Flyers

Figuring out the Flyers: Defense Part I

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Figuring out the Flyers: Defense Part I

As much as the Flyers’ goaltending was both praised and maligned this past season (see story), nothing dominated the team’s overall consciousness like its defense.
 
Start to finish, the Flyers were mostly a reconstruction project on the blue line because of injuries and a poor offseason.
  
From the get-go, the Flyers were worse off than last season because Chris Pronger wasn’t coming back and Matt Carle was headed back to Tampa Bay. When GM Paul Holmgren struck out with Ryan Suter and Shea Weber, the Flyers were doomed.
 
Four games into the lockout-shortened season, the club lost Andrej Meszaros and was still waiting for Erik Gustafsson to recover from injury with the Phantoms, fielding an immobile blue line that wasn’t very skillful with the puck under pressure.
 
Before the season ended, the Flyers had lost four of their starting six from the season opener and would play 13 different defensemen just to survive.
 
Pronger? He won’t ever play again. His money will continue to hang in the balance for use when the Flyers need to place someone on long-term injured reserve.
 
Neither Marc-Andre Bourdon (post-concussion syndrome) nor Matt Walker (dual hip injuries) played a game for the Flyers. Walker is an unrestricted free agent this summer.
 
Kurtis Foster and Kent Huskins were previously evaluated last week in CSNPhilly’s story on UFA Flyers who might not return (see story).
 
If Holmgren does nothing else this summer, fixing the blue line is paramount.

Here’s a look at our first installment of players under contract, plus pending restricted free agents expected to be re-signed:
 
Braydon Coburn
Age: 28
Games played: 33
Stats: one goal, four assists
Plus/minus: minus-10
Average ice time: 22:36
Cap hit: $4.5 million for next three years
 
Talk about a player whose game has fallen off the charts. Coburn has had declining numbers since 2007-08. His once-mighty shot from the point has vanished while his puck handling has been sloppy.
 
His point production this season was a career-low 0.15 a game.
 
The Flyers were alarmed with his drop-off, which makes Coburn vulnerable to a trade this summer.
 
You can make an argument Coburn wasn’t as effective when split from Kimmo Timonen in 2010-11, then split again from Carle after the latter left in free agency last summer. Yet Coburn’s overall game suffered with too many turnovers and mental mistakes, while his ice time went to 22:36 this season –- two minutes less than the career-high he set in 2008-09.
 
Coburn missed the Flyers' final 15 games with a left shoulder separation. If he’s back, the Flyers need a major rebound year from him.
 
Bruno Gervais
Age: 28
Games played: 37
Stats: one goal, five assists
Plus/minus: minus-17
Average ice time: 17:07
Cap hit: $825,000 (2013-14 is his final year)
 
Though Gervais has a year left on his deal, he could easily become a cap casualty in an overall defensive upgrade this summer. He’s OK in short doses, but not cut out for every night's regular duties, especially logging 17 minutes a game.
 
He is an adequate seventh defenseman only, and frankly, Huskins would be far better in that role. Gervais' minus-17 rating in 35 games was the worst among all Flyers.
 
Nicklas Grossmann
Age: 28
Games played: 30
Stats: one goal, three assists 
Plus/minus: minus-1
Average ice time: 18:19
Cap hit: $3.5 million for next three years
 
Since coming to the Flyers prior to the 2012 trade deadline, the big Swede has had two concussions, a groin pull and a knee injury that cost him significant missed time, including the final 18 games this season (concussion).
 
At the time of his concussion, Grossmann was among the NHL leaders with 82 blocked shots. He is a perfect stay-at-home guy, and a pairing with a more mobile partner is ideal for the Flyers.
 
Positionally, he is among the smartest guys around. What the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Grossmann brings is physicality. The assumption is he won’t experience post-concussion syndrome next season, but it bears watching. 
 
Erik Gustafsson
Age: 24
Games played: 27 
Stats: three goals, five assists 
Plus/minus: minus-1
Average ice time: 20:08
Cap hit: restricted free agent this summer
 
Gustafsson took giant leaps forward this season, and you have to give him every credit because he overcame a leg fracture that was hard to diagnose during the lockout.
 
The Flyers didn’t want to thrust him into having to play upwards of 24 minutes a night, yet it became a blessing in disguise. Though still a little on the small side, Gustafsson has improved his skating and vision to move the puck. He had 39 blocked shots in 27 games.
 
A pending restricted free agent, Gustafsson should start next season regardless of what happens this summer.
 
