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Depth on D

Over the course of the team's 69-game regular season, the Philadelphia Flyers used only nine defensemen for the entire campaign

by Bill Meltzer @billmeltzer /

Over the course of the team's 69-game regular season, the Philadelphia Flyers used only nine defensemen for the entire campaign. For the most part, the Flyers were able to avoid prolonged injury absences among their core group on the blueline.

Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim dressed in every game this season. Matt Niskanen missed only one. Justin Braun was absent for a total of seven games, appearing in each of the first 42 games of the season. After missing six games due to a groin issue, Braun dressed in every subsequent game with the exception of missing the Feb. 20 game against Columbus with the flu.

Combined, the Flyers lost mere eight man-games lost among two-thirds of the team's starting defense corps. Any team would be thrilled to take that in a given season.

Shayne Gostisbehere, who entered the season as a fixture in the starting six but eventually lost his spot, was an exception. He underwent arthroscopic surgery on both knees this calendar year (the latter coming during the leaguewide pause for the coronavirus pandemic). Between injury-related absences and coach's decision scratches, "Ghost" dressed in only 42 of the 69 games.

An NHL rookie this season, Philippe Myers started the campaign in the AHL with the Phantoms. After his recall to the Flyers, he was a periodic healthy scratch and also had a brief absence related to minor back spasms. Shortly before the NHL pause, Myers suffered a fractured kneecap; which is now fully healed. Overall, he appeared in 50 of the 69 games.

One season after dressing in all 82 games, Robert Hägg moved down in the first half of the season to the No. 7 spot in the depth chart; meaning that he frequently found himself on the outside looking in when the lineup sheet was made on game nights. In the second half of the season, however, Hägg reclaimed a regular starting spot when Gostisbehere dropped out of the top six in the rotation. The Swede dressed in 25 of the final 26 games before the schedule stoppage and in 49 of the 69 games overall.

During the round-robin and then the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, keep an eye on Gostisbehere's bid to reclaim a starting-six spot from Hägg. "Ghost" had an outstanding training camp, showing his once-familiar lateral-movement mobility, aggressive play in the neutral zone and prowess for jumping up into the attack. 

"I'm definitely 100 percent right now. I feel good. Probably the healthiest I've felt in a couple years. I'm happy to contribute any way that I can. It's just good to be healthy. Good to be out there, having fun and winning, too," Gostisbehere said. "If I get to play, I will do everything I can to help the team. If I don't, I'll be a good teammate and cheerleader."

If the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals started tomorrow, Hägg would likely remain in the starting lineup and Gostisbehere would sit barring an injury elsewhere in the rotation. However, this is going to be an ongoing competition. It would also not be a surprise at some point if the coaches make a lineup switch to dress "Ghost" if the team is coming off a loss and an offensive spark is needed. But as long as the team resembles the one that went on a tear in the 26 games leading up to the pause, the same starting pairs will likely hold.

The overall good health on the blueline this season meant that the Flyers rarely had to make defenseman callups from Lehigh Valley. Mark Friedman was the lone defenseman (apart from Myers early in the season) whom the team recalled the entire season. He had a total of four recalls; one of which was a precautionary recall for a single day. 

Friedman held his own in six NHL games this season (five during Braun's injury absence in January, and the other as a one-game sub for the flu-riddled Braun on Feb. 20). His final regular season recall came after Myers got injured but the team's March 12 game in Tampa Bay was postponed and then ultimately canceled when the NHL paused the season.   

The luckless Sam Morin only appeared in one NHL game this season after rehabbing a torn right ACL suffered in the 2018 Calder Cup playoffs. He skated 12:32 in the Flyers' 5-3 road loss to the New York Islanders on Oct. 27. Shortly thereafter, he was sent to the Phantoms for a conditioning stint. In the first period of his third game for Lehigh Valley, Morin once again tore the ACL in the same knee and was lost for the rest of the season. 

Overall, the Flyers had a lot of continuity on the blueline, especially in the second half of the season. There were three pairs that worked together almost exclusively -- Provorov with Niskanen, Sanheim with Myers, and Hägg with Braun. Each pair had one left-handed shooter and one right-hander. There was a good mix of youth and experience, thanks to the additions last summer of Niskanen and Braun. 

As a matter of fact, once the Flyers began training camp in Phase 3 of the NHL's return-to-play plan, the same defense pairings continued to work together each and every day. Even after the team left for "the Bubble" in Toronto, the three main pairs along with Gostisbehere paired with Friedman remained together. 

