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Defense Has Potential to Rank Among the Best

by Bill Meltzer / Philadelphia Flyers
It’s been said that offense wins headlines but defense wins championships. In hockey, strong defense requires a team-wide commitment that goes beyond the skill of the three pairs of defensemen, but even the most diligent of backchecking forwards can’t make up for a mediocre blueline corps. What’s more, the sport has a way of exposing any weak links in the defensive chain.

The All-Time Best "D"

1986-87: Anchored by the best pairing in team history, Mark Howe (pictured) and Brad McCrimmon, the Flyers came one game away from winning the Stanley Cup. The top pairing was supplemented by popular defensive defenseman Brad Marsh, offensive-minded Doug Crossman, the huge Kjell Samuelsson and various supplementary starters. Howe and McCrimmon actually had better seasons the previous year, but the defensive depth was better in 1986-87.

1973-74: The Flyers’ Stanley Cup winning bluelines were not particularly fast but they were sound in their own end of the ice and played with plenty of grit. Bernie Parent never had to worry about much traffic on his doorstep with the likes of Barry Ashbee, Andre “Moose” Dupont and Ed Van Impe patrolling in front of him. Young defenseman Jimmy Watston established himself this season as a fine NHL defenseman en route to five all-star seasons while his older brother, Joe, was positionally sound and savvy. Another youngster, Tom Bladon, was by far the most offensively skilled of the bunch. The squad that repeated as champions the following year did not have the playing services of Ashbee, who suffered a career-ending eye injury during the 1974 playoffs.

1979-80: The whole was greater than the sum of the parts for this squad, which was a key component of the team’s drive to the Stanley Cup Finals and record 35-game unbeaten streak during the regular season. The team’s two best defensemen were Bob “the Count” Dailey and Behn Wilson. Dailey possessed a rocket of a slapshot and, at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, few wanted to get in his way. Flying fists and flashing skates marked the play of the young and cocky Wilson, who had a penchant for big plays, big hits and big gaffes. An aging Moose Dupont contributed a solid season. Pat Quinn got the rest of the defense to overachieve. Tough guy Jack McIhargey returned to Philadelphia via trade midway through the season.

1982-83: In the early 1980s, the Flyers found themselves thin on defensive talent and set about correcting the problem via trade or otherwise bringing in proven veteran talent. Coach Bob McCammon’s 1982-83 team flopped in the playoffs but racked up 106 points during the regular season. A big part of the club’s dominance in the regular season stemmed from its top defensive pairings of Mark Howe with Glen Cochrane and Miroslav “Cookie” Dvorak with Brad Marsh. Cochrane’s physical play and eagerness to drop the gloves created room for Howe to operate and Dvorak’s two-way play was supplemented by Marsh’s grit and shot-blocking. Behn Wilson had an inconsistent season and heard a lot of boos, but he also contributed some highlights along the way.

2003-04: It’s hardly a stretch to say that if not for losing so many starting defensemen to injury during the playoffs, the 2003-04 Flyers could have reached the Stanley Cup Finals rather than falling one game shy in the Conference Finals. During the regular season and the first round of the playoffs (prior to getting injured), Kim Johnsson anchored the blueline. The veteran-led squad had the sturdy likes of 32-year-old Marcus Ragnarsson and the enigmatic Vladimir Malakhov played some of the best hockey of his career after coming over in a late-season trade. Rookie Joni Pitkanen showed signs of promise, while 34-year-old Eric Desjardins was limited by injury to 48 games. Midseason acquisition Mattias Timander did a creditable job. It the postseason, the blueline was so decimated by injury that it had to convert forward Sami Kapanen to defense.

Over the course of the Philadelphia Flyers’ history there have been a handful of defense corps that have been strong throughout the rotation. It’s far too early in the 2009-10 season to judge where the current group ranks among those of the past. The squad has had some early season highs and lows, which is to be expected. Nevertheless, when all is said and done, the potential is there for this year’s group to rank among the best in team history. “When you look at the ability of our back end to move the puck, we have a good chance to spend more time in the offensive zone,” said Flyers head coach John Stevens.

The givens, of course, are Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen. The two veteran all-stars provide strong play at both ends of the ice, with Pronger also contributing physical play and intimidation while Timonen offers speed and savvy. While the two could eventually be combined as a pairing, so far Pronger has anchored a successful pairing with Matt Carle while Timonen works with Braydon Coburn.

“It gives us a lot of flexibility to be able to have Chris and Kimmo on different pairings,” said Stevens. “We can roll out different matchups and both guys, along with Coby and Matt, can play a lot of minutes for us and not [get worn down] in a game where there’s a lot of special teams play.”

