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Battle on the Blue

What each of the eight men on defense brings as the Flyers set their roster

by Bill Meltzer @billmeltzer

The times are a-changing on the Flyers blueline, with an ever-increasing infusion of youth into the mix. Due to an injury to Shayne Gostisbehere in the third period of the team's final exhibition game, the club has taken along eight defensemen for the season opening road trip. 

There are three rookies (Robert Hagg, Sam Morin and Travis Sanheim), a second-year NHLer in defending Barry Ashbee Trophy winner Ivan Provorov and third-year NHLer Gostisbehere. In total, five of the eight defensemen opening the season with the team are age 24 or younger and have fewer than 145 games of NHL experience to date.

The arrangement of defense pairings to open the season remains to be seen, as it is partially dependent on Gostisbehere's status and on how head coach Dave Hakstol and assistant coach Gord Murphy want to balance the pairings. Over the course of the marathon-like 82-game season, pairings are likely to be altered periodically. 

Additionally, there is ongoing fluidity and competition for roster spots and playing time that did not end with the exhibition season finale. Even if one of the rookies is assigned to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms when Gostisbehere is green-lighted to play, that does not mean the arrangement is permanent. Injuries, strong play or slumps and team needs can shift the outlook significantly from October to April. 

With that in mind, here is a look at the eight defensemen and two goalies who accompanied the team to California.

Ivan Provorov : The 20-year-old Russian defenseman is already the two-way backbone of the Flyers' blueline, and yet has still barely scratched the surface of his two-way capabilities. Provorov enjoyed a consistently solid training camp and was often dominant in one-on-one situations. A fine passer and skater, Provorov also brings a level of poise and hockey savvy that is rare for a player his age. As a rookie, he showed hints of some of his offensive capabilities as well. Over time, he has the potential to emerge as a more frequent point producer as well as a top-pairing defender. Provorov will play in all game situations, including primary penalty killing duties and the second power play unit. 

Andrew MacDonald : After being waived and reassigned to the American Hockey League for much of the 2015-16 season, MacDonald reclaimed a regular NHL job last season and frequently played with Provorov as his partner. The 31-year-old defenseman is a containment-style defender. Coaches praise him as a decent puck-mover with good mobility and as an accomplished shot-blocker (he led the NHL in blocks during the 2013-14 season). He regularly plays on the Flyers' penalty kill and, in the past, periodically saw secondary power play duty.

Radko Gudas : One of the most punishing body checkers in the NHL, Gudas brings a mean streak and tank-like physical strength to the table. He has tried over the last year to play with greater discipline. Gudas also loves to shoot the puck whenever the opportunity presents itself. While not a regular goal scorer, he has a booming shot that found the net a combined 11 times over the past two seasons.

Shayne Gostisbehere : Everything went right for "Ghost" in his NHL rookie season of 2015-16 as he earned Calder Trophy finalist and Barry Ashbee Trophy honors with his dynamic offensive game. Things did not go nearly as well in his second NHL campaign, and he struggled at times on the defensive side of the puck in particular. Late in the season, he regained some of his mojo. The 24-year-old Gostisbehere remains a prime weapon on the Flyers' top power play unit and during three-on-three overtime play. 

Robert Hagg : Over the course of three AHL seasons with the Phantoms, Hagg has evolved from being more of a risk-taking blueliner to more of a structure-oriented defender. He is still capable of joining the rush when the opportunity presents itself (as he showed multiple times in his NHL debut in the final game of the 2016-17 regular season) but generally plays a simpler game. He has always made a good short-range to medium-range first pass and is "heavy" on the puck. Quietly, the 22-year-old Swede played steady and consistent hockey throughout the preseason to earn a spot on the NHL roster.

Brandon Manning: An offense-oriented and very physically aggressive defenseman at both the junior and American Hockey League levels, Manning painstakingly remade his game over multiple seasons to eventually find a niche as a stay-at-home role playing defenseman at the NHL level. Nicknamed "Mandog", the 27-year-old willingly battles in the trenches and stands up for his teammates.  

Sam Morin: The Flyers' first-round pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, Morin has spent the last two seasons learning how to harness his physical skills and direct his seemingly boundless energy. The nearly 6-foot-7 defenseman is an above-average skater in a straight line and has worked hard on improving his footwork and turning. Physically aggressive with a punishing hitting game and good fighting skills, Morin has steadily worked on taking himself out of position (or off to the penalty box) less frequently. His puck skills have improved as he's simplified aspects of his game. His NHL role is projected as being that of a shutdown defenseman but he can still score the occasional goal as a trailer as he did in notching a preseason tally against the Rangers. He has shown an ability to bounce back quickly after making a mistake, as have Hagg and Sanheim.

Travis Sanheim: The Flyers first-round pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, Sanheim's combination of size (now 6-foot-4, 200 pounds), mobility and offensive skills were never in doubt. He spent his rookie season with the Phantoms in 2016-17 working on his two-way game, and still managed to bag 10 goals and 37 points in a secondary offensive role. Sanheim had some ups and downs early in the preseason but then played a couple of dominant two-way games that also included scoring three goals. In a late preseason outing against Boston, he focused mainly on the defensive side of the puck and had a generally solid game in that regard.

For a look at what the forwards bring on a line-by-line basis - Check out Meltzer's article from Monday HERE

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