When evaluating the look of the 2019-20 Philadelphia Flyers as a whole so far this season, one significant aspect we can point out is how young the team’s defensive players are. Aside from guys like Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun, both being 32 years old, respectively, the age of the Flyers’ defensive core ranges between 22 and 26. Both Niskanen and Braun were brought in during this past offseason to be veteran guys who can help teach and lead the way toward building the younger defensemen into future solid NHL players.
They also have been a part of a lot of success during their time in the league. Niskanen won the Stanley Cup back in 2018 as a member of the Washington Capitals, while Braun was in his own Stanley Cup Final with the San Jose Sharks in 2016 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, even with the combined number of games between the two (891-plus for Niskanen, 617-plus for Braun), it isn’t going to prevent inevitable collapses that occur when young players enter the NHL. Growing pains happen. There is a lot of adaptation and learning in the beginning stages of an NHL career.
The Flyers have already seen cases of this for their young defense this season. While some of the blame was put on rookie goalie Carter Hart in the team’s 5-3 loss to the New York Islanders, the defense could have played better in front of the netminder. The struggles of the young defense were on display once again the following night, when NHL veteran goalie Brian Elliott suited up for the Flyers. The team went into their inner-state rival city, Pittsburgh, got badly outplayed, and lost by a final score of 7-1. While Hart is going to have his own growing pains as a young goaltender, this loss to the Penguins proved that there were more flaws to the defensive game than just him.
Breaking Down the Younger Defense
Despite these struggles, there is no reason to panic yet on this defensive core. Let us take a look at the background experience of each of the younger Flyers defenders:
- Shayne Gostisbehere, age 26, has over 300 games played in the NHL.
- Robert Hagg, 24, has over 150 games in the league played over a span of four seasons.
- Samuel Morin, 24, has played nine NHL games between the 2016-17 season and 2019-20.
- Ivan Provorov, 22, has played over 250 games in the league.
- Travis Sanheim, 23, has played over 140 NHL games.
While a couple of these guys have played quite a few professional games for the Flyers organization, some of them are also still getting their feet wet in the NHL. On top of these athletes getting used to playing NHL-level games, they also have to deal with playing in a tough, ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division that includes the likes of the Penguins, who have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Capitals with Alex Ovechkin, and the New York Islanders, with Anders Lee and Mathew Barzal. There is a deep talent pool throughout the division, and these younger defensemen are getting tossed into the fire to a degree. It is a little bit of trial by fire.
The Positive Outlook
Despite how tough things may look right now, these young defensemen will continue to get better and improve, and it starts with the leadership structure the Flyers have in place. Niskanen and Braun are just two of the many veteran players who can make their mark and impression on the young ones. While they may not be defenders themselves, team leaders like captain Claude Giroux, James van Riemsdyk, and Sean Couturier, among others, have been in the league for a long time, and can show this young defense how to be disciplined both on and off the ice. They can also show them how they can train at all times in order to continually grow and become better hockey players.
It also helps having a head coach with a lot of experience in Alain Vigneault. While some people criticize the way he has handled young players in the past, he is also a guy players feel comfortable around. If there are any issues going on, the players can feel free to talk to Vigneault about it. He is a friendly coach. Going down the bench, assistant coaches Mike Yeo and Michel Therrien have also been NHL head coaches before, and their experiences can help mold this young Flyers defense into something that can shell-shock the Metropolitan Division, as well as the rest of the league in general. There is certainly not a lack of teachers within the Flyers’ system.
It can be frustrating watching young players make mistakes or overthink certain plays. Flyers fans will have to hang on during this growing process for their defensemen. Veteran leaders try to make the transitions needed as smooth as possible, and the coaches help teach valuable lessons to help the younger guys grow as players. The team, and defense specifically, might not be where fans want them at this moment in time, but signs of progress may not be too far down the road for this group. It might just take a little patience, and lot of player development.
I have been a hockey fan for most of my life, and have played the game myself for more than six years. I graduated from the State University of New York at Oswego in 2018, with a bachelor’s in Broadcasting & Mass Communication. Previous positions held include being a Sports Analyst for Oswego’s student-run TV station, WTOP-10; News/Sports Intern for WIVB-TV Channel 4; and Sports Beat Writer Intern for Pro Player Insiders.