The play of Carle, Coburn and Ryan Parent are the X-factors in determining just how good this Flyers defense can be. All three players have considerable potential but entered this year searching for year-in and year-out consistency at the professional level.

Coburn, 24, had a breakthrough year in 2007-08 but was inconsistent a year ago with greater expectations placed on his shoulders. When he’s at the top of his game, Coburn’s combination of size and mobility gives opposing teams trouble. He’s had his ups and downs through the first six games on the regular season, but the team remains high on his ability.

The Timonen-Coburn pairing has been together before, usually with good results. While they were broken up for large portions of last season, Coburn says that he has not had difficulty reacclimatizing his own game to Timonen’s.

“It’s mostly an issue of playing the left side or the right side, but playing with Kimmo is always something I enjoy. I think my game fits well with his,” said Coburn. “The thing about Kimmo is that he’s very calm and he never panics back there. Kimmo can play very up-tempo but he also knows when to slow down the game. Also he’s very smart, just in the way he uses his stick and outlets the puck.”

The 25-year-old Carle looked to be an emerging NHL star in 2006-07, his first full year in the league. He compiled an impressive 42 points in 77 games and earned NHL All-Rookie team honors. Previously, Carle won the 2006 Hobey Baker award as college hockey’s best player and played well for the Sharks in 11 playoff games that spring. His play was inconsistent in his second and third NHL seasons. Now entering his first full year as a Flyer after coming over in the deal that sent Steve Eminger and Steve Downie to Tampa Bay, Carle seems to be a more confident player.

To date, the pairing of Carle and Pronger has worked especially well. The Alaska native has impressed his illustrious partner, who has already begun to take Carle under his wing. Carle has responded by compiling a team-high eight points (including a goal) and plus-five defensive rating through six games.

“It’s great to play with him and see the skill and anticipation he has. Just in terms of communication and positioning, I’ve learned things from Chris,” said Carle, who registered a career-high four assists against Washington in the Flyers’ home opener.

The 22-year-old Parent was set back last year by an early season shoulder injury, but showed flashes of emerging into the type of mobile defensive-minded NHL defenseman he’s been projected to be ever since the Nashville Predators chose him in the first round of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.

Through the first six games, Parent has been experiencing the typical learning curve for any young NHL defenseman. While he’s skilled with the puck, he’s never been one to push the offense through low-percentage passes or risky forays deep into the offensive zone. As a result he’s content posting modest point totals so long as he takes care of business in his own end of the ice.

“At this level it takes a little while for defensemen to get confidence in their abilities. The game moves faster up here,” said Stevens, himself a former defenseman. “We have a lot of faith in Ryan, and we’re pleased with his progress as a young player. Sometimes he needs to make the simple play, sometimes he needs to be a little more aggressive. It’s all part of the process.”

Parent was initially slated to be paired with veteran Randy Jones, but salary cap considerations and ineffective play in the preseason resulted in the Flyers waiving Jones and sending him the AHL’s Adirondack Phantoms.

In Jones’ place are Ole-Kristian Tollefsen and Danny Syvret. Tollefsen, 24, has been plagued by injuries throughout his career. He has to play a physical style to be effective, and the Norwegian backliner has always shown a willingness to drop the gloves. Syvret, 24, has battled the perception that he’s a little undersized and not strong enough in his own end of the ice to stick in the NHL. After a breakthrough AHL campaign last year (12 goals, 57 points, plus-seven in 76 games) he earned a chance to make the big club in training camp and made the most of it. 
Matt Carle is off to a great start in 2009-10, paired with veteran Chris Pronger. (photo by Jack Cassidy)

Syvret started the first three games of the regular season. Tollefsen has played in the last three games. While neither player has stood out so far, Stevens says that he likes the elements that each player brings to the table.

“We can throw some different looks out there with Danny’s puck-moving ability and Tolly throwing his weight around. Both guys are going to get a chance to play,” said Stevens.

It was not until the 1990s that most NHL teams began to regularly roll three defensive pairings at even strength. Previously, most clubs used two pairings and spotted the third. While Stevens has already shown a willingness to shorten the bench and go with two pairings late in games, the coach says he wouldn’t hesitate to use any of the seven defensemen on the roster in a key spot.

“I can honestly say that we’ve got confidence in all the guys we’ve got back there. But, obviously, when you have guys like Pronger and Timonen, those guys are going to lead the way,” Stevens said.

For his part, Pronger doesn’t want to hear anything – good or bad – as to how this team’s defense stacks up on paper against those of the recent and distant past.

“Let’s play the games and find out,” said the former Norris Trophy winner. “At the end of the year we can talk about how we did compared to the rest.”
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