Monday, September 22, 2014

Philadelphia Flyers 2014-15 Season Preview: Defense

Thanks to
Welcome to Part 2 of The Phanatic's 2014-15 hockey season kickoff.

Once again, Rob Riches breaks down an aspect of the Philadelphia Flyers on-ice product. In the second of four weekly editions, he reviews the defense. 

Be sure to take a look back at last week's review of the front lines

It's been the case ever since the 2008 playoff run, and this year is no different.

All eyes will be on the Flyers' defensive corps this season -- a unit that was much-maligned in the 2013-14 campaign, and hasn’t been the same since losing Chris Pronger to that freak set of occurrences which permanently removed him from the ice in November of 2011.

The guys who will protect Steve Mason and Ray Emery look roughly similar this year, as Mark Streit, the ever-maligned Nicklas Grossmann, Braydon Coburn, Luke Schenn and pre-deadline acquisition Andrew MacDonald will return.

Ron Hextall also pulled off a minor coup in signing Michael Del Zotto, a former Rangers first-rounder, who didn't find his place in either Manhattan or Nashville and wasn't re-signed by the Predators.

The biggest concern, however, will be the indefinite absence of Kimmo Timonen -- the reason for Del Zotto's presence here. It came as a shock when the club revealed in early August that the 39-year-old Timonen would be sidelined with blood clots in both of his lungs, as well as his right leg. In an impromptu press conference late last week, Timonen described his chances of a return as "really slim," and established that he'd continue to be on blood thinners through the end of 2014.

Hextall made it clear that Timonen's progress will be checked early next calendar year, but if he has to stay on blood thinners, he won’t be able to play. That seems like a virtual certainty, given that Timonen himself, in a bit of news that flew over many heads, said his family has a history of clotting disorders.

"Whether Kimmo will play or not, we don't know at this point," Hextall said to the gathered throng in Voorhees. "First and foremost, as an organization, we're concerned about Kimmo, his health, his family, and secondly comes the hockey part."

As a result, Timonen will begin the season on long-term injured reserve, meaning the $2 million extension he signed in June won’t count against the salary cap. Without Timonen, here's how the 
Flyers' defensive pairings may project:

MacDonald – Coburn
Grossmann – Streit
Del Zotto – Schenn

Last season, the Flyers allowed 2.77 goals per game, ranking 20th in the league. They also registered 445 takeaways, ranking 28th in the league, yet still out-ranked Pittsburgh and Stanley Cup-champion Los Angeles (with 386 and 344, respectively). All told, the club's rearguards gave the puck away 587 times (ranking 21st), blocked 1,200 shots (15th) and threw 2,174 hits (6th). In addition, they ranked 17th in Corsi Against and Fenwick Against.

Individually, Schenn ranked 6th in the league in hits, with 260. MacDonald and Grossmann ranked in the top-10 in blocked shots with 242 and 174, respectively – though it’s still worth noting that MacDonald carried that advantage in blocked shots at the time of his acquisition.

Despite top-10 numbers, these Flyers posted poor advanced stats. Schenn and MacDonald recorded relative Corsi ratings of minus-8.2 and minus-8.1 respectively, while Grossmann finished with a minus-10.6. MacDonald's 19 games in the Orange and Black still represent a small sample size, and he can still prove a lot in his first full season with the team. Nonetheless, the six-year, $30 million contract he signed on April 15 virtually assures Craig Berube and Gord Murphy will have to dig in and use him for good and ill, for seasons to come.

Five Flyers played in excess of 20 minutes a game last season. Coburn -- now the longest-tenured player who will see the ice from Game 1 -- led the way with 22:26 of ice time, while MacDonald and Streit followed with 21:59 and 20:38. Timonen’s 20-plus minutes will be yet another hard-to-replace factor of his absence, but Del Zotto was added to try and replace Timonen as a puck mover. Though just 24, he has played five years with the Rangers, where he put up 121 points with a minus-4 rating. 

After diminished ice time under John Tortorella and never gaining confidence of Alain Vigneault, the Toront-area native was traded last year to Nashville, where he played 25 games and wasn’t tendered a qualifying offer in the offseason. He was overshadowed by Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh in New York as well as Shea Weber and Seth Jones in Music City and with a shortage of big names on the Flyers' blueline, Del Zotto has a chance to grow and rehabilitate some lost confidence.

The Flyers also feature a gaggle of young defensive prospects, including 2013 first- and second-round draft selections Samuel Morin and Robert Hagg, as well as Shayne Gostisbehere and 2014 first-rounder Travis Sanheim. Depending on how the rest of training camp goes, one of those prospects could earn a spot with the Flyers when the season starts.

Of those four, Hagg’s spent the most time in a professional league, logging 77 games over two seasons with the Swedish League’s Modo. Gostisbehere, of NCAA champion Union College, endeared himself to Flyers fans this past spring after earning Most Valuable Player honors at the Frozen Four, played at the Wells Fargo Center. In the title game against Minnesota, he registered two assists and earned an astounding plus-7 rating in a 7-4 triumph.

Other young defensemen in the system include Mark Alt, Brandon Manning, Jesper Pettersson, Matt Konan and Oliver Lauridsen. Manning, Konan and Lauridsen have spent cups of coffee with the Flyers, mainly as injury call-ups and Black Aces. They'll begin the season with Lehigh Valley, and can serve as capable call-ups in the event of injuries.

The Flyers' defense has been a weak spot over the past two seasons, and without Timonen, appears to be on track to suffer from more tearing and breaking. The rest of the defensive corps, particularly MacDonald and Del Zotto, will be counted on to step up and increase production in his absence.

The Orange and Black were still a playoff team last year despite shaky defense, but another trip is incredibly tough to forecast with the corps they have now. Although their third-zone play will continue to be shaky, the Flyers have established themselves as a club that simply cannot be written off.

Fans may not see any Norris Trophy candidates on the blueline starting in two weeks, but they are bound to see a tough and physical (yet shaky) presence on a nightly basis.

No comments: