Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Flyers defense still needs to contribute more to offense

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor

It’s mid-January. The Philadelphia Flyers are in first place in the Atlantic Division and tops in the Eastern Conference, and are challenging for the best overall record in the NHL.

The Devils are struggling to rise above the flames of their own personal Hades. The Islanders are sinking. The Rangers are good but not good enough, gasping for air and cramping up in the 21st mile. The Penguins are still hanging about in the rear view, still furiously waddling and flapping but unable to take off.

Doesn’t matter though. Things can’t be totally perfect -- that's the lurking suspicions of any Philadelphia fan when something seems to be too good to be true. I know it’s really nitpicking at this point, but there’s one issue that still hasn’t been fully resolved.

The defense…they need more production from the defense.

Looking at the statistics as of Wednesday morning, Flyers defensemen, Chris Pronger included, have accounted for exactly 11 goals. Take Pronger away, and that’s seven. It’s simply not enough, accounting for only 10.69 percent of the club’s total output (158 goals).

Although the number of total assists (86) strongly suggests the backliners are significantly involved in the process of scoring, you aren’t really getting a good read because there’s no split between primary and secondary helpers in that number — which are a good indicator of how much of a direct impact a defenseman has on a goal that is scored.

You might also make an argument that, based on those stats, Flyers defensemen are the kind who get the rushes started, then are more concerned with the possibility of turnovers the other way rather than getting involved as a trailer.

That may be closest to reality.

Philadelphia hockey over the last decade-plus has been predicated on strong defensive play, to the point where forwards are expected to sacrifice a certain segment of offensive potential to keep the puck out of its end. That’s not going away, and I wouldn’t expect it to disappear in lieu of some highlight-reel material.

Nonetheless, there’s ample evidence that other clubs, Stanley Cup winners and Cup contenders, are able to work around this and those contributions make their attack more dangerous. There’s also proof in the Orange and Black’s past that defensemen who are more involved in offense are a tool that leads to great things.

Just look at Pittsburgh and Detroit, who squared off two years running (2008-09) in the Finals.

Nicklas Lidstrom and Sergei Gonchar were the elite "quarterbacks" on the rush and with the man advantage. They both created danger and uncertainty for the opposition, and were just as lethal cranking a shot from the point as they were exploiting a hole in the defense to find an open man anywhere in the offensive zone. Even though Gonchar is now gone from the Steel City, Kris Letang has taken up the mantle.

At age 40, Lidstrom has scored 11 goals, accounting for 10.7 percent himself of the Wings’ total scoring. He, Niklas Kronwall and Brian Rafalski have collectively tallied 23 goals between them. Alex Goligoski has recorded nine of 146 Penguins goals, while he and Letang have scored a combined 16 goals together.

Colorado has John-Michael Liles. In San Jose, it was Rob Blake and Dan Boyle, but now just Boyle but still dangerous. Washington, for all its playoff failures, features Mike Green. The Blackhawks boast no less than three d-men who could beat you with a blast, stretch pass or foray between the circles (Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Brian Campbell), and Zdeno Chara — once called Frankenstein on skates — just posted a hat trick on Monday to reach 10 goals for the Bruins.

Even lowly Toronto sports Dion Phaneuf, a tooth-rattler who scored 20 a couple years ago in Calgary.

Do the Flyers have such an impact defenseman? Not really in the vein of the above teams. Pronger is the only one who comes close. He could put a shot through the netting and bust the plexiglass on a check, but even so, he’s not a constant presence on the rush, not jumping into open space when no forwards are available. Before his foot injury, he posted just four goals and 15 points.

Matt Carle? A better than average puck-handler but have you ever seen him wind up from 45 feet and totally handcuff a goaltender? Kimmo Timonen? He moves so stealthily, like the morning fog, but his game is so calm and restrained at times it would be a shock to find him below the faceoff dots.

The chief problem that crops up when comparing Flyers defensemen to those of other clubs is in the system and its execution.

Since time immemorial, the club has prided itself on straight-ahead, one-dimensional puck movement braced by hard work. That means, if there are no lanes open, dump the puck in at the boards or flip it deep and watch the forwards play bumper cars on the dashers for possession.

This fact didn’t change much from Roger Neilson, Craig Ramsay, Bill Barber, Ken Hitchcock and John Stevens — and at least Stevens had the stones to try and BS the fans by calling it "dump-and-hunt." I give credit to Peter Laviolette for switching things up to match the talent level, but I have to wonder if it’s just woven into the psyche of players the franchise selects, that the natural last resort when they can’t even conceive of a solution is the dump in.

It seems that only Philly forwards are allowed to possess the skills and the judgment on whether or not to test backcheckers. With blazers like Mike Richards, Claude Giroux, Danny Briere and Ville Leino capable of turning a player inside out with their speed and passing prowess, you’d be a sucker to hold them back.

