Those who were fast to write off the Flyers as a playoff team usually cited their lack of foot speed on defense. But obviously, you don’t go 19-10-4 in the last 33 games with four pylons and a couple of Jiri Latals back there.
Even considering the improved systemic help from the forwards and goaltending by Steve Mason that barely has faltered, you gotta give this D a lot better than a D when you grade the reasons for the Flyers’ surge.
Outside of Steve Mason, Nick Grossmann has been the Flyers’ most consistent player, getting a piece of the opposition forwards and providing a strong measure of mental peace whenever a cycle gets going in the Philadelphia end.
Braydon Coburn has his gaffes, but is a more confident and effective player than he was a year ago. After a bad start, 38-year old Kimmo Timonen is showing in his final season he still can handle 20-plus minutes a game and quarterback a decent power play.
Mark Streit, who was contributing practically nothing in the first two months besides an unfathomable giveaway to cost the Flyers an overtime loss in Raleigh, is making some plays now and has been in place defensively.
Luke Schenn, who doesn’t turn well, got spun on Colorado’s winning goal Thursday night in Denver. But playing on a team that still has given up seven more goals than it has scored, Schenn is only a minus seven for the season with a variety of last-pair partners.
Erik Gustafsson is young and with experience may find another level. And in his injury absence, the Flyers are 4-1 with Andrej Meszaros, who, coming off two seasons of intense physical issues, is playing 14-to-19 minutes. So how badly can he be doing?
Hey, you were expecting Serge Savard, Larry Robinson, Guy Lapointe and Bill Nyrop?
Better as a whole than as the sum of its parts, the Flyers defense has been decent, comparable to that of most of their competitors for a lower-tier playoff spot.
But of course the unit lacks a Chris Pronger or a Mark Howe, or more to the point to where the Flyers want to be in 2014, it is missing a Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty, Zdeno Chara, Erik Karlsson or Kris Letang.
Considering the Flyers relative youth up front, even better than the above would be a homegrown version of Anaheim’s Cam Fowler, the kind of guy who could give Philadelphia 10-12 years of presence in its own end. It appears that if Sam Morin, the Flyers’ No. 1 pick in June, makes it big, it will be more as a shutdown type than a big point producer, not that there is anything wrong with that.
Morin is not the extent of the Flyers’ prospects on defense. Shayne Gostisbehere (third round 2012) is an offensive-minded guy and Robert Hagg (second round, 2013) and Valeri Vasiliev (seventh round 2012) are playing for their country’s teams in the World Junior Tournament.
But Gostisbehere is 5-foot-11, which might make him the next Timonen but not the next Pronger, why the Flyers constructed an offer last summer for Shea Weber they hoped Nashville would have little choice but to refuse.
Alas, the Predators raided their piggy bank and matched, so Streit, 36, became the Plan B, which still begs another Plan A for this season’s trading deadline and probably beyond. Because there is not a first-pair caliber defenseman in the NHL who will become an unrestricted free agent in July, Paul Holmgren is going to have to look for the next defensive leader of the Flyers in a trade. Considering how few guys exist with legitimate No. 1 potential, good luck to the GM in that.
In the meantime it is reassuring to see Grossmann, signed through 2015-16 at a cap-friendly $3.5 million per, performing like a core player and a relief to see that Coburn, signed through 2015-16 at $4.5 million and Streit, signed through 2016-17 at $5.25 million per, have picked up their games.
The Flyers are demonstrating they can make the playoffs with what they have, but for this franchise, entrance into the post-season is the minimum. It will be unreasonable to expect the maximum until the Flyers get a 25-or-26 minute-a-game defenseman who makes the ones they have better.