Have the Flyers Done Enough to Improve Their Defense?

After another underachieving season in 2018-19, the Philadelphia Flyers made changes behind the bench and on the roster ahead of the 2018-19 campaign. General manager Chuck Fletcher decided to replace interim head coach Scott Gordon with Alain Vigneault, bringing about a new direction for the franchise. 

The Flyers made a big addition on offense, acquiring a much-needed second-line center in Kevin Hayes to help shore up a position in which they’ve struggled recently and will likely welcome at least a few budding prospects to the offensive ranks as well.

However, one glaring weakness for the Flyers over the years has been their defense. With a star in the making between the pipes now in Carter Hart, the units playing in front of him become even more important.

Alain Vigneault, Philadelphia Flyers head coach
Alain Vigneault, Philadelphia Flyers head coach (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

While a young, up-and-coming core of defensemen still lead the way, the Flyers’ defense will have a bit of a different look in the coming season. Though, one of the questions that remains is, will the changes be enough to help propel the orange and black back to the playoffs? And what factors could lead to improvement?

Mike Yeo Now Leading the Defense

With Vigneault now behind the bench, some new assistants have also come aboard. Leading the way for both the defense and the penalty kill this upcoming season for the Flyers will be the well-traveled Mike Yeo. 

Most recently, Yeo was the head coach for the St. Louis Blues. Yeo was let go early on during the 2018-19 season, replaced by interim head coach and former Flyers player and coach Craig Berube. Berube would go on to lead the Blues to a dramatic Stanley Cup run, pulling the Blues from the bottom of the NHL to the very top.

At the time of his firing, Yeo led a struggling Blues squad who seemingly found themselves near the bottom of the league in every statistical category. While this isn’t the time to dwell on what was and wasn’t the fault of Yeo in St. Louis, perspective is important. Yeo has made several stops during his coaching career, with up and down production. Perhaps a change of scenery and less on his plate will be an improvement for him and the Flyers.

Mike Yeo

Former St. Louis Blues head coach Mike Yeo joins Alain Vigneault’s staff in Philadelphia where he’ll manage the defense and penalty killing units. (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

Sometimes a change of voice and philosophy can make all the difference. Making the change from Yeo to Berube obviously paid big dividends for the Blues. The Flyers are hoping Yeo’s voice and philosophy can jump-start both the defensive and penalty kill units.

Yeo takes over the defensive unit from veteran coach Rick Wilson, who by his own admission was not an analytics guy. Yeo seems more open to the analytical route and seemingly has more fire in his coaching style as opposed to Wilson who was more of a soft-spoken type of coach, albeit an old-school one.

Defending the penalty kill will also be a tall task for Yeo, who will lead a Flyers PK that finished near the bottom of the league last season. With ample room for improvement, it can only get better, right? Only time will tell.

Niskanen and Braun Look to Make Impact

Knowing they needed to improve their defensive core, Fletcher made several trades for veteran defensemen, acquiring Matt Niskanen from the Washington Capitals and Justin Braun from the San Jose Sharks.

One could argue the Flyers overpaid for both Niskanen and Braun, especially given where both players are in their careers. However, in the Flyers’ case, they needed to add higher tier veterans to complement the youth they already have along the blue line. Niskanen and Braun should do just that.

Matt Niskanen, Washington Capitals
Matt Niskanen was one of two veteran additions made by Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher this offseason. (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

The Flyers traded away Radko Gudas in the deal to acquire Niskanen, a move that was met with plenty of skepticism from the Flyer faithful. On paper, it would be easy to come away with the conclusion that Gudas is the better player right now. However, Niskanen may be a more useful player when it comes to the Flyers’ needs at defense. Gudas was more of a physical player, while Niskanen has always been, overall, a more well-rounded defender, which is what the Flyers need more than ever right now.

