We continue our series reviewing the Flyers' 2016-17 roster with a look at the defensemen. This is the second part of a four-part series. For our goaltending review, click here.
Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said during his end-of-the-season news conference that he blamed himself for keeping eight defensemen on the roster.
Hextall acknowledged keeping eight D-men caused problems on the back end and limited coach Dave Hakstol in terms of juggling his forward group, as they were often short one reserve.
When the Flyers report to training camp this fall, they will return five starters on defense. That leaves room for two more blueliners.
Right now, the incumbents to those spots are Sam Morin and Robert Hagg, both of whom made their NHL debuts during the final week of the regular season.
Then again that could change in camp given the presence of Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers. Nothing is certain except that there will be seven -- not eight -- defensemen next season.
"Just looking at it on paper right now," Hextall said, "I don't know the two kids or the one kid that's going to be in our lineup next year, but they're going to dictate that. But I like the pieces we have surrounding them.
"Robert's progression has been really, really impressive. He came over as a 19-year-old, played up in Glen Falls there and was OK. The American League is a tough league to play in at that age and he held his own. As a 20-year-old, he was not bad. And this year, he's taken it to another level.
"Sam understands more than ever what his game is. I remember seeing Sam back in junior, and Sam was on the power play. Sam knows what he is as a player and he's done a really good job of working hard, getting better every day. They've both done a real good job.
"Well see where it leads to in September. They have to fight for a spot."
Here is our take on the defense (alphabetically) this past season, minus Hagg and Morin who weren't here long enough.
Michael Del Zotto
Age: Turns 27 on June 25
Stats: 51 GP; 6G, 12A, 18 Pts.; minus-5; 19:30
Cap hit: UFA who earned $3.875 million
When Del Zotto signed here in free agency in 2014, he was a reclamation project. When he met with Hextall two weeks ago, he thanked him for rejuvenating his career and said he understood the club had even younger players than himself waiting in line. The irony is, Del Zotto's best overall season was his first one in 2014-15 when he scored 10 goals and 32 points with far fewer turnovers with the Rangers. He averaged 23 minutes last year, but because of rookie Ivan Provorov, every other D-man's ice time dipped this season. In Del Zotto's case, that was a four-minute hit. While he can move the puck, he is simply not as strong defensively as he needs to be, which is why he's gone through benchings the last two seasons. Del Zotto did finish third on the team in hits with 173. He will go to free agency.
Age: Turned 24 on April 20
Stats: 76 GP; 7G, 32A, 39 Pts.; minus-21; 19:35
Cap hit: RFA who earned $925,000
Though he finished just seven points shy of what he totaled in his rookie season (46 points), Gostisbehere's sophomore year was nothing like his first. He'd be the first to tell you it was a nightmarish season, though he finished on an upbeat note. For starters, last year's offseason surgery on his hip and abdomen caused havoc on him right into the second half of this season, much as it did for Claude Giroux, who had identical surgery. "Ghost" was a ghost of himself in terms of his ability to pivot quickly on the ice, recover off the wall or in transition while his once deadly-accurate shot sprayed all over from the point. His inability to cover one-on-one was compromised, as well. He was a turnover machine at times. Much of it had to do with his lengthy recovery from surgery. Hakstol benched him three separate times. It wasn't until early March -- just like Giroux -- when he started to resemble his former self. He finished second among the Flyers' defensemen in ice time. "Ghost" remains the first piece of the blue-line rebuild that began under Hextall and should be re-signed in weeks ahead.