But what’s the harm in sending a defenseman as a trailer or lead man more often? Is there a fear that for every Pronger goal with 2 seconds left, there’s going to be a Rangers goal with 2 seconds left on the flip side because of a blown assignment? Show me a game where a failed jaunt at one end of the ice directly resulted in a game-losing goal at the other end.

I think there’s enough experience amongst the top four that it should be left up to them, but I’ve seen enough examples of Philly defensemen during an odd-man rush being hesitant or failing to pull the trigger in time during those rare instances.

Whether it’s because there’s really no chance to shoot or pass, or because they get the jitters since it’s a total commitment away from thinking about the other two zones, I wish I could say.

Of course, it's impossible to predict game-to-game what course the defense will take in aiding offense. The Capitals play a little bit more fast and loose, and that loosened up the Flyers' attack, and I believe I spotted a blueliner partaking in a 2-on-1 rush last night.

Nonetheless, the power play situation has driven me nuts for years with no signs of change…the Flyers seem to want to give penalty killers an easy advantage.

Stashing three forwards below the tops of the circles and spacing both defensemen within a stride of the blue line doesn’t help. It provides room for the short-handed team to spread, which gives them a better shot at shutting down passing lanes and blocking shots.

That’s a pretty obvious way your defensemen won’t be increasing the column labeled "G" — you can’t shoot because there’s a body directly in front, you can’t score. You can’t rack up assists with passing if there’s a stick waving or body separating you and a forward who’s 25 feet away.

I also never understood how the two defensemen at the points are spread out so wide that both are within a stride or two of the boards on the set-up. That’s a great way to force yourself to either lose the puck along the wall, or create a turnover when a floater from 50 feet is blocked off and cleared out of the zone. Even worse, a muffed pass near an active forechecker could create a wide path for a short-handed breakaway.

There’s also not a lot of motion and rotation in the power-play system, unless a loose puck creates a situation where there’s no question a Flyer can jump into open space. You’re not going to find Carle, or Timonen, or even Pronger taking what area he has between defenders to step into a Briere or Jeff Carter drop pass and fired away because:

A) Briere’s usually looking at a cross-crease dish down low or to wind it around the boards to the other side,

B) if it’s Carter, he’s looking to shoot through the same road blocks the defensemen stare at 30 feet further back, or

C) whichever defenseman has control and fakes a wind-up waits so long for a superhighway to open up in the middle that an opposing player drifts by to cut off that lane.

All of those add up to a power play hovering in the lower-middle at just over 16 percent right now. That’s just not good enough.

It’s frustrating to say the least to watch on a nightly basis a Liles following up a busted play around the crease by scoring into a half-open net on the rebound from the slot, or Lidstrom exploiting a tiny shift in the penalty-kill set-up by roofing a Henrik Zetterberg pass, or seeing Crosby pass behind his back from behind the net to a waiting Goligoski in the left circle.

I do think the willingness of defenders to just fling their bodies in front of a puck screaming at 90 mph has a lot to do with it, whether it’s on a power play or even strength. That kind of fearlessness (or stupidity) wasn’t in a hockey player’s DNA until this generation.

Given that the Flyers’ game plan hasn’t changed that much in almost 15 years, it’s shocking to see that a decade ago, Dan McGillis racked up 15 red lights, Eric Desjardins scored 14 times, and the regular corps hit the net on 45 occasions out of 240 goals.

This year’s team is on pace for something like 280 goals, and based on the percentage above, the defense should account for roughly 52-53 of that total (18.75 percent).

You’d think with the talent and a game plan that isn’t as restrictive as it was back in 2000, there’d be more impact, but it’s just not quite there. Even five years ago, when the NHL opened the floodgates in terms of the amount of room to operate, a 263-goal Flyers club mustered just 36 tallies from the regulars.

Whatever the reason, it borders on ridiculous for a club near the top of the standings: Timonen has two goals. So does Andrej Meszaros after his overtime game-winner on Tuesday. Carle, Sean O’Donnell and Braydon Coburn have one each.

That’s not acceptable, not with guys who have been to a Stanley Cup Final the previous Spring, and not when an unknown like Christian Ehrhoff on a club as hot as Vancouver has seven goals through half a season.

The expectation may be that when Pronger returns, the overall confidence of the defense returns to what it was when bolstered with his presence and that might lead to more effective offensive play; but again, the numbers thus far don’t lie.

Carle and Timonen are seventh and eighth, respectively, in total points, followed by an injured Pronger at 12th, Meszaros one spot lower, O’Donnell 15th and Coburn 17th. You have to go back to the Devils in 2003 or Avalanche of 1996 to find defensemen on a Cup-winner ranking so low, on average, on the scoring list.

It’s rare company to be sure, but a fine line to be treading.

The Flyers’ potential playoff opponents in both conferences have all adapted their blue line to accommodate more offensive potential, and the club seems to be coasting while boasting about balance.

If a boost isn’t on the horizon, we’ll be stuck for another year pining for the likes of Karl Dykhuis and Andy Delmore, wishing someone of a better pedigree back there had the gall to step up.

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