Matt Konan
Age: 21 
Games played: two
Stats: no points
Plus/minus: even
Average ice time: 16:15
Cap hit: restricted free agent this summer
 
Incomplete. Konan dressed for the final two games of the regular season. He remains a call-up from the Phantoms.

Travis Sanheim likely to sit again vs. Panthers

Travis Sanheim likely to sit again vs. Panthers

It looks as though Travis Sanheim will sit for the second straight game vs. the Panthers tonight (see Flyers-Panthers thoughts)

Now, before you get angry — and fire off a hot take about Andrew MacDonald or Brandon Manning — understand this isn’t a death sentence for Sanheim.

The Flyers have played all of five games this season. Sanheim has played in three, and after a bumpy NHL debut vs. the Kings, the talented rookie showed growth to round out the Flyers’ season-opening road trip (see Flyers Rookie Report)

“I think that the L.A. game was a bit of a wash, with it being my first game and it not going the way I wanted it to,” Sanheim said. “But I thought the other two games, you started to see some more of the way I want to play. I thought even into the Nashville game, I got better that night, as well. I think that’s what you want to see with a young guy, is getting better every night and I’ll continue to do that.”

And after watching from the press box during Saturday’s blowout win vs. the Capitals, the Flyers’ top defensive prospect will get his chances ... at some point. 

“I don’t have a number for you, there,” Hakstol said of when we could see Sanheim crack the lineup. “But your players have to play. That doesn’t mean they have to play every game, but certainly they have to learn, both off the ice, on the ice, practice, game-wise and continue to grow.”

So Sanheim — who is a minus-two with zero points — has to learn the NHL game. It’s not uncommon for rookie defensemen to struggle with the speed and skill of the NHL in the early parts of their careers.

“The position is a hard position to make the adjustment to and to learn,” Hakstol said. “That being said, I think your players can be successful in making the jump and making the transition.”

If Sanheim needs any inspiration, he simply needs to look a few lockers down at Ivan Provorov. 

Provorov made the jump straight from the WHL (junior hockey) to the NHL last season, and early on, it wasn’t a particularly smooth transition. The then 19-year-old bottomed out at a minus-five in an October loss to Chicago but blossomed into the team’s No. 1 defenseman in the second half of the season.

Sure, Sanheim has taken his lumps this season, but he hasn’t necessarily been bad. Hakstol even went as far as to say that he’s been happy with the 21-year-old’s play.

“I’ve been very happy with him, Hakstol said. “I’ve been happy with Travis’ play. We want him to keep growing. He’s going to continue to be a big part of our group. He’s got a great attitude and a great perspective in terms of being able to handle all the different situations that come his way.”

Sanheim says the coaching staff hasn’t ordered him to focus on any one aspect of his game, but after Tuesday’s optional morning skate, the rookie stayed on the ice for an extra 30 minutes with the staff and Jori Lehtera — who has been a healthy scratch for all five games this season — working on clearing the crease. 

It all comes down to the numbers. And right now, the Flyers have seven solid defensemen. 

“The other night (Saturday vs. Capitals), obviously I wanted to be in the lineup, but we've got seven good D right now and obviously there’s going to be a guy sitting, and it just happened to be me the other night,” Sanheim said. “It was a learning experience. I think I can gain a lot from watching and seeing some of those guys, how they handle themselves in certain situations and I thought I gained a lot from it the other night.

Not convinced? Last season, rookie winger Travis Konecny and second-year D-man Shayne Gostisbehere both served multiple stints in Hakstol’s doghouse — the press box — and have seemingly turned things around to begin this season. This year, Gostisbehere is second on the team in points with eight, while, more importantly, he and Konecny are both a plus-two on the year — good enough for a tie for third on the team. So, like it or not, maybe there is some good to sitting a young player for a few games. 

“Ultimately, as a young guy, I think there’s a lot of things you need to work on and for me, its just working hard in practice and getting better every day,” Sanheim said. “I just want to try and establish myself as an everyday player. 

“I’ve been through this before. My first year of junior, I didn’t play right away and I was a healthy scratch for five games there, so I’ve been through the process before and I understand the situation that I’m in and ultimately, it’s up to me whether I want to play every night and I gotta show them that I’m deserving of that and obviously, its going to maybe take some time but I’m willing to pout in the work.”

Projected lines
With only 11 players skating, there was no line rushes or defensive pairings, but coming off an 8-2 win, it’s hard to imagine Hakstol making any changes to the lineup. However, it looks as though Michal Nuevirth will get the start in net. 

