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Flyers shuffle defensive pairings with Andrew MacDonald out

VOORHEES, N.J. — When Andrew MacDonald took the direct brunt of Mark Letestu’s blistering slap shot to the left knee in the third period of Saturday’s win over Edmonton, the Flyers' experience within their defensive corps also took a hit.

The Flyers announced Sunday MacDonald will miss the next four to six weeks with a lower-body injury.

Now in his ninth NHL season, MacDonald has logged 481 games, and while Flyers fans may quickly write off his contributions and longevity in the league, he has averaged over 20 minutes of ice time in each of his previous eight seasons. MacDonald has earned the respect of his teammates, who voted before the season to name him as one of two new alternate captains.

“[MacDonald] is a pro,” said general manager Ron Hextall. “I hear there’s criticism. It’s unfair. I think everyone knows what his teammates think of him and what we think of him. He’s just persevered through whatever.”

“He’s a very good player,” Ivan Provorov, MacDonald's typical defensive partner, said. “We had a really good chemistry. We played a lot together last year and a little this year and it sucks that he’s out.”

Take MacDonald out of the equation and now the Flyers will be forced to lean on a very talented, but still inexperienced defense. According to hockey-reference.com, 57 active defensemen have more games played than the Flyers entire current six-man unit combined.

“He’s been the biggest part of our defense. He’s the most experienced guy that we have,” Radko Gudas said of MacDonald. “Losing him, it’s obviously tough for us, but it’s opportunity for some of the other guys to step up and show they’re capable of playing a big amount of minutes.”

Complicating MacDonald’s injury for head coach Dave Hakstol is losing a right-side defenseman. As a result, Hakstol elected to rearrange all three of his defense pairings during Monday’s practice, likely signaling what we'll see Tuesday against the visiting Anaheim Ducks:

• Provorov/Robert Hagg (98 combined games) — There may not be another top shutdown pair in the NHL with less experience than Provorov and Hagg, which is not to say they can’t handle the responsibilities. Provorov and Hagg were paired together for a couple of preseason games and a few shifts so far in the regular season. They’ll have a monumental task of containing the Ryan Getzlaf/Corey Perry duo.

“We’ll try and communicate as much as we can and talk before the game, probably talk today about some plays and I think we should be fine,” Provorov said.

• Shayne Gostisbehere/Gudas (427 combined games) — Interestingly, this pair has the most experience, yet according to Gostisbehere, the two guys have never played together. Gudas is expected to fill MacDonald’s role on the team’s top penalty-killing unit alongside with Provorov, and together, "Ghost" and Gudas compliment each other well. Gudas is a stay-at-home defenseman while Gostisbehere is active offensively.

“Obviously things are a little different now,” Gostisbehere said, “We just got to feel each other out right now. I’m sure there will be some growing pains. Hopefully our mistakes won’t be magnified too much. It’s a good fit. Obviously, Gudy’s a bit more defensive and is going to kill people. I’m the guy who’s a puck mover.”

• Brandon Manning/Travis Sanheim (150 combined games) — For two players who have been interchangeable over the first eight games, Tuesday will mark the first time Manning and Sanheim will have played together. Manning will stay on the left side as Sanheim transitions to the right. Actually, I’m intrigued to see Sanheim on the right once a spot opens up for Samuel Morin.

“I think it’s just personnel you have to be aware,” Manning said, “You got to be aware of guys who can skate and obviously other guys who can finish their checks and play you hard.”   

“There’s different roles that each unit has,” said head coach Dave Hakstol, “There’s a different rhythm back on the back end, than there certainly is up front.”

Now with a roster that has no reserves on defense, there’s a curiosity of which Phantom could have been promoted from Lehigh Valley. However, Hextall doesn’t anticipate recalling Morin or another defenseman to serve in a backup role at this time.

“We’re going to go with six right now,” Hextall said, “We’re at home and there’s no reason to call someone up to sit.”

On whether the Flyers will call up a seventh defenseman up before the next road trip begins Thursday in Ottawa, “I don’t know that," Hextall said. "We’ll approach it on a day-to-day basis. We’ll see how tomorrow goes and if we get banged up and whatnot. The one great thing about having your minor league team an hour away is you don’t have to cover yourself all the time.”  

Projected lines, pairings and goalies
Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Jakub Voracek
Jordan Weal-Valtteri Filppula-Wayne Simmonds
Jori Lehtera-Nolan Patrick-Travis Konecny
Taylor Leier-Scott Laughton-Michael Raffl/Dale Weise

Ivan Provorov-Robert Hagg
Shayne Gostisbehere-Radko Gudas
Brandon Manning-Travis Sanheim

Brian Elliott
Michal Neuvirth