VOORHEES, N.J. – Raise your hand if you find it interesting that as much-maligned as the Flyers defense was publicly last season that the organization basically brought the same group back this season.
Yes, there should be a lot of hands going up. But the question is, are you raising your hand because you find it maddening and perplexing, or are you raising your hand because, like general manager Paul Holmgren, you feel the defense is better than it gets credit for and is often over-scrutinized by those who choose to assess blame?
Don’t worry if you feel bad about falling in the first category, because you are certainly not alone. And don’t look around nervously worrying about the acceptance of your peers as a knowledgeable hockey fan if you are in the second group, which is likely the minority opinion.
But, just because it is the opinion less expressed, doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
Now this isn’t meant to be a condemnation of the critics, nor is it meant to be a blind defense of the … um… defense.
Instead, it’s meant to say, “Let’s not jump to any conclusions about this group just yet.”
That’s all the Flyers ask.
Talk to any of them – from general manager Paul Holmgren to each veteran on the blue line and they’ll all tell you the same thing.
Here’s Braydon Coburn:
“Every single guy was disappointed with the way things went last season,” he said. “But I also know that talking with the guys this summer that this is a highly, highly motivated group. We definitely want to make sure we improve on our play from last year.”
They all admit there were mistakes. They all admit there wasn’t a lot of cohesion. They don’t want to use injuries as an excuse, but when only one of your top seven defenseman makes it through 48 games without injury, and as a team you are forced to use 13 different defensemen in such a short span of games with very little practice time… well… if there was ever a time to allow for an injury excuse, this might be it.
“I’m excited to see what we’ll look like if we’re healthy and able to play more than just a few games together,” said Kimmo Timonen. “I think it’s a good group here.”
And really, it should be.
Timonen had a highly productive offensive season in the lockout-shortened campaign, finishing tied for sixth in the NHL in scoring among defensemen.
Add new blueliner Mark Streit, who only had two points fewer than Timonen, and factoring in the improved play of Erik Gustafsson as a mobile defensemen at the end of last season and his strong play in the World Championships for the gold medal winning Swedish team, and the Flyers shouldn’t have nearly as much trouble as they have in the past in advancing the puck from their own end.
“Gustafsson went upward all season,” said his countryman Nick Grossmann. “Then to go and play like he did while winning the gold medal, he’s been really good and I think he’s going to be fun to follow this year.”
Speaking of Grossmann, he’s 100 percent healthy now and has been cleared to return to all hockey related activities following problems related to a concussion last season that contributed to him missing 18 games.
Grossmann is a rock in his own end, blocking shots at every turn. He had 82 blocks in those 30 games last season and although that total didn’t have him among the league leaders because of the time missed via injury, his average of 2.73 blocks per game was second-best in the NHL behind Greg Zanon of Colorado (2.82).
Luke Schenn had his best year as a pro too, not only leading the NHL in hits (by a wide-margin) with 187 and being one of only 19 players in the NHL to block more than 100 shots, but he developed into a more reliable player learning by playing alongside Timonen.
As for Coburn, he’s a guy that you don’t realize how much he’s missed until he’s gone, and when he had to sit out the final 15 games of last season with a shoulder injury, his absence was felt considerably because of his steady defensive play and his elite skating ability for such a big guy.
True, Coburn and Schenn struggled some with breakouts – and ended up leading the Flyers in giveaways with 31 each (although neither ranked in the top 30 in the NHL in that category) – but the reality is, those guys shouldn’t be relied on regularly to quarterback rushes.
This is where the addition of Streit should help. The former captain of the New York Islanders built a reputation as being a slick skater with elite ice vision who makes a heck of a first pass.
“He’s a great addition on the ice,” said Bruno Gervais, who makes up the depth portion of the defensive corps and will likely start the season as the Flyers No. 7 rearguard. “And he’s a great teammate and a great leader and is well-like din the locker room.
“He’ll fit in to this group real nicely. We’re coming into the season with a chip on our shoulder and make sure we’re back on track. We’re going to have less distractions this year for sure and we’re going to hit the ground running right off the bat. Adding a guy like Streit will help more than you can measure right away.”
Not to be forgotten are Andrej Meszaros, who is trying to come back off a series of injuries and Marc-Andre Bourdon, who is trying to return from post-concussion syndrome. Both are on one-way deals, and if they can get their health in order can truly make this unit a deeper and more reliable group.
One thing is for certain though – asking for a mulligan for last season and being granted it is one thing, but coming out this season have having continued struggles on defense will be unacceptable – and the players know it.
“There’s no one satisfied with what we did last year and we need to have higher hopes for this group,” Grossmann said. “We have a lot of expectations on ourselves, but also from management and the fans.
“If we can stay healthy it will be a bonus for us and we will be a good unit, a really good unit.”
To contact Anthony SanFilippo, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AnthonySan37
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