Flyers Blue Line Gets Critical Upgrades with Recent Fletcher Moves

General manager Chuck Fletcher and the Philadelphia Flyers continue to make wholesale roster changes this offseason, and the greatest focus has been along the blue line. The Flyers acquired defenseman Ryan Ellis from the Nashville Predators in exchange for defenseman Philippe Myers and center Nolan Patrick last weekend. Following the expansion draft, Fletcher sent defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere to the Arizona Coyotes in a salary cap-related move. The acquisition of Rasmus Ristolainen from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Robert Hagg and two draft picks again emphasized the focus on defensemen. Fletcher’s busy week was capped off with a player-for-player swap that sent Jakub Voracek to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Cam Atkinson.

Problems on Defense Sink Flyers in 2020-21

The Flyers allowed the most goals in the NHL in 2020-21, and they finished 30th overall on the penalty kill. They were embarrassed in repeated blowouts by rival opponents in the temporarily formed MassMutual East Division on their way to a sixth-place finish. They missed the playoffs for the fifth time in nine seasons. No single player or positional group could be pinned with the entirety of the blame, but the blue line clearly emerged as a major team weakness.

Following the unexpected retirement of 34-year-old Matt Niskanen just a month before the season, Fletcher entrusted Ivan Provorov to anchor the top defensive pairing for Philadelphia in his fifth NHL season. The leap of faith was unsuccessful, as Provorov failed to gain chemistry with any one of the rotating cast of defensemen he was partnered with. Gostisbehere and veteran Justin Braun proved a better fit for lesser roles, and Erik Gustafsson never gained his footing within the organization. 

Ivan Provorov Philadelphia Flyers
Ivan Provorov, Philadelphia Flyers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Myers and Travis Sanheim, who developed promising chemistry during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, struggled mightily. Neither merited an opportunity to play top-pair minutes, and their constant defensive zone breakdowns exemplified the team’s carelessness in their own end. Myers, a 6-foot-5 righty, demonstrated a concerning lack of hockey IQ and never earned the confidence of the coaching staff. He was taken out of the lineup by head coach Alain Vigneault for considerable stretches of time.

Bolstered Blue Line Highlights Fletcher’s Moves

The disheartening failure to fulfill expectations indicated an obvious need for changes. The addition of Ellis, a right-handed top-pair caliber defender who figures to partner with Provorov next season, checked the box of the top offseason priority. He is a ten-year veteran who is equipped to play on the top power-play and penalty-killing units. He brings a legitimate NHL track record, having played key minutes for the Predators during their run to Stanley Cup Final in 2017 and serving as an assistant captain under former head coach Peter Laviolette. 

Ryan Ellis Nashville Predators
Ryan Ellis, former Nashville Predator (Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Ristolainen will be counted on to play second-pair minutes, likely with Sanheim, in place of Myers. The 6-foot-4 righty brings a reputation for intensity and a ferocious attitude on the ice. Although analytical numbers suggest problems in his game, seven NHL teams reportedly offered first-round draft choices in trade packages for him. His usage in Philadelphia will likely be less than it was for the majority of his eight seasons with the Sabres. He is also able to play on both special teams units.

The decision to move on from Gostisbehere was necessary and logical, considering he didn’t truly fit into the organization’s plans for the past two seasons (at least). The departure of Hagg similarly cut salary with the loss of an expendable piece that was not expected to play a significant role in 2021-22. 

Flyers Hope for In-House Improvements

The additions of Ellis and Ristolainen will not fix the defensive woes of last season without significant improvements in-house. Provorov won his third Barry Ashbee Trophy as the Flyers’ best defenseman last season, and he has proven himself as one of the most durable defensemen in the NHL. However, his culpability in the Flyers’ struggles last season is undeniable. The acquisition of a capable partner for him should dispel the issues of inconsistency that have affected the first five years of his career. It also allows for Braun to drop back into a more suitable role as a third-pair defenseman. 

Sanheim, a 2014 first-round pick, is hoping for a reset at age 25 after a down season. His time as an NHL regular has been marked by flashes of strong potential without a true indicator of his arrival as a fully-developed talent. 

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Fletcher mentioned in his press conference on Thursday that his willingness to move on from Gostisbehere was helped by confidence in defensive prospects Cam York and Yegor Zamula. The usual difficulty for rookie defensemen in the NHL should temper the expectations the Flyers have for the two blueliners in 2021-22, but they will both be given consideration for a roster spot during training camp. 

The Flyers also re-signed defenseman Sam Morin to a one-year deal worth $750,000. The former 11th overall pick plays a strong physical style and brings the type of intangible strengths useful for a team that lacked overall continuity last season. He also figures to be in competition for a roster spot in training camp.

Fletcher is anticipating that the shuffling parts of the Philadelphia blue line can help improve the team defense in 2021-22. The departure of Voracek, an offensive-minded player, in favor of Atkinson, who has a better 200-foot reputation, and the expected addition of a backup goaltender are also steps needed to climb out of the basement in goals against next season.

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