Having a long-term defense partner that you know so well that you know beforehand what each other will do is not much different than being married for a long period of time. To withstand the test of time, it involves taking the good with the bad.
You have to encourage and push one another. Strong communication is a must, both verbal and non-verbal. It can take work to maintain chemistry as your respective careers advance -- for example, a serious injury can necessitate one partner to adjust aspects of his game, and the other has to adjust accordingly.
Whatever your respective playing styles, the key to having a defense partner that understands both your strengths and your weaknesses is pivotal to the success of that pair. If that mutual awareness isn't there, it doesn't matter how talented the two individual pieces are. They're not going to fit together, no matter how much a coach tries to force it.
I was fortunate enough to have had a steady partner for nearly 10 years in Eric Desjardins. He was a world-class defenseman in his own right, but also a very easy partner with whom to work. That's not said with any disrespect to my rookie year partner, Dmitri Yushkevich and second-year partner Kjell Samuelsson. I enjoyed playing with them, too. However, with Rico, the chemistry was instant and I think we complemented each other very well. That's why we stayed together as a regular pairing through six different head coaches and numerous assistants.
The current Flyers team needs that. With new systems and an almost entirely new coaching staff, the team has to have stable pairings on defense. Are there any pairings at present that can stay together for the long haul?
I'm not sure there are. I think Justin Braun and Matt Niskanen can both bring some stability and work together well with their partners for the short term, but both Braun and Niskanen are now in their 30s. Braun is an unrestricted free agent next summer, and Niskanen the year after that.
For now at least, it looks like Shayne Gostisbehere and Braun will be regular pairing. The Flyers have taken a look at their No. 1 defenseman, Ivan Provorov, with a couple different partners this preseason. First it was Niskanen, and they may be together when the season starts, but they had a pretty rough first game together and were at least temporarily separated. Provorov subsequently played a couple preseason games with Travis Sanheim, who was his most frequent partner in the second half of last season.
Individually, Provorov and Gostisbehere will need to have bounceback seasons. Both had career years in 2017-18 -- when they were paired together for the final three-quarters of the season -- and both had disappointing years last season.
Sanheim is still a bit inconsistent. He played at a very high level at times last season, especially in the second half. Other times, he looked every bit the still-inexperienced NHLer that he is. I do not think he has had a particularly good camp this September. He's been OK; not terrible but also hasn't had close to his "A" game so far. The Flyers will need the latter from him to take that next step as a blueline corps.
As for Sanheim's partner, well, that remains to be seen as well. It could be rookie Phil Myers. They were at times a dominating pair at the AHL level with the Phantoms. However, Myers is still very much feeling his way in the NHL level as he searches for his identity at the top level. He's tried to do a little too much in camp instead of playing within himself. Right now, his confidence seems to down a little after some uneven practices and games.
If it's not Myers, Robert Hägg is the most likely candidate right now to round out the starting six. Sam Morin is also in the picture, but he is still working to recover his game after missing most of the last two seasons with injuries.
The growing pains are normal for young D men. I was named to the NHL All-Rookie team in 1994-95 but I wasn't a finished product yet. I was still figuring out what would and would not work for me.
That is where I see the flyers defense corps right now: there is potential there, but not certainty. That's why the two vets were brought in this summer. Hopefully, they will add some stability, but the one thing that's still lacking is an obvious pair of long-term partners at the top of the order in the flyers defense corps . Essentially, that means finding whomever it will be that bring out the very best in Provorov and vice versa.
Moving forward, once the Flyers careers of Niskanen and Braun have run their course -- hopefully with a beneficial impact on their young partners' games, like Jason Smith and Derian Hatcher had in 2007-08 or like Kjell had on me before I moved up to play with Rico -- the current young D should be entering their primes. It has to start with Provorov.
I feel it will be imperative for Provorov find a mainstay, consistent defense partner for the next six, eight or 10 years much like the staple that Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook became in the Chicago Blackhawks' lineup as the team grew into a contender and then a Stanley Cup champion.
A regular, well-matched top defense pair stabilizes the drills in practice and has the single biggest responsibility on the ice outside of the goalie. It is a great picture to have a bonafide number one defenseman but it is equally as important to find the right complement to that No. 1 defenseman.
Let me clarify this: It doesn't mean that this is the best individual defenseman on the team after the No. 1 guy. Rather, it means he's the one that jibes the best and supports the No.1 on both sides of the puck.
Ideally, that pair consists of a left-shot D with a righty. Such a combo makes retrievals and puck moving a little easier. Think Nick Lidstrom and Vladimir Konstantinov. Using examples from Flyers history, think five-time NHL All-Star Jim Watson with Tom Bladon or Bob Dailey. Think Mark Howe and Kjell. Think Rico and me.
The left-right blend was something the Flyers did not have last season. Guys were playing on their off-sides, with only Radko Gudas (and, late season, Myers) available to naturally play the right.
That said, it certainly can be accomplished that two same-handed D can mesh well. The best pairing in Flyers history -- Mark Howe and Brad McCrimmon -- were two left-handed shooters.
With the team that reached the 2010 Stanley Cup Final, Matt Carle complemented Chris Pronger well, but no one would have called Carle the Flyers' No. 2 defenseman. Rather, that honor went to Kimmo Timonen, who had his own strong complementary partner in Braydon Coburn, and they were together from 2007-08 until the wear-and-tear on Timonen and the eventual trades of Coburn and Kimmo ended that run.
The game actually gets much easier when you play with a partner that you have regularly and is somebody that, in the hockey context, you know as well as your spouse at home. Professionally speaking, it's a very close relationship and one that is critical to the team because of the amount of trust that is put in to a top pair. It's not unlike finding the right line combinations at forward atop the lineup. Find that chemistry and things often snap in place beneath it.
Finding a top pair that can gel together and play off each other is also important in keeping the other two pairs collectively and four defensemen individually involved in each and every game. Why? Because everyone is slotted where they fit the best, minutes wise and matchups wise. Additionally, stability on the top means the other pairs can also gel and gain knowledge of each other's play.
There will be many improvements for this Flyers team this year but to me the level of stability on defense is an indispensable part of the team's quest to move up in the standings. Realistically, this year's team is going to have shave off about three-quarters to one full goal against per gain on average. It will take the whole team to do it, and will most certainly require stable goaltending as well.
Guess what? For all that to happen, this Flyers D is going to have to mesh, and it has to be evident on the top pairing and then filter through the other pairs. Long term, the Flyers will need to find a top pair that can stay together year-in and year-out. Short-term, much of the focus will be on the veteran flyer defenseman acquired in the off-season and the continual growth and development of the young top echelon players.
Easy, no. Doable, yes.