It’s no mystery that the Flyers have been struggling pretty mightily defensively so far this season. Like, really struggling. They’re cruising along with a league-worst 41.66 xGF% and second worst 42.38 CF% at 5-on-5, per Natural Stat Trick. It’s been a tough go for them, and even though they’ve been able to eke out three wins and a shootout loss for a point so far this season, it’s clear that there’s a lot of work left to do, and with Philippe Myers still set to be out for a bit longer, it doesn’t look like that’s going to be an easy task.
But there may be a bit of good news coming, yet, After testing positive for COVID-19 during training camp, Shayne Gostisbehere practiced with the team in full yesterday, and may be available for tonight’s game against the Devils, which would certainly give the team a boost. And while we’ll acknowledge right off the top that we don’t expect this to be a miracle cure-all to each and every defensive woe, it’s a welcomed reinforcement.
So, assuming that Gostisbehere is good to go for tonight’s game, here are how the defense pairs are going to shake out, based on the looks in practice yesterday:
Ivan Provorov - Shayne Gostisbehere
Travis Sanheim - Mark Friedman
Robert Hagg - Justin Braun
And there’s some reason for optimism with this new arrangement. We’ve seen Provorov and Gostisbehere look absolutely stellar together—yes, this was years ago and Gostisbehere was fully healthy and not coming off of a long absence from injury and illness, but it’s a positive history all the same. Dropping Friedman on the second pair after a middling series against Boston might give us a little pause, but I’ve long held that he projects as a solid third pair player in the NHL who you can toss up on a second pair in a pinch and he’d be fine. And, well, we’re in a pinch. It’s worth trying.
Now, this still isn’t a flawless defense corps. It does leave us with that Hagg and Braun pair that last season, while posting positive goal-based results, still put up a 41.40 CF% and 46.21 xGF% at 5-on-5. And that certainly doesn’t feel like an ideal arrangement to revisit, but maybe you take another shot on it and hope that they can pick up that PDO bender and ride it until, well, until Myers can get back into the lineup. Or if it falls apart before then, you flip Braun and Friedman and give that a shot.
The point here is that, if nothing else, and even acknowledging that it’s an open question of just what he’s going to look like in his return after all he’s dealt with in the last year, getting Gostisbehere back in the lineup gives the Flyers options. Eric Gustafsson has been, in all honesty, a bit of a disaster at 5-on-5, and his impacts on the power play simply haven’t been stellar enough to warrant keeping him in the lineup without question. Add to that to the fact that his and Gostisbehere’s skill sets are a bit redundant and the team’s seeming investment in getting the latter back into the rotation and the best shot at getting back to old form, and Gustafsson’s found himself the odd man out. The Flyers are still working on finding the right mix on defense, and his place in that mix hasn’t been working.
The Flyers have a chance to try something new to help themselves without going and slamming the panic button and doing something rash. Because the reality is, yes, the team is underperforming and they need to be better. But it’s also only been six games, and it’s just not the time to be getting worked up and making some kind of panic trade. The first step is doing some shuffling with the pieces that you have in-house, evaluating what you have over a more significant sample, and hoping the talent you have can right the ship. Like we said, this isn’t going to be a miracle fix, but there’s a chance it will be an improvement. Which would, at the very least, be a step in the right direction.