Photo by Amy Irvin/38 Photography
As the 2014-15 season wound down, we took a look at what the Flyers defense might look like in October, expressing fears that an already mediocre defensive unit might take another step back before the fall. With less than three weeks until the pucks drop for training camp, there are still many very important questions looming around the Flyers’ defensive unit. With 8 NHL defensemen already under contract and several notable prospects knocking on the door, the picture is still very murky entering camp. Lets examine some of these major questions still facing the defensive roster as we go into the fall.
1. WHEN WILL THE YOUNG GUYS GET THEIR CHANCE?
Earlier in the summer, we tried to predict which defensive prospects will get a look at the NHL level this fall. While guys like Travis Sanheim and Ivan Provorov might already be better than several of the defensemen on the roster, I still think it’s rather unlikely that either of them will play with the Flyers this fall. The logjam that already exists on the blueline and the value that lies in preserving their entry level contracts will ultimately lead to them being returned to juniors.
Could we see one of the other AHL-eligible prospects this year though? I would expect so. Asked about this topic earlier this summer, Ron Hextall told ESPN’s Craig Custance “We have to be cognizant of not waiting too long, there will be too much overlap. We’re going to keep a close eye on all our young defensemen. They’ll start filtering in at some point this year.”
I expect that at the very least, we will see Shayne Gostisbehere spend a fair amount of time in a Flyers jersey this season. It remains to be seen how long we will have to wait for that, and how long he will stick around once he does get his chance. The most important factor involved here will probably be the quality of Gostisbehere’s play in Lehigh Valley. He is coming off of an ACL tear, and Ron Hextall seems very intent on not bringing him up prematurely. Ghost will need to prove that he is ready. This will certainly remain a widely-discussed topic as the season goes on.
2. HOW WILL THIS UNIT SUPPRESS SHOTS?
Last week we took a look at projected top 9 forwards, separating their puck possession stats into offensive and defensive components in order to analyze their strengths and weaknesses. The table below shows the same statistics for Flyers defensemen over the past three seasons.
Statistics via Puckalytics.com
The first thing that stands out to me here is this: The Flyers do not have a single returning NHL defenseman who has had a positive impact on shot suppression during the last three seasons. The team already struggled to suppress shots for most of last season. Those struggles only worsened when their most skilled defensive defenseman, Braydon Coburn, was shipped off to Tampa Bay.
So in 2015-16, this defensive unit will clearly be facing an uphill battle when it comes to shot suppression. Guys like Michael Del Zotto and Radko Gudas, who struggle mightily to prevent shots against, will have to survive in the absence of a true defensive-minded partner.
This just further drives home the need to balance the forward unit well. Dave Hakstol’s most realistic hope for his defensive unit may be that his brand of hockey can maximize their offensive talents while allowing them to be carried by his stronger group of forwards. Having multiple forward lines that can regularly win the possession battle becomes even more important when considering that several defensemen on the team typically only thrive as passengers when it comes to possession.
Either way, if the Flyers are going to truly succeed in 2015-16, they will probably have to do so playing a high-event brand of hockey.
WHERE WILL YEVGENI MEDVEDEV FIT IN?
Earlier, we established that the Flyers defensive unit will at least begin the season comprised of mostly veterans. Of the 8 defensemen currently under contract, the only true unknown is 33 year old Russian Yevgeni Medvedev. Ron Hextall beat out several other teams for Medvedev’s services when he offered a one year, 3 million dollar contract back in May.
There are many reasons to think that Medvedev is capable of having a positive impact this fall. The 6′ 3”, 187 pound defensemen is praised for being a strong skater and passer who has great vision. He is a three-time all star in what is clearly the second best league in the world. Ron Hextall was not the only GM who thought Medvedev was worth pursuing; 5 other teams reportedly offered him a contract. I’d bank on Medvedev being a useful player this season.
On the other hand, there are no certainties with Medvedev until he takes the ice. At 33 years old, he is undoubtedly past his prime. He is coming off of his lowest point production season since 2009-10. Critics of Medvedev have emphasized his need to play a more physical game; He will now have to endure the physicality that comes will playing on a smaller rink. It’s never guaranteed that his style of play will translate well to the NHL. We won’t know for sure until he takes the ice.
The Medvedev contract was a small gamble from Ron Hextall. At best, he could be an important top 4 player who contributes offensively and helps out on special teams as well. At worst, he could be a failed experiment who sees a limited role or even spends time in the press box. Given what we know about the composition of this defensive unit, it could be extremely significant if Medvedev turns out to be a success.