You Cannot Win Without Puck-Moving Defensemen

In the past three games, the Flyers have defeated the fifth, sixth, and eleventh best teams in the NHL in terms of points.  They have played some of their most complete hockey en route to beating the Kings, Sharks, and Avalanche by a combined score of 10-3.  They looked like the team that won ten home games in a row from November 9th to January 8th.

Since Ray Emery sent a message to his team in the form of beating Braden Holtby to a pulp, the team has gone 26-14-6.  Claude Giroux looks like the player of old, Jakub Voracek has cemented himself as a legitimate first line option alongside Giroux, and Wayne Simmonds has emerged as one of the best power forwards in the league.

These two stretches have given the Flyers faithful some hope in the team.  If they could just play like this all season, they would be a contender.  Unfortunately, these stretches are just giving Flyers fans a false sense of hope in a team that, as currently constructed, cannot be a true contender.  Why?  The Flyers defense.

Puck Moving Defensemen Win Stanley Cups

While special teams are a very important component to a successful team, games are truly won and lost at even strength.  Look at all of the Stanley Cup winners since the 05-06 lockout, and you will find that they averaged to be the sixth best team at even strength.  Only the LA Kings, who rode a late season hot streak to the cup, and the Carolina Hurricanes finished outside the top seven, bringing the average down.  Only the Kings finished the regular season with an even strength GF/GA under 1 (which the Flyers have had last season and this season).  If you’re unsure about who is going to win a playoff series, look at the team with the higher even strength GF/GA, and chances are they’ll win.

How do you generate strong even strength play?  Far and away, the most important component is puck-moving defensemen that can both rush the puck, and make quick, accurate outlet passes.  When your defensemen are good at breaking out the puck, not only does it spring your forwards to create transition offense, it gives you odd-man rushes because the opposing forwards bearing down on your defensemen are out of the play.  Take a look at the rosters of the cup winners since the lockout, and you will find a treasure trove of the best puck-moving defensemen in recent history: Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Sergei Gonchar, Kris Letang, Duncan Keith, Brian Campbell, Brent Seabrook, Drew Doughty, Zdeno Chara.

Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith - Photo Credit: Andy Martin Jr
Duncan Keith is the type of premier puck moving defenseman the Flyers need – Photo Credit: Andy Martin Jr

You do not necessarily have to have the greatest speed or the best puck skills to be an effective puck mover.  Players like Pronger and Chara use their hockey IQ and intelligence to slow the game down to their level and distribute the puck effectively.

Previous Even Strength Dominance

In the year before Chris Pronger suffered his devastating career-ending concussion, the Flyers had the 3rd best even strength GF/GA ratio.  A younger Kimmo Timonen, combined with Matt Carle and Chris Pronger formed an impressive trio of puck movers for the Flyers defense.  In the year of Pronger’s injury, when he played just 13 games, they were the 7th best team at even strength.  The next year, the first season since Matt Carle’s departure via free agency, they were 25th.  They started this year on a dreadful note in terms of even strength offense, and even with their offensive resurgence, they sit at 20th.

Despite the constant criticism he received from fans, Matt Carle was an integral player for the Flyers because of his ability to break the puck out at even strength with a strong first pass.  In his time in Philadelphia, only five defensemen in the entire league had more even strength points than Matt Carle.  Despite the perception that he was coddled and protected by Chris Pronger, he produced nearly 20% more even strength points than Pronger per game.

Tampa Bay Matthew Carle - Photo By Andy Martin Jr
The Flyers defense sorely misses Matt Carle – Photo By Andy Martin Jr

The Current Flyers Defense

As they stand right now, the Flyers defense simply does not possess the talent to be an elite even strength team.  Its best puck-moving defensemen are both over the age of 35, and their speed is on a decline.  Too many times Mark Streit has tried to do too much with the puck and coughed it up, and Kimmo Timonen has been burned in one-on-one races to the puck, leading to an obstruction penalty.

Nicklas Grossmann and Braydon Coburn are both in the top twelve in terms of minor penalties taken by defensemen.  Grossmann is a useful defensive defenseman in the proper situation, but has been torched by fast forwards too often this season.  Luke Schenn has regressed significantly, and Andrej Meszaros has cooled off since his six game stretch that yielded nine points.  Erik Gustafsson has shown flashes, but has been in and out of the lineup for various reasons.

They are slow, aging, and their lack of speed and puck skills has prevented the Flyers from excelling as an even strength team.  The breakouts are choppy and ineffective.  Passes are in the feet of the forwards, and as a result the forwards cannot generate the speed needed in the neutral zone to effectively score on the rush.  However, it is not entirely the fault of the defense.  Up until recently, the Flyers forwards have done a poor job in supporting the defensemen on the breakout.  This is a byproduct of having such a young forward corps that has not developed a 200 foot game at the NHL level.

Until the Flyers acquire a number of strong, top 4 puck-moving defensemen, they simply are not a true contender.

Flyers Defense Moving Forward

Many have criticized Holmgren for overpaying Mark Streit in free agency, but his methodology was sound.  Slightly overpaying a free agent without having to give up any real assets from your team is often a better strategy than trading for a defenseman of a similar caliber with a slightly lower cap hit, and giving up valuable assets in the process.  But in the end, this is a band-aid strategy that is not viable for the long term.

In today’s NHL, teams are realizing how valuable, rare, and coveted young  puck-moving defensemen are.  As a result, teams will only trade them for a king’s ransom, one Holmgren has been unwilling to pay.  The team possesses no viable, long-term options that project as strong, top pairing puck moving defensemen.

Shayne Gostisbehere [photo: Marilyn Zube]
Gostisbehere is a talented puck-mover, but lacks ideal size to be a big minute NHL defenseman [photo: Marilyn Zube]
Holmgren has done a nice job in adding defensemen at the prospect level with Shayne Gostisbehere, Samuel Morin, and Robert Hagg representing the best group of defensive prospects the team has had in some time.  But right now, none of them project to be the elite defenseman the team is sorely lacking.  To remedy the problem, the organization will need to make a philosophical commitment to patience in developing defensemen.

The Recent Victories Should Have Asterisks Anyway

At face value, the Flyers’ recent three victories have been impressive.  But, the Flyers caught the Sharks and Kings at very opportune times.  The Sharks were coming off a demoralizing losses to the Oilers where Ben Scrivens saved all 58 shots they put on net, and the lowly Flames.  The Kings were 1-6-1 heading into the game against the Flyers, mustering just ten goals in that span.  Only the Avalanche had been playing at an elite level.