Five years ago, the Philadelphia Flyers were in search of a top-tier defenseman who could not only score but also had the ability to carry the workload on the blue line. The Flyers – who were coming off the worst season in franchise history – completed a trade with Nashville for Kimmo Timonen and soon signed him to a six-year contract extension.
Over those five seasons Timonen has been an offensive threat, an excellent puck-carrying defenseman and the quarterback of the Flyers’ powerplay, all while playing around 23 minutes a night. He even evolved into a crowd favorite thanks to his personality and leadership skills. But Timonen, 36, might not be able to keep pace with this year’s 48-game season.
Even though the lockout kept him fresh, the compact schedule could have a grueling affect on the Finnish defenseman if Flyers coach Peter Laviolette uses Timonen the same as he has in years past.
Last season Timonen averaged over 21 minutes per game which was a minute less than the previous season. As the it neared an end, it was clear that there wasn’t a ton of gas left in Timonen’s tank and it showed during the playoffs – perhaps the worst stretch of hockey he has played since wearing the orange and black. Blame it on exhaustion, a potential injury, or something else but whatever the reason his poor play proved he’s on the downward slope of his accomplished career.
Laviolette needs to better distribute the defensive responsibilities this season if the Flyers want to have success on the blue line, since it’s clearly the team’s weak spot. With Chris Pronger done, Timonen remains the key component to the defense – and overworking him could be devastating.
But after two games the Flyers relied heavily on Timonen, due mainly to lack of a better option.
There was a better option back at the end of July and, like Timonen, this restricted free agent came from Nashville – it was Shea Weber. The Flyers signed Weber – arguably the league’s top defenseman – to an offer sheet which the Predators had to match, though it seemed nearly impossible that the small market team would match the Flyers’ 14-year, $110 million contract. It was the perfect fit, with Weber assuming the role of Pronger by playing a similar style of hockey and helping to lighten Timonen’s load.
Nashville shattered the Flyers’ hopes and did the unthinkable by matching Philadelphia’s offer, thus keeping Weber and forcibly making him the face of the franchise. The Flyers settled on a consolation prize, trading for Toronto defenseman Luke Schenn and it left the team with a variety of second pairing options but only Timonen as a true first-line defenseman.
Philadelphia has a wealth of slower defensemen who offer a big shot and can throw the body around but don’t possess a strong skating ability. Defensemen like Schenn and Braydon Coburn can clear out the front of the net and back check effectively but aren’t puck carriers. Timonen is the Flyers’ only real puck carrying defenseman and it was evident over the weekend when the team was often unable to get the puck out of their zone. Not to mention the team’s inability to make outlet passes through the neutral zone.
Because of these early season flaws, Laviolette was forced to keep Timonen out on the ice for extended periods of time, despite the fact that the Flyers played in back-to-back games – Saturday in Pittsburgh and Sunday at Buffalo. Timonen already leads the team in time on ice per game, averaging 23:26 through the first two games which is a minute and a half more than forward Claude Giroux who is second on the team.
The Flyers’ schedule to open the season is among the toughest in the Eastern Conference, with seven games in the first 11 days. It could very easily leave the Flyers exhausted and playing catch-up in the Atlantic Division after just two weeks of hockey. If Laviolette doesn’t find a way to distribute the defensive workload evenly and cut back on Timonen’s ice time the Flyers might have some serious question marks on defense when the end of the season rolls around.