The Flyers have dealt with a lot of issues throughout the first few weeks of the season, but none of them have been bigger than defense.
The defensive issues have been magnified by the loss of Shayne Gostisbehere to start the season and Philippe Myers for a few weeks. Gostisbehere is back now and Myers practiced some on Wednesday, but the Flyers shouldn’t have a completely depleted blue line just because they lost a second-pair defenseman.
Sure, Myers could’ve (and likely should’ve) been on the top pair to start, but it’s not like the Flyers lost Provorov. If Provorov was injured and the defense was a mess it’d still be frustrating, but it’d be understandable. Losing someone like Myers shouldn’t make everything go to crap.
So, who is to blame? At this point it’s hard to look anywhere but the front office.
Chuck Fletcher had a great start to his tenure in Philadelphia. In his first offseason, he got a head coach that has been good thus far, his trades for Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun paid off for one season at least, and Kevin Hayes was one of the best signings across the league. However, this most recent offseason was a different story.
After Niskanen unexpectedly retired, Fletcher didn’t do much to replace him. The Flyers re-signed Braun, who likely would’ve walked to free agency without Niskanen’s retirement. Then, with an already pretty thin group of free-agent defensemen, the Flyers waited a few days before signing Erik Gustafsson. Braun has been bad, to say the least, and Gustafsson has somehow been even worse.
So, the Flyers essentially replaced their top-pair defenseman that played over 20 minutes a night (and in all situations) with two blueliners that shouldn’t be relied on to play more than a third-pair role.
A shortened training camp with no preseason games certainly didn’t help the Flyers to try to find chemistry on the blue line, but every team is in the same boat. They shouldn’t look this bad.
To put it simply, Fletcher bet on his defense and is losing his shirt early in the season.
Fletcher was relying on Ivan Provorov to continue his stellar development as a No. 1 defenseman for the Flyers. Provorov showed what he can do with a steady defensive partner last season, but so far this year he hasn’t been the consistent top defenseman that the Flyers need. Granted, that may be due to the shuffling of subpar partners on his right side, but a true great defenseman can carry some dead weight every now and again. He finally looked his best on Tuesday night with Gostisbehere as his partner, but that was just one game against the New Jersey Devils.
I trust Provorov. He has a good track record. But we’ll need to see more than a good game or two before he gets back into everyone’s good graces. Tuesday’s game definitely helped and I believe he will get there, but it’s been a rough start to the season.
Beyond Provorov, the Flyers needed their young defensive pair of Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers to perform. They had dominant stretches at times last season but also showed their youth and inexperience in the playoffs.
Sanheim rotated onto the top pair with Provorov after Myers’ injury, and he played okay, but he hasn’t been as good as he can be. Myers had three okay games before getting injured, so he’s not as high on the blame list right now.
Hopefully, Myers can come back sooner than later and the Flyers can roll a top four of Provorov-Gostisbehere and Sanheim-Myers. But until then, we have to hope that the depth defensemen can step up and play above their heads.
Those depth defensemen are where the real problems lie. Justin Braun, Erik Gustafsson, and Robert Hagg are all decent NHL defensemen as the No. 6 or 7. You can get away with two of them on the third pair if you have a top four that can eat minutes, but you absolutely cannot get away with dressing all three of them. At least not the way they are playing right now.
It might work for a game here or there, but it isn’t a long-term solution to anything. The Flyers aren’t going to win more than a round in the playoffs if they have to dress three of those defensemen every night.
Of 100 defensemen that have played 94 or more minutes (Gustafsson’s total) at 5-on-5 this season, the Flyers have two of the bottom 12 and three of the bottom 23: Braun (2.84 xGA/60, 10th), Hagg (2.71 xGA/60, 12th), Gustafsson (2.53 xGA/60, 23rd). Yeah, they’re that bad.
Braun, in particular, has been very bad this year for the Flyers. Some hoped – myself included! – that Braun could do a passable job on the top pair with Provorov or more likely second pair with Sanheim, but he hasn’t come anywhere close to that. He showed some signs of slowing down in the playoffs after a layoff, and those signs sped up as Braun is slowing down even more.
Gustafsson has been the defenseman to receive the healthy scratch treatment this season with Gostisbehere making his season debut on Tuesday night. It makes sense. Both Gostisbehere and Gustafsson play similar styles, and the Gus Bus has had trouble getting into gear this season.
Gustafsson has had several unforgivable mistakes end up in the back of the net. That’s tough to see when the Flyers chose to sign Gustafsson out of the available free-agent defensemen. There weren’t a lot of great options, but they couldn’t be doing a whole lot worse than Gustafsson right now.
Hagg is what he is at this point. He’ll eat shots, chip the puck off the glass, and occasionally make a play that makes you say “hey, why can’t he do that all the time?” He is who the Flyers should have as their sixth or seventh defenseman with a strong top four ahead of him. Instead, they’ve had three sixth or seventh defensemen in the lineup.
Mark Friedman is the one defenseman I have yet to touch on in this article, and that’s because he’s been doing a pretty good job as a fill-in for Myers. He hasn’t worked too well with Hagg (out-attempted 11-6, out-chanced 6-2 in 17 minutes), but has been pretty good with Sanheim (14-7 shot attempt advantage, 6-2 scoring chances advantage), but in a very small sample size of just under 11 minutes. Friedman has been what he needs to be: an extra defenseman that can jump into the lineup in a pinch.
There is still plenty of time in the season, however. Gostisbehere is healthy now and if his first game was any indication, he looks like he can be a real contributor. Myers practiced Wednesday and is hopefully on the shorter end of the week-to-week schedule to return. Provorov and Sanheim have more than enough talent to turn things around and play to their potential.
Hell, even Gustafsson has time to get his legs under him and put his early-season mistakes behind him. Braun and Hagg, too. When Gostisbehere and Myers are both healthy, they can rotate those three on the third pair to figure out the best combinations. Hey, Friedman has shown that he deserves a shot too.
Even with this group of defensemen, the Flyers may need to add another blueliner via trade during the season. They won’t be able to afford another two-week stretch of poor play if someone goes down with an injury, especially later in the season. Fletcher only added two veteran forwards at last year’s deadline, but he might be more active this year.
There are reasons to be cautiously optimistic for the Flyers’ defensive corps once everyone gets healthy, but we can’t forget the first two weeks of the season. Fletcher’s decision to count on internal improvements and Erik Gustafsson to shore up the defense has looked like a bad one. It was one of the Flyers’ main areas of concern, and the concern levels have been off the charts.
All stats via Natural Stat Trick