, of course — have stabilized a top-4 that includes a pure shutdown pairing (Niskanen and Ivan Provorov) and a two-way second pair that’s performed well together and should see its luck turn a bit as time goes on (Braun and Travis Sanheim).
Teams look far and wide to find top-4 defensemen that can play meaningful roles without being sheltered in easy minutes, and whatever you may think of what Fletcher paid to make it happen, give the man some credit: right now, it looks like he went and found two of those guys this past offseason, and the two younger players that had shown promise but came into the season with plenty to prove have largely done that proving this year (Provorov, in particular). The Flyers have defenders that they can lean on in crunch time. That is extremely important and good — you can’t win anything meaningful without that.
And then ... there are the other two spots on defense.
In theory, finding a third pair on defense shouldn’t be that hard, depending on what you want your third pair to do and be responsible for. Now, we know as well as anyone that in practice it isn’t always easy; it’s legitimately arguable that the Flyers not having anything resembling a competent third pair in 2010 is the biggest reason the franchise’s Cup drought is now 44 years long and not nine. But just finding a few guys who can take some low-leverage minutes and turn them into something positive doesn’t seem like something that should be that hard, particularly for the Flyers, a team that has had so many good defensive prospects pop up over the past few years.
Yet it has indeed been that hard. And while there’s probably a right answer for how to proceed, there hasn’t been a great answer lately.
If you’re here, on this website, you probably already know the three principal parties involved. Shayne Gostisbehere, the former Calder Trophy runner-up who is having probably the worst season of his career (on the heels of one last year that was already pretty unimpressive). Phil Myers, the exciting young defenseman who got called up in a shake-up move and has clear flashes of skill here and there but overall uneven play. And Robert Hagg, the former intriguing prospect whose stock has fallen so much that half of our staff didn’t even rank him in our 25 Under 25 last summer, even after he had two full NHL seasons to his name.
Each of these three defensemen has spent some time ceding the spotlight to the other two. During the offseason, Hagg pretty clearly looked like the odd man out; Fletcher partly justified trading Radko Gudas by saying that his move paved the way for Myers to be the third-pair right defenseman, and an article on the Flyers’ own website late in the summer said that Gostisbehere and Myers had the inside track to be the guys on the third pair. Then, Myers had an unimpressive camp, and the spot many had earmarked for him was swiped away by Hagg. A month into the season, after two embarrassing team defensive performances in losses to the Islanders and Penguins, Myers was called up and moved right into Hagg’s spot, where he’d mostly stay for a couple of weeks. Then it was Gostisbehere’s turn, as he sat for each of the three games leading up to Thanksgiving; when he came back in, both Hagg and Myers sat one out in his stead.
With the exception of one cameo by Samuel Morin in late October, the Flyers have basically been shuffling these three around in the lineup (not just on the third pair, we should mention), trying to find something that will stick, for the entirety of the season so far. Trying to figure out what, again, should be the easy part. Even Gostisbehere — who, lest we forget, actually entered the year in a top-4 role ...
... has seen his stock drop clearly below Braun’s and into this third-pair mishmash that Hagg and Myers are now in.
And the thing is you know that, for all the crap we give this team about being a bunch of old-timey hockey guys that would hate an offensively-oriented player like Shayne Gostisbehere and love a one-dimensional defender like Robert Hagg, the Flyers wish they could just send Ghost and Myers out there and call it a day. Not just because, as mentioned above, they literally told us in the offseason that that’s what they wanted to do. But also because that’s clearly the option that’s most likely to make a difference, y’know?
Pretty much any rational observer who has watched Robert Hagg’s time with the Flyers would admit that, at the absolute least, filling out those last two spots with Ghost and Myers would be the highest-ceiling option of the three available for this team. You can shelter them on a third pair, and with the defensive stability that currently exists with all of the guys in the top-4, Ghost and Myers — when they’re working right — are the guys you can bump up in the lineup if you’re looking for a bit of a curveball.
