Much of Alain Vigneault's system is predicated on pinning the opposition in the offensive zone.
When it's clicking, the defensemen are orchestrating the attack and, as a result, everyone is defending less.
"He's always been a believer of getting the puck going north and getting the D up in the play," Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said of Vigneault back in April 2019. "I think our D is ideally suited for Alain."
The Flyers' blueliners provided the necessary second waves of offense in 2019-20 as the club enjoyed the league's biggest turnaround. The Flyers allowed 2.77 goals per game and had a plus-36 goal differential a year after yielding the NHL's third-most goals per game at 3.41 and finishing with a minus-37 goal differential.
In 2019-20, the team tied for the league's second-most goals by defensemen with 44, behind only the Blues, who had 45. The Flyers played only 69 games, 13 fewer than the normal 82-game season. Despite the shortened campaign because of the coronavirus outbreak, the 44 such goals still marked the Flyers' second most from that position during a season in the last 26 years. Over that span, the Flyers had more in only 2017-18, when they got 50 markers from their blueliners.
Here was the Flyers' goal distribution on the blue line this past season:
Ivan Provorov — 13
Matt Niskanen — 8
Travis Sanheim — 8
Shayne Gostisbehere — 5
Philippe Myers — 4
Justin Braun — 3
Robert Hagg — 3
This offseason, the Flyers lost Niskanen, who was integral to the team's improved goal prevention and its added offense from the blue line. Not only did he have eight goals and 25 assists, but he was also a smart puck mover and adept at breaking up odd-man rushes. The Flyers will be challenged in replacing his responsibilities.
To do so, they may need even greater offense from their defensemen in 2020-21. Why? Because with Niskanen's retirement, the Flyers lost an all-situation blueliner who had a 55.8 defensive zone start percentage at even strength. He was excellent in his own end and at quickly getting the puck out of it.
In order to make up for Niskanen's defensive ability, setting up shop in the offensive zone will be even more crucial for the Flyers and that will have to come from their defensemen's skill.
"I don’t know that we’re going to be able to replace Matt Niskanen in the sense of the role he played for our team," Fletcher said this month.
The exciting aspect of replacing Niskanen is that the Flyers look like they could realistically top that number of 44 goals from their defensemen. Provorov had 17 in 2017-18 and is now a power-play guy (he led all NHL blueliners with seven man advantage goals in 2019-20), Myers and Sanheim have offensive ceilings that are getting only higher and Gostisbehere has a point-producing track record.
This month, the Flyers added to the offensive picture by signing Erik Gustafsson to a one-year, $3 million contract. The 28-year-old Swede has a game built around threatening the opposition with his offensive strengths. In 2018-19, Gustafsson delivered 17 goals and 60 points. The Flyers are banking on him resembling more of that guy again in 2020-21.
"He has tremendous deception with the puck, tremendous poise," Fletcher said this month. "We don’t have a defenseman that sees the ice like he does."
One of the most glaring storylines to the Flyers' 2020-21 season will be life without Niskanen. How will they fare without his presence? Furthermore, can they actually improve without him?
It's a tall order.
Having their defensemen swiftly move that puck up ice and depositing it into the net is going to provide answers. The Flyers have always wanted to build around their youth and skill on the back end. The 2020-21 season will put their organizational strength and philosophy to the test.
"People talk about playing good defense and that's the forecheck or the D-zone coverage," Vigneault said in April 2019 when he was introduced as the Flyers' head coach. "Yeah, it is, it's because you don't have the puck, but you've got to know what to do with the puck, and when you do know what to do with the puck, then a lot of times you're not defending as much."