The day Ron Hextall became Flyers’ GM, he was in a hurry to say that on his watch, no Flyer prospect will be rushed.
Home-grown defensemen are on the way; the plan is for Shayne Gostisbehere, Robert Hagg, Sam Morin and Travis Sanheim to make Andrew MacDonald the Flyers’ last big veteran defense expenditure for a while. In the meantime, it is hugely important that the Flyers, who will not likely have Kimmo Timonen for the one more year they had hoped, continue to otherwise get bang for the big bucks they have spent.
Thus Mark Streit, whose play began to justify his July 2013 signing as last season went along, becomes more critical than ever and not just because he will bring the team’s hardest slapshot into Timonen’s spot on the first power-play unit.
“Coming to a new team it took [Streit] a little while to find his niche,” said Coach Craig Berube. “But he was a good player for us down the stretch.
“He gets up in the play, does a lot of things both on the power play and five-on-five.
Not a big guy, but he defends well with his stick and as the year went along, he got better with his reads and his gaps.”
“Nowadays, if you ask the question about whether a guy is a good defender it’s really about five guys. You need numbers in the defensive zone.”
And when you don’t have that No. 1 defensemen who can control a game for 27-28 minutes, it’s even more important to number six deep in competent guys who can thrive in a sound structure. The Flyers increasingly demonstrated one as last season went along, going 41-23-10 after a 1-7 start and falling just two Game Seven goals short – against an eventual Stanley Cup finalist. -- of advancing to a second round.
Because this team lacks that defensive star, critics are fast to characterize its defense as too slow, but the Flyers are at least five deep in D whom top contenders would be happy to add on at a trading deadline. And they can balance a puck mover with a defender of size on each pairing.
Nick Grossmann was excellent last season before injuries diminished him, and then finally put him out in the final three games of the Rangers series. Braydon Coburn was a reliable one-on-one defender. MacDonald added mobility and steadied Luke Schenn, who at 23 is just now heading into the years that will define his career.
Even in the absence of Timonen, Hextall may have improved the depth. Nick Schultz, a 14-year veteran, likely will engender more trust than Hal Gill and Erik Gustafsson did at bookend stages of their careers. We’ll see if Michael Del Zotto, once a Ranger No 1, signed almost instantly once Timonen’s blood clots put his career in jeopardy, will be more than just a temporary plug at the point of the second power-play unit.
In the meantime old hands – of the incumbents only Schenn, 23, is younger than 29 -- can learn some new tricks, why Hextall believed the Flyers needed to add an experienced NHL defenseman and teacher like Gord Murphy to their coaching staff. With Streit, 36, one season into a four-year commitment, the Flyers also expect the leadership skills that made him the captain of the Islanders to further emerge.
“New team, new room, different surroundings, it took a while to get used to it,” he said. “But I feel like at the end of the season I finished pretty strong and I was pretty happy with my game, just not with the result of the last game.
“I love taking responsibility on and off the ice. There is a lot of leadership in this room with Kimmo not here at the moment everybody needs to step up and do a little more.”
The more leaders the better on any team, but some clubs necessarily are more star-oriented than others. Without a huge upgrade in skill level, some solid pros on this Flyers’ defense still can make each other better.