Age: Turns 27 on June 5
Stats: 67 GP; 6G, 17A, 23 Pts.; plus-8; 19:18
Cap hit: $3.35 million
There is a reason why teammates voted Gudas the Pelle Lindberg Memorial Award winner as the club's most improved defenseman. Gudas was able to transform his game into legitimate, tough blue-line hockey minus all the cheap shots, reckless hits and dumb plays that ruined his 2015-16 season. His 93 penalty minutes were down from 116 a year ago. Gudas finally realized you can play hard without playing as a liability on defense and he turned in a career season (six goals and 23 points). He was the only defensive regular who was a plus player on a roster in which virtually everyone was a minus. Gudas led the Flyers with 280 hits -- third most in the NHL -- and was third on the club with 124 blocked shots. He had the fourth-highest ice time on the blue line, but missed the final four games concussed. Coincidentally, that injury came off a blind hit -- the kind he used to dish himself.
Age: Turns 31 on Sept. 7
Stats: 73 GP; 2G, 16A, 18 Pts.; minus-5; 20:06
Cap hit: $5 million
MacDonald has become the whipping boy among Flyers fans because of his salary, which has prevented the club in the past from making certain improvements. If he were an offensive juggernaut, no one would complain about his contract every time he turned a puck over. And therein lies a falsehood. He was fourth on the team in giveaways (50), not first as fans would suspect. He was also the one veteran the Flyers felt confident could play with Ivan Provorov and play effectively, while allowing the rookie to develop. MacDonald's 151 blocked shots were second on the team. Again, given others' plus/minus and the fact he again averaged 20 minutes, it's not as bad as it looks on paper. He could remain with Provorov or be split to assist either Morin or Hagg next season in their transition.
Age: Turns 27 on June 4
Stats: 65 GP; 3G, 9A, 12 Pts.; minus-12; 18:03
Cap hit: $975,000
Some people wondered why Manning didn't receive the Flyers Fan Club's Gene Hart Memorial Award given to the player with the most heart because it was an award that Manning richly deserved. No Flyer has stood up for others on this club like Manning, who had to work his tail off just to become an NHL player and then hold onto his job. Manning isn't expected to fight and yet he did nine times this season. True, he's not very good at it -- one win -- but he is always willing and that's why teammates lauded him. Over the past three seasons, Manning has worked his way up the ladder from an AHL call-up to a seventh or eighth defenseman to an every-night regular on the roster, while his ice time has risen accordingly. Manning's 121 hits were sixth most and third among Flyers defensemen. He will have to work even harder to retain his starting position if Morin and Hagg make the roster.
Age: Turns 21 on Jan. 13
Stats: 82 GP; 6G, 24A, 30 Pts.; minus-7; 21:58
Cap hit: $894,167
For the second consecutive season, the Flyers had a dynamic rookie defenseman. Provorov plays the game -- as Hextall has noted -- like he's a 30-year-old veteran, not someone who began the season as just a 19-year-old. He led the team in ice time and established a rookie record for such by a Flyer. His 27:17 single-game record against Pittsburgh will be tough to break. He was second in the NHL among all rookies in ice time, too. Provorov has the physical strength and advanced skills you simply don't see very often at this age. He is a franchise defenseman and the only player on the Flyers' roster you can pinpoint as untouchable. It's been a long time coming for this franchise, but Provorov will be on this blue line for at least 10 more years. He led the team with 166 blocked shots. He also led the team with 81 giveaways. Yet given his ice time, the fact he plays in all situations and that he was a rookie, that was entirely expected. The only question is whether he remains with MacDonald next fall.
Age: Turns 35 on Aug. 25
Stats: 28 GP; 0G, 4A, 4 Pts.; plus-1; 15:15
Cap hit: UFA who salary was $2.25 million
Schultz closed out his three-year career as a Flyer in which he was expected to be a seventh or eighth defenseman who was a gap filler to buy time for younger players. But he actually became a starter for two seasons because of injury and trades. While he wants to lace them up for his 16th season, Schultz said he also doesn't want to move his family cross-country for one year. If that's the case, he said he would simply retire and move back to Western Canada with his family. Hextall thanked him for doing more than what was expected of him. Despite limited ice time and game action in 2016-17, Schultz had 61 blocked shots -- eighth most on the roster -- and every player above him was a full-time starter.
Up next: A look back at Part I of the forwards.