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Optimizing the Flyers’ defense without Travis Sanheim

No more galaxy brains.

Philadelphia Flyers v Montreal Canadiens - Game Six Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

The Flyers won their game against the Capitals yesterday and maybe we can say that the game was fun. It depends on your definition of fun, I guess. It was pretty wide open and there was a whole lot of scoring, which was fun. But that also means that there were certainly stretches where the Flyers’ defense, well, sort of forgot what defense even looked like, which was decidedly less fun for us to watch (and probably even less fun for Carter Hart to live out).

We know that the Flyers’ defensive situation this season has been, tenuous, to say the least, and yesterday was more of the same, further exacerbated by the absence of Travis Sanheim. And the bad news is that, with Sanheim being added to the NHL’s COVID Protocol list last night, it looks like his absence is going to be a lingering one, which means the Flyers will have some work to do to cobble together a functional defense corps.

And what does that mean for us? Well, it’s time to play a bit of armchair coach. So, if we were tasked with optimizing the defense pairs with the group that the Flyers have, this is what we would submit:

Provorov - Gostisbehere

Friedman - Myers

Hagg - Braun

And a lot of this makes sense—the pair of Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere has been dominant in the past, and while they haven’t gotten to quite that same level in their few looks this season, the early returns have been positive.

A combination of Mark Friedman and Philippe Myers would be a new one, and putting two young players together might cause anxiety with some, but Myers has come along well enough to anchor a pair, and it’s not like Friedman plays a terribly high-risk game that would be in need of too much potential cleaning up for.

And that Robert Hagg and Justin Braun pair does tend to get shelled by chances against, but for some reason the pucks just don’t go in when they’re on the ice. Regression may well be coming there, but it hasn’t yet, so you ride that PDO bender until it runs out.

But the key here is that there’s a lot of potential with these pairs, and it’s time that we get Mark Friedman out of the doghouse and back into the lineup. The group the Flyers ran with yesterday, even though they picked up a win, was plainly not working. They got caved in by chances against and the defense in front of Hart in the crease was often nonexistent. The Capitals made them pay for it a handful of times, and it feels a safe bet that they’ll make things even worse for the Flyers next time around, if exposed in the same way. The Flyers need a new look, and perhaps more than anything else, someone else who can move the puck. (And, would you look at that, that’s something that Friedman proved really reliable at on Phantoms teams that were struggling mightily to break pucks out of their own zone).

And here’s the thing: Alain Vigneault loves to talk about players having “money in the bank,” and how that can help or hurt them and the leeway they’re given. And that’s understandable, a player can earn himself a certain bit of benefit of the doubt, but there does come a point when this mindset ceases to be particularly helpful. To say “I won’t put this player back into the lineup because I didn’t love his play last time around and he doesn’t have enough money in the bank, despite the fact that the other options we’ve been running with simply have not been working” is, to put it bluntly, insane. You don’t keep running it back with the same failing group. You try something new and give that a chance to work, and if it doesn’t, you go back to the drawing board.

Is this a guaranteed fix? No. And the Flyers’ defense almost certainly won’t be playing up to its full potential until Sanheim is back. But the point remains that there is another option worth exploring to improve the team’s play in the now, and to rule out even trying it, be it for stubbornness or whatever the reason may be, would be a mistake.

I mean, what’s there left to lose?

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