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Meltzer's Line Play: 3rd Pair D ... and beyond

Who's in the fight for the final pairing at camp and ultimately will start the season

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer

What has been the Flyers' best blueline third pair in the last decade of team history? The vote here is for the pairing of Andrej Meszaros with Sean O'Donnell in 2010-11. 

With the pairings anchored by Chris Pronger (along with Matt Carle) and Kimmo Timonen (paired with Braydon Coburn) in place to absorb the toughest minutes, the third pair thrived. Meszaros, in fact, won the Barry Ashbee Trophy that year by dominating the matchups he was presented in conjunction with O'Donnell.

The pair-to-pair boosting dynamic will not be quite the same for the current Flyers heading into camp -- for all their respective upside, Ivan Provorov is not in the class of Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Pronger nor is Travis Sanheim the equal of five-time NHL All-Star Game selection Timonen -- but the principle is similar in one regard. If the likely pairings of Provorov with Matt Niskanen (or Justin Braun) and Sanheim with Braun (or Niskanen) stay health and perform as hoped, Shayne Gostisbehere's pairing could find itself with favorable matchups with a lot of offensive zone starts. 

The question is: Who will Gostisbehere's partner be? The choice here is Philippe Myers. 

LINE PLAY SERIES (Forwards): Top Line | 2nd Line | 3rd Line | 4th Line

LINE PLAY SERIES (Defensemen): Top Pair | 2nd Pair

Note: Although he is technically still a rookie by the NHL's definition because he fell four games short of playing in 25 NHL games in 2018-19 -- mirroring left winger Oskar Lindblom's status entering last season -- Myers for all intents and purposes is a second-year NHL player. Thus, Myers is being included in the pre-camp "Line Play" series whereas this year's crop of rookie hopeful forwards are not. Carter Hart, who appeared in 31 games last season, is a second-year player by NHL definition. 

Now 26 years old, "Ghost" will play his 5th NHL season and 6th as a pro in 2019-20. 

Things change fast in sports: This time a year ago, Gostisbehere was seemingly entrenched on the Flyers top pairing with Ivan Provorov and was coming off a 13-goal, 65-point season that also saw him show notable improvement in the defensive zone along with his typically strong neutral zone play and effectiveness on the attack. 

One of the player's most underrated assets: he is one the league's best players at keeps in the offensive zone, sometimes of the spectacular diving variety. Many an attack has stayed alive because Gostisbehere finds a way to prevent the puck from getting over the blueline on an opposing clearing attempt.

Unfortunately, Gostisbehere is coming off a disappointing 2018-19 season that saw him regress in his off-puck play in his own zone and also see his offensive production dip significantly (nine goals, 37 points). Gostisbehere's role entering camp under new head coach Alain Vigneault, new defense coach Mike Yeo and new power-play coach Michel Therrien might be that of a third-pairing player at even strength along with his customary power play spot. 

Thus far in Gostisbehere's career, he has an alternating-year pattern: A Calder Trophy finalist rookie year that saw him set a rookie point streak record was followed by a disappointing second season. A revised training regimen in 2017 helped propel him to an excellent 2017-18 regular season. Unfortunately, that was followed by a disappointing playoff series against Pittsburgh (both for the Flyers collectively and Gostisbehere individually), an excellent 2018 training camp and then a down year during the 2018-19 campaign. That has put his career at a crossroads.

Gostisbehere regressed in his own-zone play without the puck last season but his even number one asset -- his work on the power play -- suffered as well. In terms of statistical 5-on-5 offensive production, he wasn't horrifically far off the mark from what he had done the previous season (5 goals, 18 assists, 23 points at 5-on-5 in 2018-19 compared to 6 goals, 26 assists, 32 points). 

On the whole, however, Gostisbehere's season last year was just about a worst-case scenario for the player. His confidence dropped as the season progressed. At times, Gostisbehere even found himself overthinking what he should do his bread-and-butter situations with a chance to attack.

In April, Gostisbehere said that he dealt with a nagging knee issue this past season that affected his skating to some degree. He is an average straight-line skater but is exceptionally good on his edges. Gostisbehere's lateral elusiveness is a big part of his game. 

Placed in a third-line role with extensive offensive zone starts, Gostisbehere could thrive again on the attack and post strong underlying numbers. He's always been above-average in entry denials in the neutral zone and a good breakout passer. 