Like Niskanen, Braun is a respected veteran with a lot of NHL hockey under his belt. The Flyers will look for Braun to offer some relief when it comes to actual defensive play, with whomever he’s paired with in Philadelphia. Braun should also offer some invaluable pointers for the younger blue-liners the Flyers have coming up. 

After nine years with the Sharks, veteran defensemen Justin Braun will join the Flyers’ blue line this fall. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

There’s no doubt both Niskanen and Braun are on the downside of their careers. Since posting a career-high 46 points in 2013-14, Niskanen has posted point totals of 31, 32, 39 and 29 before finishing 2018-19 with just 25 points.

Meanwhile, Braun, just a season removed from a career-high 33 points in 2017-18, dropped to just 16 points in 2018-19. Though, with only one season above 30 points in his career, Braun’s 16 points last year are just below his yearly career average.

Another positive factor when it comes to adding Niskanen and Braun has been their ability to stay healthy, as both players have averaged 78 games per season over the last six years. 

In the end, the hope is Niskanen and Braun will offer more of a calming influence rather than a boost in numbers; one of the glaring issues with the defensive core last year was seeing some of the younger players stretched a bit too thin. Many times, they were expected to cover up for the mistakes by Gudas, Andrew MacDonald and the like on the defensive end, leading to struggles on the offensive end for that group of youngsters. 

Provorov, Gostisbehere and Sanheim Lead Talented Defense

The Flyers were, more than not, a disaster during the Dave Hakstol era. Climbing out of that nightmare wasn’t going to come overnight. And while Scott Gordon came in as head coach and did an admirable job in an interim basis, he wasn’t quite ready to get back on the big stage, not for this Flyers team anyway. 

Ivan Provorov will look to lead the Flyers’ defensive unit this season. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Perhaps the most frustrating part of the Flyers’ strugglesover the past few seasons was seeing the talent they have on the ice underachieve. Will coaching and philosophy changes make the difference? It’s certainly possible, but after an overall of the front office and coaching staff the last few seasons, the burden to improve is now on the players. 

When it comes to what the Flyers already have, the present and future are promising, especially on the blue-line. Led by Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim and Shayne Gostisbehere, the Flyers are in good hands moving forward if they’re all able to meet their potential. However, recently, many of the Flyers “young guns” have seemed to trend backward instead of forward, which is alarming.

Despite playing all 82 games a season ago, Provorov felt the pressure of playing on the top pairing in his third season in the NHL. The multi-talented defender posted just 26 points last year, which was 15 points less compared to his sophomore campaign. However, the 22-year-old has already shown what he’s capable of on the ice and with another year under his belt and some pressure taken off by veterans, Provorov should be in line for perhaps a breakout year.

Meanwhile, after capturing the hearts of Flyers’ fans everywhere when he broke into the NHL, Gostisbehere has struggled with injuries and posted just 37 points last season, a down year for him as far as offensive production, and the lowest in his four full-seasons in the league. Now healthy and removed from rumors that had him on the trade block this summer, “Ghost” should round back into form this upcoming season.

Shayne Gostisbehere

Shayne Gostisbehere will look to round back into form after a down season. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

While Provorov and Gostisbehere struggled a bit in 2018-19, Travis Sanheim made the jump from prospect to full-time NHLer and showed quickly why the Flyers were high on him. A mix of great size, sneaky quickness, a nasty streak and a budding hockey I.Q., Sanheim could be ready to show even more improvement in the season ahead. Sanheim finished just behind Gostisbehere in points by defensemen on the Flyers last year, ending the year with 35 points and tied for the position lead in goals with nine. 

Adding to the group that includes Gostisbehere, Provorov and Sanheim are the likes of Philippe Myers, Sam Morin, Robert Hagg and Mark Friedman who could all make contributions this season. Also, the defensive cupboard isn’t even close to empty with plenty of prospects capable of making the jump in the near future, with names such as Egor Zamula, Linus Hogberg, Wyatt Kalynuk, Jack St. Ivany and Cameron York to keep an eye on.