Flyers: 5 Free Agent Defensemen to Target for 3rd Pair

The Philadelphia Flyers got just what they needed when they acquired Justin Braun in 2019. He wasn’t brought in to play top-line minutes, but that’s what he ended up doing in 2021-22.

With Braun now gone and Keith Yandle not expected back, the Flyers have at least one gap in the third pairing. Here’s a look at what Braun brought to the table during his time in Philadelphia and some free agent targets that could fill that role to give the Flyers every advantage for a better 2022-23 season.

Braun Was Just What the Flyers Needed

Braun was traded to the Flyers from the San Jose Sharks in the 2019 offseason. He spent two and a half seasons in Philadelphia and provided them with more than they could’ve hoped for. The Flyers have a ton of young talent, and they wanted to add a veteran presence to the back end in particular.

That is still the case, as three years later, new faces continue to join the lineup, although they still have a hole after Braun’s trade deadline departure. Cam York has made himself a regular on the roster, while defensemen such as Ronnie Attard and Egor Zamula are close to becoming full-time NHLers.

Justin Braun Philadelphia Flyers
Justin Braun, Philadelphia Flyers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

A veteran presence in the locker room, on the bench, and on a line or as a partner helps a ton. They can be a calming presence and know when to cover their partner or linemate. The plan is to have a healthy defense core with Ryan Ellis back, so the third pairing should be general manager Chuck Fletcher’s offseason target. This player should be a bit older and can play a shutdown role as well as be a mentor and help guide the organization’s young defensemen.

Related: 3 Flyers Who Likely Won’t Return for 2022-23 Season

Since the Flyers have Travis Sanheim and York, who can both slide up to the top pairing, they won’t need to sign a defenseman in free agency to fill that role (as Braun did), even if Ellis most likely misses some time in 2022-23. Ellis doesn’t have a good track record of staying healthy, but the likelihood of another young defenseman getting called up to fill that spot on the third pairing increases and will need that veteran presence even more. Here are a few players that fit the bill and the Flyers should consider acquiring.

Veteran Defense Targets Who Fit the Bill

Calvin de Haan

The Chicago Blackhawks should have looked harder for a trade partner for Calvin de Haan at the trade deadline. He is a valuable piece on the back end and came close to his career-high in goals scored (5 in 2016-17) with four. His numbers did take a hit because the team ranked near the bottom of the standings and started a rebuild, but those bad numbers don’t generally transfer to better teams.

Calvin de Haan, Chicago Blackhawks
Calvin de Haan, Chicago Blackhawks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

de Haan is one year younger than Braun was when he came to the Flyers, but the advantage of de Haan is his ability to play both ends of the ice. Don’t expect his cap hit to be anywhere close to his last contract (at $4.55 million a year), so he will be an affordable option for $2.5 million AAV (average annual value) or less.

He provides about the same amount of offense that Braun did, but de Haan is a machine when it comes to using the body. He blocked 172 shots and made 146 hits in 69 games this season. That type of effort and physicality is exactly what the Flyers need to become tougher to play against and show the young players what it takes to win in the NHL.

Colin Miller

Colin Miller has a little more offensive potential than the rest, and he is younger, but at the same time, he is also less physical. Miller will be entering his eighth NHL season, and for the last three seasons, he has had the misfortune of playing for the Buffalo Sabres. For the Sabres, good has come out of Miller’s presence on the back end as they are finally turning a corner with their young team.

Miller, despite being a bit younger, had more experience than most defensemen on that team, so younger players like Rasmus Dahlin, Henri Jokiharju, Matthias Samuelsson, Jacob Bryson, and Casey Fitzgerald have all had a chance to learn from him. He will hit and block shots and has played in a second or third-pairing role his entire career. He does have the ability to move up if needed, but the Flyers would be bringing him in for a bottom-pairing role at what would be half the cost of his current salary of $3.875 million.

Ian Cole

Ian Cole is still going strong in the playoffs and often finds himself on teams that have good seasons. That is no coincidence, as he plays a hard style and plays the game the right way. Every team needs a player like Cole who will play physical, whether that’s roughing it up or making hits. His main focus is on defense, but he can play both sides. This season, he topped 100 blocked shots and hits while racking up 83 penalty minutes.

Ian Cole Carolina Hurricanes
Ian Cole, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

His entire career, he has played a defense-first style and it has worked out extremely well. He has made eight consecutive postseason appearances and won the Stanley Cup in consecutive seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017. He has also been a part of five different teams over the past eight seasons.

Cole is a beast shorthanded and always willing to sacrifice the body. He is a legitimate third-pairing defenseman on a Cup-contending team each season, and he is a player that the Flyers should be serious about targeting this summer if he is available.

Erik Gudbranson

The Calgary Flames would of course like to keep their defense core together with Erik Gudbranson as the third-pairing defenseman. But the money won’t be there, and the team also has a couple of young, talented defensemen pushing for spots in the lineup right now, including Juuso Valimaki and Connor Mackey.

The Flames should also be going into next season with three defensemen who can play the right side, so it doesn’t make much sense to keep Gudbranson around despite his contributions this season. He plays a hard-nosed brand of hockey and has made the rounds, suiting up for seven different organizations. However, 2021-22 was his best offensively and arguably his best defensively.

At age 30, and close to 650 NHL games played, Gudbranson would bring exactly what the Flyers are looking for in a full-time third-pairing defenseman. He blocks lots of shots, is very effective on the penalty kill, and is one of the most physical players in the league, standing at 6-foot-5, 222 pounds.

Kris Russell

Kris Russell is the NHL’s all-time leading shot blocker. Keeping shots away from danger zones and off the net is what the Flyers desperately need, as more often than not they were pelted with shots last season.

Kris Russell Oilers
Kris Russell, Edmonton Oilers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Russell may be smaller, but he is a good sixth or seventh defense option. He is defensive-minded, plays the penalty kill – where his shot-blocking comes into good use – and will make hits. He also has a good active stick and is good at keeping attacking players to the outside on the rush. He has even shown flashes of offensive ability with the Edmonton Oilers this season that many thought was lost to his younger days in the NHL. He would be a good option if the free-agent defensemen listed above are taken off the board. Russell would have been a better choice if the Flyers hadn’t gone and re-signed Nick Seeler.

Which defenseman do you think would be the best fit for the Flyers to acquire this offseason? Let me know in the comments below.

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