Myers earned his first NHL recall last year in the latter half of the season. He had some ups and downs on both sides of the puck but showed considerable promise -- a tantalizing combination of size, rangy mobility, two-way potential and a heavy shot -- in many of his 21 games with the Flyers. Myers also got the opportunity to play under Vigneault for Team Canada during the 2019 IIHF World Championships. 

"I like a lot of what I saw in him. He has very high potential. I like that he's righthanded. Big size. Big shot. Very good skater and range. He's still raw in his details but there's a lot we can work with," Vigneault said of Myers.

While Myers has a strong shot at opening the season in the Flyers' starting lineup -- thus completing three separate pairings of left-shot and right-shot defensemen -- he is not a lock. He has some competition. 

A third-year NHLer come the start of the regular season, Hägg dressed in all 82 games last season and started 70 of 82 (missing five due to a late-season injury, the rest by coach's decision) as a rookie. Hägg plays a hitting-oriented game, is good on the walls, and has an underrated shot. However, he has struggled mightily on retrievals and breakouts. These factors have contributed to rough underlying stats.

Hägg has worked on trying to find a middle ground between over-relying on chipping the puck off the glass and avoiding the low-percentage home run pass attempts that he removed from his game earlier in his pro career. He worked on being more efficient on his retrievals and being more aware of his options when he has a chance to get the puck out of the defensive zone. 

Although Hägg usually remains calm when defending, every failed clearing opportunity that extends an opponent's attack zone time correspondingly increases the chance of a prime scoring chance or a power play opportunity. The best case scenario still isn't great: a line change on a dump-in to get fresh troops on the ice, or the goalie freezes the puck and the next line starts out in the defensive zone.  

Hägg is very good at pinning opponents to the boards, and giving teammates a chance to retrieve the puck from scrums. He is usually good at delivering clean hits and in not taking himself out of position to look for such opportunities. These are all traits that his coaches have praised. If he can clean up his game with the puck on his stick, Hägg could re-solidify an every-game starting role in the NHL. 

Coming to back-to-back lost seasons -- the first due to a succession of nagging core-muscle injuries during the 2017-18 regular season and all but the final few weeks of the 2018-19 season spent rehabbing a torn ACL suffered in the 2018 Calder Cup playoffs -- Samuel Morin is a wildcard in the blueline roster battle. 

What is known: When the hulking Morin is healthy, his combination of aggressive physical play, wingspan and contagious energy is a boon. He is not a bad puckhandler or passer, either, so long as he doesn't try to do too much. Walking the discipline line, whether in terms of avoiding bad penalties, not taking himself out of position or getting trapped on the wrong side of the puck up ice, has always been Morin's main set of challenges. 

Always surprisingly fast for a man his size when skating in a straight line -- his huge strides eat up swatches of ice in a hurry and he even accelerates reasonably quickly -- Morin has been a work in progress in more nuanced areas, such as his footwork and turning efficiency. He was in a good spot in his development to catapult to the NHL when all the injuries started to take him off the ice for months at a time. 

This year, Morin has had the benefit of a full off-season. If he were to win a spot alongside Gostisbehere, Morin would play left defense and Gostisbehere would switch sides and play on the right. Both Ghost and Hägg are comfortable on either side of a pairing, whereas Morin exclusively plays left D. 

The Flyers signed unrestricted free agent Welinski to a one-year, one-way contract ($750,000) on July 1. By virtue of the defensemen getting a one-way deal, he, too, has to be considered at least a fringe candidate to make the NHL roster. 

With eight players ahead of him -- Provorov, Niskanen, Sanheim, Braun, Gostisbehere, Myers, Hägg and Morin -- waivers and an AHL assignment for Welinski seems likely if all eight get through camp healthy. However, if someone gets traded or injured and the roster enters the season with 13 forwards and 8 defensemen, suddenly it would not be such a remote possibility to carry Welinski as a depth defensemen if there are eight to start. 

Welinski is a righthanded shooter, meaning the coaches could roll four separate left-right shot pairs (the three starting pairs and the pair of healthy scratch D) at practice each day. Additionally, Welinski dressed in 26 NHL games last season for Anaheim and seven the previous year, so it's not outlandish to forecast him as a possible NHL roster player if the Flyers carry eight defensemen into the season and otherwise make a roster move to lessen some of the logjam.

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