The Flyers used 13 different defensemen this season. In an 82-game season that’s quite high. In a 48-game season, it borders on ridiculous.
Nevertheless, it’s one of the issues the Flyers faced this season, and ultimately, while the group wasn’t as bad as some may want to make it seem, the fact that they had to rely on a baker’s dozen – more than twice as many as play in a single game – has to factor into the reasoning as to why the season ended before the playoffs for just the ninth time in the 46-year history of the franchise.
Defense in hockey, like pitching in baseball, is always in demand because there’s just not enough of it out there that is considered quality in the NHL. So, when the Flyers have to basically call up an entire minor league team worth of defensemen to play in the NHL, it’s easy to understand why there were problems in such areas as breakouts, turnovers, puck possession, and ultimately, goals against.
While injuries are a part of every team’s seasonal saga, it’s safe to assume that no team expects that five of its starting six defensemen will end up on the shelf.
There were questions, of course, at the start of the season about how this unit would play together, as it wasn’t considered a top-end defensive core, but rather a group made up like a band – a good front man (Kimmo Timonen) and a bunch of guys behind him who just do their job.
Whether that would be good enough to carry the Flyers was going to be the soap opera that played out during the season - especially after efforts to nab unrestricted free agent Ryan Suter and restricted free agent Shea Weber came up empty last summer - but it didn’t take long to start to unravel as Andrej Meszaros was injured in the fourth game of the campaign.
From there, the Flyers lost Braydon Coburn (shoulder separation), Nick Grosmann (concussion), Bruno Gervais (abdominal tear) and eventually Timonen (foot fracture) leaving only Luke Schenn as the one healthy guy on the blue line.
The Flyers turned to prospect Erik Gustafsson to fill the void, and he needed some extra seasoning before he kicked his game into the right gear, being sent down midseason before being recalled – and was much better the second go-round.
They even leaned on veterans like Kurtis Foster, Kent Huskins and Andreas Lilja at times, although neither had any kind of significant impact.
And then there were the kids – none of whom were expected to be in the NHL at all this season, yet were forced into duty and held their own.
Probably the biggest surprise was Oliver Lauridsen. The tall and rangy 24-year-old who was a seventh round draft pick of the Flyers in 2009.
Considered a project when he was drafted out of St. Cloud State, Lauridsen wasn’t having the kind of breakout season you would hope a prospect was having which led to the call up.
Instead, he was a call up of necessity, and was he ever a pleasant surprise.
Lauridsen only played 15 games, but he likely earned himself a real shot at a job with the big club in training camp come September with the way he played.
Paired mostly with Schenn, Lauridsen showed his knew how to play with his size, and while he wasn’t the fastest skater, proved to be adept at making an initial pass and pushing the play up ice.
But the biggest strides were made by Schenn himself. Starting the season as a bit of an enigma after such a roller coaster of a career in Toronto, Schenn worked privately with inured Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger and was paired for a good portion of the season with Timonen, developing his game.
By season’s end, he was the Flyers’ best defensive defenseman, and proved he can log big minutes, hovering around 30 minutes per game on a lot of nights in the latter portion of the season. He was one of only 19 players to block at least 100 shots (102) and was even tied for third in the NHL in hits (and tops among defensemen) with 187.
He definitely proved that the Toronto media was mistaken, labeling him a 5-6 defenseman at best, and is easily a second-pair player right now.
Still just 23, there’s time left for Schenn to grow into an even bigger role and become an elite defenseman in the NHL, as he was projected to be as a teenager.
There were other bright spots as well:
-Timonen finished tied for sixth in the NHL in scoring among defensemen (29 points) and was easily the Flyers best defenseman overall.
-Gustafsson really came into his own over the final month of the season and showed far more patience with an around the puck than ever before in his previous call-ups to the big club.
-Grossmann had 82 blocks in just 30 games played before suffering a concussion. His 2.73 blocks per game was the best ratio in the NHL.
Yet for all the positives, the constant flux with the defensive lineup left the Flyers in more difficult straits as far as cohesiveness is concerned, and efforts to overcompensate for the inexperience of the blue line proved problematic.
It’s no secret that Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren is going to be on the prowl again this summer looking to upgrade the blue line. And once Holmgren laces up his trading boots, with the exception of Timonen and Schenn, no one might be safe.
But there are enough pieces in place and enough organizational depth that picked up NHL experience during the season as well (like Brandon Manning and Matt Konan) that the Flyers re-tooling of the back end might not need the biggest of renovations.
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