The Flyers Blueline; a Defense for our Defense >

by Michael DeNicola

Monday, January 13th, 2014 --

I want to begin this article by saying that our Philadelphia Flyers don't possess the best, or the most ideal defensive core. I acknowledge our blueline's lack of speed and its frustrating inability to pickup a speedy opposing zone-entry. Flyers Faithful's John Saquella (@jsaquella) put it best when describing Nicklas Grossmann in his latest opinionated piece; "It's not that Grossmann is a horrible player, he's just a very limited one." And the same could be said up and down our defensive unit. Whether age has gripped their productivity, or their skills are bottlenecked in a variety of on-ice situations, none of our defensemen can be considered a legitimate Top 2 pairing skater.

Despite our recent surge in wins (out West on the road, mind you), the Flyers have a laundry list of issues needing remedied by solutions we neither have or have acquired -- yet. 

After this past weekend, our fanbase has been aggressively brought back down to earth with two consecutive regulation losses to the Lightning and Rangers. Naturally, the responses from our hometowners are every excuse in the book. None more overused than our defense is losing games by turning the puck over.

Turnovers are statistically scored as 'Giveaways'. A giveaway is "a form of turnover in which the player makes an unforced error that results in giving the puck up to the opposition." [1

Braydon Coburn has been under fire from a lot of Flyers fans for quite sometime. Because of certain situations, mainly the untimely loss of Chris Pronger and Matt Carle's free agent exit, by default, Braydon has been slotted into our #1 Defenseman role. Through objective glasses, Coburn has done a variety of small things correctly and effectively, but as usual, the negatives tend to get noticed more often and in a higher capacity. It just comes with the territory. 

A major criticism of Braydon's is that he turns the puck over in high volume. But he doesn't even breach the Top 50 NHL Defenseman in Giveaways this season. In fact, no Flyer is a part of that list at all. But there are mentionable names like Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty, PK Subban, Duncan Keith, Zdeno Chara, Keith Yandle and Dan Girardi who all lead Braydon Coburn in that category. 

Coburn comes in at 54th in the League in giveaways. The next Flyer (in this order) seen on that list is Grossmann at 66th, Timonen at 83rd, and Streit banks in at 117th.

"Well, Coburn leads the Flyers defense in giveaways!"

Touche, but that could also be a product of his average time on ice (22:52), which is third on the whole team behind both of our goalies. More ice time equals more opportunity to make an error. That's not exactly rocket surgery.

This defense isn't prone to turning the puck over. And as a team, Philadelphia is 21st in the NHL in giveaways. The problem lies up front with our forwards. What's that, you say?

Our forwards do a horrendous job of protecting their defensemen. 

When the puck is transitioning into our zone, our three forwards have a job to do -- backcheck. 

Backchecking is defined as defensive pressure applied in the defensive and neutral zones with the intent of creating a turnover. When you give chase to your opponents as you rush back to defend your own zone, you're backchecking. [2] It plays an enormous part in protecting our blueliners, especially when the puck has already made its way into our zone, and a chance is born against us.

Creating turnovers is almost as important as scoring goals. Almost. And where do the Flyers stand in creating turnovers? Currently we're 24th in the NHL in takeaways. Stealing possession away from our opponents is not a primary job for our defensemen. That onus is split between the three skaters on the forefront. If we're not succeeding in takeaways, we're going to see more and more pressure against our net and defensemen.

There's an art to an effective backcheck, and it's held together by disciplined decisions. If it's a sloppy attempt to take the puck away from an opponent, then we're going to see penalties taken. And I don't need to tell you that Philadelphia leads the NHL in penalty minutes by a country mile. We're averaging 16.3 penalty minutes each game, which is 3:20 more than who's behind us

Once the puck is recovered in our zone by a defenseman and possession is ours, our three forwards have another job to do -- find the open lanes and skate into them.

When Laviolette was relieved of his duties as head coach, his successor, Craig Berube, made it a point to get our boys skating again; skating, skating and more skating. Unfortunately for us, we've only marginally gotten better in this instance. Our forwards are still standing around waiting for the pass while our opposition circles like vultures between the bluelines.

Even with our lack of speed, our forward core can still anticipate the play and position themselves effectively through open ice. But because our forwards have failed in this aspect more often than not, our puck-possessing defensemen don't have any northern support, and are either forced to chip it up the rink and relinquish possession, or a turnover is created by the opponent's forecheck. 

If the Flyers were to improve on their backchecking and takeaways even the slightest bit, we'd be winning more of these one- and two-goal losses. Our blueline isn't the answer to a Stanley Cup, and God knows it'll need a butt ton of attention this off-season, but it is certainly not the heaviest facet weighing down our progression like everyone believes it to be.

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**Photo below, NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 12: Rick Nash #61 of the New York Rangers shoots the puck on net against the Philadelphia Flyers at Madison Square Garden on January 12, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Scott Levy/NHLI via Getty Images)

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