Last week, while looking at the Philadelphia Flyers’ depth on offense, there was plenty to be excited about in returnee James van Riemsdyk. For the defense and in net, the only addition has been Christian Folin, a seventh defensemen. So where does that leave the defensive half of the ice for the Flyers and the special teams? With plenty of question marks.
Defense: Improving, but still not at full potential
The Flyers’ defense will be improving through subtraction after Brandon Manning wasn’t re-signed by the team. The now-Chicago Blackhawk was a decent sixth defenseman, but operated as a second-pairing one under coach Dave Hakstol.
Assuming Hakstol gives those minutes to Travis Sanheim — perhaps a big assumption — the Flyers will instead get 17 minutes a night out of a big, puck-moving blueliner who improved after a demotion last year. Hextall also signed free agent Christian Folin to be a veteran seventh defenseman, but Sanheim will likely count as the only full-time addition to the roster.
There’s always a chance Philippe Myers makes the team, though. Folin isn’t much more than a sixth or seventh rearguard and certainly won’t impede the prospect if he’s ready. However, it will also require moving one of the other defensemen and most of them have the organization’s trust.
Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere formed one of the best pairings in the league in the second half of last season. Provorov’s on an exponential upward trajectory and Gostisbehere scored an underappreciated 65 points last year.
Behind them, Robert Hagg made a name for himself on the NBCSN Philly broadcast as the league-leader in hits. He did struggle with the puck at times, but has the potential of an adequate fourth or fifth shutdown defenseman.
But the two other veterans left in the lineup causes plenty to ask why they’ve earned so much trust from the Flyers.
Andrew MacDonald did have a bounceback of a small height last season, and it will always be his contract that draws the most ire, but he’s a third-pairing defenseman. When he plays more, he’s exposed too often, but Hakstol has regularly done that since being named the coach.
MacDonald’s always been a target of angry Flyers fans. Radko Gudas, though, was a new option for the fan base last season.
In his first two seasons with the orange and black, Gudas intimidated opponents, was solid defensively and contributed strong advanced stats. Last year, he still had strong Corsi numbers, but that was about it. After a 10-game suspension in November, Gudas came back less outgoing physically than normal. That limited his game, but more importantly being paired with Manning hurt his game even more.
The two struggled in defensive assignments and neither are gifted at making a first pass out of the zone. Besides Sanheim taking Manning’s minutes, his absence should be beneficial for Gudas who could play with the second-year pro.
It will be another year or two before the Flyers’ blue line welcomes all of the prospects that have been raved about for a while, but the steps continue to be made.
Goalies: Plenty of options, shallow talent
Between the NHL and the AHL, the Flyers will have five goalies. That’s more than recommended, but only one of them can even be considered a part-time starting NHL goalie.
That would be Brian Elliott, who didn’t have a bad 2017-18, but came back too early from an injury in the playoffs and allowed 14 goals in four games. That’s left a bad taste in some Flyers’ fans mouths as the dog days of summer continue.
But his regular season wasn’t all bad. Elliott finished with 23 wins and usually wasn’t guilty of costing the team any wins. Still, the former Blue is 33 years old and last year’s injury proves he can’t guarantee health through a full season.
Unfortunately, there’s not much ready behind him.
Michal Neuvirth managed just 22 games and nine wins last season as he dealt with his most injurious season while in Philadelphia. Hextall admitted he’d like to improve that role before the offseason, but nothing was ever done. Neuvirth has dealt with injuries throughout his tenure in the NHL and those issues have only increased lately. When he’s healthy, he can sometimes find a good rhythm, but those days were more common in 2015-16.
The good news, though, is that Alex Lyon offers a decent third-string option — and some competition for the backup role. Signed as an undrafted free agent, the Yale product got into 11 NHL games last season, winning four games. Personally, I never saw more than a third-string option, but the Flyers’ lack of talent in net has Lyon in a strong position.
But the real shame is Anthony Stolarz, who spent most of last season on injured reserve after needing meniscus surgery in September of 2017. The New Jersey native fought back to play in four games, three of them in the ECHL, but had he been healthy, Stolarz could have had a legitimate shot at the backup spot.
Instead, Stolarz’ future at any level is in question. He’s 24 years old. has been passed by Lyon on the depth chart and has prospects in his rear view mirror — the most formidable being Carter Hart.
After a stellar, almost unbelievable, junior career, Hart is eligible to play in the AHL this season. He has his eyes set on the Flyers’ crease, but it will be hard for the 19 year to make it happen. Hart will likely start as the backup with the Phantoms (Hextall could choose to loan one of the “veterans”) and will only see starting time if there are injuries.
Of course, that “if” can probably be changed to “when”, but either way he’s low on the pecking order for the 2018-19 season.
Power Play: Some help for the Second Unit
The Flyers already had one of the most lethal first man advantage units in the league — then the team added James van Riemsdyk. Last season, JvR scored 11 power play goals, which would have tied Wayne Simmonds for the most on the Flyers.
However, both Simmonds, van Riemsdyk and now Nolan Patrick play the same net-front specialist. That’s a good problem to have, though, and one that will help Philly’s second unit that has frequently been a disappointment.
The first unit will undoubtedly have Claude Giroux, Shayne Gostisbehere and Sean Couturier. Jake Voracek’s also likely, but assistant coach Kris Knoblauch did use him on the second unit at times last season.
Either way, that second unit will now have two of Simmonds, Patrick or JvR, Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov with Travis Sanheim and Oskar Lindblom as possibilities. That’s more talent than the unit has seen in a long time.
The above depth chart isn’t inditicative to what’s to come; it’s just my personal speculation, but Hextall has set up his team to have two formidable units next season.
Penalty Kill: Question Marks
Prior to the offseason, Hextall made a point that he’d like to improve his team’s penalty kill. van Riemsdyk was a pleasant surprise, but no penalty killers were brought in.
Opposite of the power play, the penalty kill only lost players — inconsequential as they are — in Valtteri Filppula, Matt Read and Brandon Manning. Read may have been the only one that was actually good at killing penalties, but those are still minutes that have to be covered, and hopefully improved.
If Nicolas Aube-Kubel makes the team, he’s likely to fill one of those roles and Bill Meltzer pointed out Oskar Lindblom, who is defensively sound, as a possibility.
I will put a name out there: Oskar Lindblom did a good job on PK for Phantoms last year before his NHL recall.
— Bill Meltzer (@billmeltzer) July 3, 2018
Simmonds and Giroux may have to pick up more shorthanded minutes or Patrick could be integrated after an all-around improvement in the second half of last season. However, Sean Couturier, Scott Laughton and Michael Raffl are still here to kill penalties.
On defense, Folin will likely kill penalties when he’s in the lineup, but filling Brandon Manning’s 1:16 of shorthanded time a night will be tough without Sam Morin. Gostisbehere may be in line to replace those minutes, but Provorov, Hagg, Gudas and MacDonald offer a decent four penalty killers.
A longtime issue for the special teams units will be how they play, but that falls more on assistant coach Ian Laperriere. The strategy of blocking lanes hasn’t worked for a few seasons and the players will need to be more aggressive, especially in defending in front of the net.
The penalty kill’s success will continue to depend on how the coaching staff uses it.