Figuring out the Flyers defensive pairings

Updated: August 28, 2018 at 12:18 pm by Wes Herrmann

Although the Philadelphia Flyers only added a depth defenseman over the summer and lost just Brandon Manning, things are up in the air with how coach Dave Hakstol wants to roll his six defensemen on a nightly basis.

When the unit is healthy, there are plenty of options, but also plenty of craters that the coach will have to miss.

The Defensemen

Before getting into the possible pairings, let’s look at all the blueliners in the fold, their strengths and what they’re capable of.

Christian Folin: The lone newcomer on the back end, Folin should be a seventh defenseman for the team, only seeing time during injuries or a single player’s struggles. The former King is an average depth defenseman, but big (6-foot-3) and is only one of two right-handed blueliners on the team.

Shayne Gostisbehere: The 2017-18 season was an explosive one for Gostisbehere, who scored 65 points after a 39-point season the year before. The American is one of the premier offensive weapons on the blue line around the league. His defensive game isn’t top-notch, but if he’s paired with a defensively reliable partner, it gives Gostisbehere the freedom to attack with the puck. After all, the best defense is a good offense.

Radko Gudas: No Philly blueliner had a more disappointing 2017-18 than Gudas. After two years of underappreciated physical work and Corsi numbers, the Czech native limited his physical game after a 10-game suspension in November. It took away Gudas’ intimidation factor and the pairing he formed with Brandon Manning was the worst on the team, but was used as the team’s second pairing. However, Gudas managed over 19 minutes of ice time a night in 2015-16 and 2016-17 — and he’s the only right-handed full-time rearguard.

Robert Hagg: After a rocky sophomore year with the Phantoms in 2015-16, Hagg rebounded in 2016-17 and in slightly surprising fashion, made the Flyers out of camp last year. The Swede had a strong start to the year before some advanced stats anomalies came back to earth. Still, he’s a solid fifth defenseman that plays physical and can kill penalties. This year will be a good test to see where his ceiling is.

Andrew MacDonald: MacDonald is overpaid, but he’s a serviceable bottom-pairing defenseman and last year was his best as a Flyer. The biggest reason for that is Hakstol seemed to realize the veteran shouldn’t be playing top-four minutes like he had been. MacDonald does a lot of things okay, but doesn’t defend the blue line well. His pairing with Travis Sanheim at the tail end of last year was an effective one.

Philippe Myers: Myers is this year’s prospect that’s inching closer to an NHL role. At this point, though, I would still call him a longshot. The 6-foot-5 rearguard has played just 63 AHL games between the regular and post-seasons. Hextall will likely want him to develop a little more. That being said, Folin can easily be jumped and given Gudas’ 2017-18, if Myers impresses he could force some moves.

Ivan Provorov: The leader of the Flyers’ defense last year, this year and for years to come, Provorov does it all. He matches against the opposition’s toughest players, kills penalties and scores goals. He doesn’t see a ton of power play time because of other offensive blueliners around him, but he makes it up easily at even-strength. Last year, he averaged 24 minutes a game playing with Gostisbehere. Any partner will be expected to match those minutes.

Travis Sanheim: Sanheim had the rockiest of years last season, but coaching decisions were the main cause. The 22 year old did have defensive struggles, but he consistently got the puck in the offensive zone and was certainly better than Brandon Manning. Sanheim looked much better after his recall and had a strong postseason, even though he was scratched in the final two games.

The Pairings

Before getting too into the nitty, gritty discussion of what works for the players, it’s smart to ask if there are any locks in pairings heading into the season. I think there’s one that’s close to it and that’s the Sanheim-MacDonald duo.

The two formed a strong pairing at the end of last season both by the eyes and the numbers, but more importantly, Hakstol has always played his premier defensive prospects with the veteran MacDonald. Sanheim’s likely to join Gostisbehere and Provorov in that regard.

We can also figure that Folin will be one of the extras. The only way he isn’t is if he shows something he hasn’t in four NHL seasons and for two different clubs.

So that gives the Flyers a third pairing already:

3. Travis Sanheim – Andrew MacDonald
Extras: Christian Folin

Some would argue that the Provorov-Gostisbehere pairing should be a lock — and they’d have a good case. Hakstol kept the two stuck to each other after December, except for the last two postseason games and was one of the best pairings in the league.

I do think those two could end up back together, but I hesitate now because it leaves Gudas and Hagg as the other two NHL-ready defenders. If Myers proves ready and forces a trade (likely of Gudas) then things could fall just right, but it seems like a longshot.

Hakstol tried out the Hagg-Gudas pairing for a couple games last season and was not impressed. Neither are great puck-movers and Manning was actually better in that department than those two.

So, if Provorov and Gostsbehere are split up, Philadelphia now has:

1. Ivan Provorov
2. Shayne Gostisbehere
3. Travis Sanheim – Andrew MacDonald
Extras: Christian Folin, Philippe Myers (AHL)

That gives the team a first-pairing defender on the top two pairings, but finding the right partner to handle the minutes is crucial. Provorov’s 24 minutes will be tough for Gudas or Hagg to maintain, but with Gostisbehere on the second pairing, that unit can eat up some of those.

So, who will it be on the first pairing?

I’d go with Gudas. The Czech may have had a bad year last season, but he’s averaged close to 20 quality minutes as recently as two years ago. He’s also right-handed and when at his best, can help defensively.

Hagg also hasn’t played the right side in the NHL (Provorov plays the left), something the coaching staff may not be ready to ask of him quite yet.

However, Gostisbehere and Hagg also have some experience together, starting last season paired, before the eventual number one duo was put together. An improvement by Hagg would be nice though to make sure this pairing doesn’t go off the rails.

That forms a defense corps of:

1. Ivan Provorov – Radko Gudas
2. Robert Hagg – Shayne Gostisbehere
3. Travis Sanheim – Andrew MacDonald
Extras: Christian Folin, Philippe Myers (AHL)

Although the Flyers defense is ever improving, the unit shows how much a defender like Myers could help more. Unfortunately, he’s likely not ready yet, but the corps is better than it was last year.


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