"I think the pairings look good. They are all working well together. You've got Provy and NIsky. Both those guys have obviously taken very good of themselves during the break. They're leading the way right now with the intensity and purpose that they are doing every drill with," said Flyers assistant coach Mike Yeo, who coaches the defense corps and the penalty kill.

"I think Sanny has looked outstanding all camp.... With Hagger and Brauner, those guys just go out and they compete and work and defend. They look very sharp right now. Then you've got Ghost. Friedman's a guy that I didn't know a lot about last year. He got some opportunities and he really impressed us. His skating ability, his hockey sense, and his competitiveness shows us he's a guys that could play. We really like the depth."

Braun said on the final day of camp in Voorhees that he appreciates the continuity that has developed. Being able to practice daily with the same partner has expedited the process of getting back in sync.

"I think it's huge. You want to be with a guy so you can kind of read off him again. Get that chemistry going because when you got to make those bumps, breakout plays, you can't be guessing where your guy is going to be. You got to know where he's going to be immediately, that he is going to be sliding over on the rush, that he's going to take away the middle. Just having those little detail things that you are working on every day with him. Beyond that, we are trying to all do the same thing out there. Everyone has a different style and different strength. I think it was good to kind of keep everyone where they were at," Braun said.

In the Flyers' exhibition game earlier this week against Pittsburgh, Vigneault rested the Hägg and Braun pair to take a look at the duo of Gostisbehere (who also got second unit ice time on the Flyers' lone power play of the game) and Friedman. With the team allowed to dress 13 forwards and 7 defensemen, Vigneault was also able to dress 20-year-old prospect Egor Zamula. 

Zamula, who was in the midst of an excellent junior hockey season for the Calgary Hitmen (WHL) and as a top-pairing defenseman for Team Russia at the World Junior Championships, had to be shut down for the rest of the season right after the WJC in order to get back surgery. He is now 100 percent healthy again, and the left-handed shooter was a revelation in training camp paired almost daily with veteran right-handed blueliner Andy Welinski.

Flyers assistant coach Ian Laperriere said that he feels the team has capable substitutes in case of multiple injuries on the blueline. Roster attrition during the playoffs is the norm rather than the exception, and it's hardly rare for defense injuries to pile up in the postseason (Flyers fans need only think back to the 2004 playoffs when the blueline was devastated with injuries and the club fell one win short of the Stanley Cup Final). Laperriere said that the depth of left/right options, the mix of youth and experience and differing skill sets of the various options are a huge help in feeling confident that the team can withstand injuries to the top-six group. 

"There's young guys like Zamula there. I didn't know much about him. He skated here for a month before camp started. For a kid who had some health issues and jumping with the big boys, he looks really good. We got guys like Friedman that we saw last year for a couple games, but they really did their work. They know it's a young guys' game and they might have a chance during our run. They did all the work to make sure they were ready to go," Laperriere said. 

Zamula tired a bit in the third period of the exhibition game, but he gave an overall solid accounting of himself that put his upside on display. Whether or not he gets into a game during this year's playoffs, the tall and lanky Russian appears to have a bright future. Provorov, who is starting to burgeon as a leader by example, has taken his countryman under his wing.

"I didn't know much about Z. Man, this kid's got some skill and confidence with the puck. You can see he's got the potential to be a player. Probably just needs some reps at higher speed and with the big boys. He's going to be a good one, I think," Niskanen said.

"Provy is a very mature. What's he, [23]? He's a very mature player. He's got a ton of experience for his age now. Just the translation piece is huge for Z, I would imagine. He's got a great role model in Provy. A good pro already and a very high end defenseman in this league already. That's a great situation for Z."

In many seasons, there would have been a strong chance that Andy Welinski would have seen some NHL time with the Flyers. Due to the overall good health of the NHL team's blueline corps in 2019-20 and some injury issues he had in training camp and later portions of the season, the 27-year old ended spending the entire season in the American Hockey League (42 games, 21 points) with the Phantoms. 

If the injury bug bites the right side of the Flyers' defense corps in the playoffs, however, Welinski is a capable fill-in. He's played in 33 NHL regular season games, including 26 last year for Anaheim, and also played in three playoff games for the Ducks in 2018. In Phase 3 training camp, Welinski quietly won a spot on the Flyers playoff roster. He beat out Phantoms teammates Tyler Wotherspoon (a left-handed shooter with 30 regular-season NHL games and six Stanley Cup playoff games under his belt) and 34-year-old Nate Prosser (a fellow righty with 354 NHL regular season games and 25 Stanley Cup playoff games to his credit) for the final spot. There are several teams among the 24 in the NHL postseason this year for whom Wotherspoon or Prosser would have been likely members of the extended playoff roster. 

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