Forwards
Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Jakub Voracek
Jordan Weal-Valtteri Filppula-Wayne Simmonds
Dale Weise-Nolan Patrick-Travis Konecny
Taylor Leier-Scott Laughton-Michael Raffl

Defensemen
Ivan Provorov-Andrew MacDonald
Shayne Gostisbehere-Robert Hagg
Brandon Manning-Radko Gudas

Goalies
Michal Neuvirth
Brian Elliott

Scratches
Forward Jori Lehtera and defenseman Travis Sanheim

Flyers-Panthers thoughts: Top line scary good; Manning-Sanheim big deal?

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USA Today Images/AP Images/CSN

Flyers-Panthers thoughts: Top line scary good; Manning-Sanheim big deal?

Flyers (3-2-0) vs. Panthers (2-2-0)
7 p.m. on NBCSP, NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports App; Pregame Live at 6:30
 
Did the Flyers save any goals for the rest of the five-game homestand?
 
That's probably what many are asking after watching the 8-2 demolition they put on the Washington Capitals in Saturday night's home opener.
 
The Flyers will try to keep things rolling Tuesday night when they welcome the Florida Panthers to the Wells Fargo Center.
 
Here are some thoughts before Game 6 of the season:
 
• You couldn't ask for much more from the Flyers' top line against the Capitals. Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek downright manhandled Washington. When Giroux moved to the left wing and Sean Couturier bumped up to first-line center, Saturday's performance was likely the dream scenario in the minds of the Flyers' coaching staff and front office.
 
It seemed like Voracek was making a play every time he touched the puck, Couturier did yeoman's work in all phases, and Giroux looked like his old self, showing a little bit of everything in his arsenal. The trio combined for 10 points on four goals and six assists. No one is expecting such production on a game-by-game basis, but let's see if this group can sustain these positive vibes and turn itself into a staple up top. As evidenced by Saturday, the Flyers go to a different level when those three are on.
 
• No one wants to see Travis Sanheim sitting. He's a first-round pick the fan base has been eager to see. He has great size and offensive upside for a defenseman. It will be exciting to watch him become a pillar of the Flyers' blue line.
 
But is it really the end of the world if Brandon Manning plays a couple games here in the early going? Manning will suit up Tuesday for his second straight game in place of Sanheim. The 21-year-old rookie won't be in the press box for long, though, because that doesn't jive with general manager Ron Hextall's development plan. So Sanheim will sit for a few, watch and learn. That's not too terrible.
 
And, the two games Manning has played so far (season opener and home opener), the Flyers won both by a combined score of 13-5. Was he the most critical reason why? No, but he didn't hurt the Flyers, either. Keeping your projected seventh defenseman somewhat active is a good idea for when/if he is needed.
 
Sanheim will be fine and he will play.
 
We're about to be only six games in here … let's just give this some time.
 
• Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said he planned on using both of his goalies over this homestand. Michal Neuvirth will get the call against the Panthers after Brian Elliott started four of the first five games. Neuvirth looks like the clear backup, but it's important to get him starts, and that's what Hakstol plans on doing.
 
Neuvirth didn't see Florida last season. However, he did see the Panthers in 2015-16 and was terrific, delivering a shutout, 1.59 goals-against average and .943 save percentage in two games. He hasn't seen game action since Oct. 5.
 
• Wayne Simmonds, who has been a stud so far with five goals in five games, did work against Florida last season, posting three goals and an assist in three games.
 
• The Panthers are good. They've scored 16 goals through their first four games, all tough tests against the Lightning twice, the Blues and the Penguins. Florida boasts some nice, young talent in center Jonathan Huberdeau (three goals, two assists), center Aleksander Barkov (three assists) and defenseman Aaron Ekblad (two goals, two assists), just to name some.
 
To add to it, Florida's first-round pick at 10th overall this past summer, Owen Tippett, will make his NHL debut tonight. The 18-year-old scored 44 goals in 60 junior games last season for the OHL's Mississauga Steelheads.
 
• Here is the Flyers' projected lineup:
 
Forwards
Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Jakub Voracek
Jordan Weal-Valtteri Filppula-Wayne Simmonds
Dale Weise-Nolan Patrick-Travis Konecny
Taylor Leier-Scott Laughton-Michael Raffl
 
Defensemen
Ivan Provorov-Andrew MacDonald
Shayne Gostisbehere-Robert Hagg
Brandon Manning-Radko Gudas
 
Goalies
Michal Neuvirth
Brian Elliott

Scratches: Forward Jori Lehtera and defenseman Travis Sanheim.