Early in the season, I wrote about how Chuck Fletcher bet on his defense and lost. That article – which, admittedly was probably a bit reactionary; and an overreaction at that –, brought a lot of negative comments. I get it, the Flyers were still winning games despite a bad process. However, things have changed. Instead of winning with a bad process, the Flyers are losing with a slightly better process. Goaltending is letting them down, but there have also been too many defensive mistakes.
Now, over a month later, I am writing again about Fletcher and his defense.
Fletcher bet on his defense and lost. He can’t afford to double down by not making a move at the trade deadline. And no, trading for a depth defensemen à la the acquisitions of Derek Grant and Nate Thompson last year isn’t a good enough move.
(And no, we’re not talking about that double down)
Mattias Ekholm is the main name out there right now, with David Savard as a solid Plan B. Ekholm has one year on his contract after this season, with Savard a strict rental option. Hell, even Alex Goligoski might be passable.
One thing is for certain, though: the Flyers can’t expect to win in the playoffs – or perhaps even make the playoffs – with this defensive corps.
Nate Prosser has played in three games. Mark Friedman played in four – one at forward – before the organization decided that he was less valuable than Prosser. Erik Gustafsson, Robert Hagg, and even Philippe Myers have seen the brunt of Alain Vigneault’s healthy scratches.
Ivan Provorov is the only defenseman to play in all 25 games this season, and there are still questions about his play. He has been inconsistent as the Flyers try to figure out if he can be a true No. 1 defenseman. Sanheim, the most consistent early on, missed one game due to COVID protocol but has been rather solid outside of that. He has had some struggles recently, however.
To put it simply, the Flyers defensemen just haven’t been good enough this season. None of them have played up to their potential and it has been costing the Flyers. There have been too many defensive breakdowns. And while not all of those breakdowns should result in goals due to goalie problems, it’d be a hell of a lot easier for the goalies if the team played better defense in front of them.
We’re at a crux in the season where the Flyers need to do something. Kurt wrote on Friday that the team needs to make a move so we can figure out what they are. That move could very well be a trade for Mattias Ekholm. According to Broad Street Hockey’s sources in the Flyers’ organization, the team is in preliminary talks for the defenseman. If that trade comes to fruition, it could go a long way in changing the direction of this season.
The Flyers are desperately missing Matt Niskanen this season and it has shown. Even Alain Vigneault said that the Flyers have been looking for someone to fill that Nisky role. Myers had a few opportunities but didn’t take advantage. Gostisbehere has played on the top pair, but his game may be too risky compared to Nisky. Justin Braun is a right-handed veteran defenseman – just like Niskanen –, but he doesn’t bring the same championship experience or skillset that Niskanen did.
One of the biggest questions coming into the season was how the Flyers were going to replace Niskanen. Re-signing Braun and bringing in Gustafsson didn’t cut it. Ekholm may not end up being the answer, but Fletcher needs to be active in the trade market in an attempt to improve this team.
If Carter Hart can figure things out and find his game, perhaps this won’t be as big of an issue. But it will still be an issue. Having two of Gostisbehere, Gustafsson, Hagg, and Prosser rotate in on the third pair isn’t going to be good enough in the playoffs.
Alain Vigneault has done what he can with the roster. He has tried different combinations and different motivational tactics with Myers and other defensemen. The one thing that he could try is a constant top two pairs for a few games and see if it works out, but the Flyers are quickly losing ground in the playoff race. Vigneault may even be crying out for help by dressing Nate Prosser.
It’s up to Chuck Fletcher now.