Now that the 2013 lockout-shortened season has come to a sudden and disappointing end for the Philadelphia Flyers, plenty of eyes will be looking forward to the future of this organization. After a letdown year in which fans came in with high expectations, changes are bound to happen. The Flyers will have to address their Achilles heel this past season: the defense.
While the numbers are not in favor of their blue line, the Flyers actually have a lot to be excited about when it comes to their defense. Hidden behind the unit’s occasional poor judgments, botched passes across the middle, and inability to clear the puck out of their own end, there were a few young defenders who made the most out of their time at the professional level this season.
Of course, the young defensemen had their fair share of mistakes as they progressed through the learning curve, but there were a lot more positives than negatives when it came to the midseason call-ups. The Flyers will more than likely look to bring in some defensive help in the offseason after failing to sign Shea Weber and Ryan Suter last offseason; however, the organization has to be enthusiastic about what they saw from their patchwork of a defense during the final stretch of the season.
Standing at 6’6″, Lauridsen, 24, proved to be an intimidating presence on the Flyers blue line after replacing Braydon Coburn in the lineup. In his 15 games played, the Danish native never backed down from a challenge. Whether it was along the boards, in the open ice, or in the ruckus after the whistle, Lauridsen could always be found engaged with an opponent. Everything about the 196th overall pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft is gritty. He clearly plays with an edge when he’s on the ice, looking to take on an incoming winger and upend him before getting to the middle. In fact, his first professional goal pretty much epitomized his style of play: ugly. Thanks to a miscue by future Hall of Fame defenseman Zdeno Chara, Lauridsen was credited with the easiest goal he’ll ever get in the NHL. Since that goal, Lauridsen developed some confidence with his shot, including a game-winning blast from the point in the Flyers 2-1 victory over the New York Islanders. After seeing that shot whiz by Kevin Poulin, he should pose as an offensive threat next year.
With “Ollie” becoming accustomed to the style of play at the highest level, he’ll certainly be a key cog for this blue line next season, even when all the injured veterans are healthy. Every defense can use a bulldozer like Lauridsen, especially when the Flyers can team him up with fellow hard-nosed defensemen, Luke Schenn and Niklas Grossmann.
Easily the best puckhandler among the young defensemen, Gustafsson, 24, was third on Philadelphia’s blue line with eight points (3 G, 5 A). When he wasn’t quarterbacking the offense from the top, the Swedish skater proved to be a valuable shot blocker, totaling 39 blocked shots. His all-around style of play comes as a breath of fresh air for a Flyers defense that consisted of three physical defensemen in Schenn, Grossmann and Lauridsen. Having a two-way defenseman like Gus, who is capable of handling the puck out of the zone and making smart decisions on the backend, is exactly what Philadelphia needs. His rapid growth this season was noticed by the coaching staff when he replaced Kimmo Timonen on the top powerplay line.
It’s not fair to compare a younger player to someone of such high recognition, but Gustafsson’s skill set resembles that of his counterpart, Timonen. Of course, he has a long, long way to go before reaching that level, but it’s definitely worth noting that, for comparison’s sake, he has all the tools to be a similar player.
Manning, 22, only played in six games, so assessing his future on this roster is a little more unclear compared to the two defensemen mentioned above. Still, Manning posted the best plus-minus (+5) compared to Lauridsen, Gustaffson, and Konan. His sample size this season was small, but Manning is a talented skater who can make plays on the offensive end. As a member of the Chilliwack Bruins in the WHL, Manning registered two seasons of 50+ points, including an impressive 21 goal season in 2010-11. He still has defensive aspects of the game to develop and, unlike Lauridsen and Gustafsson, he will more than likely start off in Adirondack next season as he continues to progress. There were times this year when he occasionally looked like a deer in headlights. Most notably when he failed to clear the puck out of the Flyers end and proceeded to get danced by David Krejci on the third period goal – a moment fans would like to forget.
At 22-years old, there’s no need to rush Manning into the NHL spotlight. The organization needs to allow him to strengthen his weaknesses in the minors and continue to gain confidence for a permanent stay at the professional level.
Matt Konan, 21, made his NHL debut in the second to last game of the season and has the least experience of all the prospects. Like Manning, Konan will find himself back in the minors next season. He’s a fairly big defenseman at 6’3″ so physicality is definitely a factor in his game and is certainly something Flyers fans will love to see him bring to the next level. Despite his short stint with the Flyers towards the end of the season, the undrafted prospect demonstrated his ability to block shots, getting in the way of a two blasts in the season finale victory at Ottawa.
If he can mature into a gritty defender, the Flyers may have struck gold when they signed the California native back in 2012.