It is what we should all want, and is probably what the Flyers want. Unfortunately for that outcome, if we’re calling this a meritocracy and saying the best guys should play, it is surprisingly difficult to make the case that Hagg has been the worst out of those three players this year. Check any Expected Goals model on the year (like this one, or this one, or this one) — it’ll tell you that Hagg, at 5-on-5, has done a better job controlling play than either of Ghost or Myers. EvolvingWild’s Goals Above Replacement metric? It has Ghost as by far the worst player on the team, moreso than Hagg. Is Ghost making up the difference on the power play? I wouldn’t say so; Provorov and Niskanen have both been better than him there. And if you put the numbers down and just watch them ... I can’t tell you what you’re seeing, but does Hagg really look much worse than the other two?
Finding the answer — and deciding the path forward to take — is tougher here for Myers, who is 22 years old and has only 35 NHL games to his name. As Brad talked a bit about in his article on Monday, Myers has had some warts in his game at 5-on-5 that are probably being papered over by the fact that the goalies are stopping nearly 96 percent of the shots they face with him on the ice. That number is inevitably going to decrease, and he will look worse when that happens. On the other hand, the aforementioned EvolvingWild GAR metric actually has Myers — thanks largely to his play offensively — as one of the team’s most impressive players this season, period, and at least to this writer’s view probably passes the eye test more than the other two do.
There are places to hand-wring his play, and there are probably games here and there where you can justify scratching him. But it’s very different to scrutinize him than it is two guys in Hagg and Ghost who have multiple years of NHL experience to their names, and given that fact he’s probably the guy who should get the most slack here for his play (and should in turn get the chance to play through whatever issues he shows). At which point, Alain Vigneault — who has several times this year discussed the idea of certain players having “money in the bank” due to what they’ve done in their previous work and staying in the lineup as such — is going to have to decide which of these other two guys is more likely to be able to pull a few coins out of his couch cushions.
Which brings us to where we are now. And after all that doom and gloom, if you’re looking for something hopeful here, it’s this: Ghost and Myers — again, the third pairing that we think the Flyers actually want, and for what it’s worth the one that they ran in Saturday’s win over Montreal and will be again tonight against Toronto — haven’t actually played together very much. Since his recall, Myers has spent a majority of his time with Travis Sanheim, who is now thriving alongside Braun. Gostisbehere, meanwhile, has spent nearly-equal amounts of time with Hagg and Braun, to pedestrian results. But Gostisbehere and Myers? They still haven’t really been given a chance to work together — just over 25 minutes, per Natural Stat Trick.
And they should get that chance, because it makes sense. It’s the pairing that they should want. It’s the pairing we think they do want. And even if we suppose that Hagg may possibly be playing better hockey than either of Ghost or Myers at the current moment, the Flyers have built themselves a bit of a cushion in the standings right now, and can maybe afford to take some upside swings in the hopes of a payoff down the road.
But they also need to get that chance because if it doesn’t work out, the Flyers need to be willing to confront whatever comes next. Ghost was supposed to be a key part of this team’s defensive renaissance, so to speak, not to mention he’s signed for three more years after this one at a cap hit befitting of a second-pair defenseman.
And again, though we’re not going to overreact to some uneven play from Myers in his rookie year, there are questions to be asked. Short-term, this team is in pretty close to win-now mode, and if other guys are playing better, you can ask if he should be playing over them. Somewhat longer-term, he’s probably the last big-name defensive prospect the team can expect to roll up to the NHL team until whenever Cam York proves he’s NHL-ready — this group of players is only going to get more expensive, and it needs some talented young players such as Myers on restricted free agent contracts to contribute.
On top of all of that, there’s the subtext that those Niskanen and Braun trades were made in part for exactly this reason — that it would free up the Flyers to use their third pair to play Ghost, who could thrive with that kind of role, and Myers, who could ease into the NHL a bit. If neither of them really take off, does Fletcher have to really sit down and have some hard conversations about what these guys (Gostisbehere, in particular) are? Does he — knowing this team needs to win something of significance this year — get desperate, like Paul Holmgren did after that 2010 Final when his move to fix the third pair was to trade for an exorbitantly expensive fifth defenseman in Andrej Meszaros?
The Flyers have figured out the hard part. All they need now is for the guy who has been one of the most dynamic defensemen in the league in two seasons and a guy who was a top-50 prospect on defense as recently as last summer to pick things up a bit, and they’ll have the easy part down, too. It sounds easy. Let’s hope it is, because if it isn’t, the questions that come up certainly won’t be.