Phlight Deck: How Can the Flyers’ Defense Be Fixed?

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Should Mark Friedman play on the top pair? How can Alain Vigneault fix the defense? Here’s your 1/25/2021 edition of Philadelphia Flyers Phlight Deck.

Through six games, the Philadelphia Flyers are being challenged by their adversaries in the MassMutual Division. They have experienced blowout losses from the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres, highlighting fallacies in their gameplan. Most of all, the Flyers cannot capture their 2019-2020 success early on. Philadelphia won two games against the Pittsburgh Penguins while leaving room for improvement. Before they travel to New Jersey, how can the Flyers prevent themselves from slipping further down the standings?

Flyers’ Forecheck Structure

During every game this season, Philadelphia is getting burnt in the neutral zone. Much of this is due to their inability to execute their 2-1-2 forecheck strategy. It was not without flaws with Sean Couturier on opening night, and it is only getting worse in his absence. One pass defeats the efforts of two forwards on the forecheck. The Bruins exploited this during their two victories.

Without the proper personnel to run this forechecking scheme, the Flyers place all of the pressure squarely on two defensemen and the goaltender. Too often through six games has the opposition had a three-on-two advantage, two-on-one advantage, or fastbreak opportunities. In 2019-2020, Philadelphia used a 1-2-2 forechecking structure. They strategized a defense-first gameplan. It helped limit shots on goal by the opponent, took the pressure off of the goaltending, and earned more neutral zone victories.

Defensive Identity

Even if Alain Vigneault switches his forechecking strategy back to what worked in 2019-2020, he still needs the right personnel to execute. Erik Gustafsson has shown that he is only valuable on the powerplay. Thinking Gustafsson would fill a void left by Matt Niskanen is a miscalculation. While Niskanen helped boost the powerplay unit, he could also slow the pacing of opposing forwards via defensive skill. That has never been Gustafsson’s profile.

Justin Braun on the top pair with Ivan Provorov raised eyebrows at first, and rightfully so. Throughout his six games as the RD ace, it is apparent he needs his minutes decreased. His role is a third pair defenseman with Robert Hagg. Replacing him on the top pair with Provorov should be Mark Friedman. He is the best RD option, especially with Shayne Gostisbehere not yet cleared for return and Philippe Myers recovering from a broken rib.

Friedman has earned his role on a depleted defense. During an ugly beating in Boston, he was the best Flyers skater. While partnered with Braun, Provorov has been suffering. One could debate, Provorov has been the worst defenseman on the ice because of his minutes and turnovers (one takeaway and seven giveaways.) A change is required, but Friedman is the best RD on the current roster.

Flyers’ 13th Man

Unfortunately, Morgan Frost dislocated his left shoulder against the Sabres. Alain Vigneault placed his faith in Frost after a good training camp. “Next man up” was a quick mantra the Flyers had to adapt. Since then, Connor Bunnaman received the call up from the taxi-squad. He was ineffective during two games, earning no points and a minus-one rating.

There is another option to play center on the fourth-line. Andy Andreoff could be an unlikely source to help contribute to a team win. As a career depth player in the NHL, Andreoff could fit team needs. Vigneault needs a thirteenth forward who knows how to play his role. Andreoff is more physical, which is what Vigneault wants.

A Troubled Hart

Uncharacteristically, Carter Hart showed how frustrated he was after surrendering six goals against the Bruins. Hart allowed fourteen goals over his last three starts on the way to a 0-2-1 record (2-2-1 overall in 2020-2021.) In one of those games, against Buffalo, he was pulled after the fourth goal scored. That is a save percentage of 83.1% during those three losses with a goals-against-average of 4.66. His awful stat line is not all on him, however.

The Flyers defense has been porous. Only John Gibson has faced more shots in five starts. Hart is a tremendous goaltender, but he needs the defensemen to do their job. He apologized after the game, calling his actions “unprofessional.” Quite frankly, he did not need to apologize.

Career Milestones

Flyers’ Captain

Claude Giroux is the longest-tenured captain in Philadelphia hockey history. His stretch of 610 games surpassed Bobby Clarke. With that, Giroux has etched his name amongst all-time greats in the NHL. Clarke praised Giroux just before he broke his record, “The good leaders, and I believe the two best leaders we’ve had are Davey Poulin and Claude Giroux, they lead by their performance.”

Speaking of performance, Jakub Voracek’s buzzing in 2020-2021. He’s currently tied for second on the team in scoring with Travis Konecny. During the early stages of the season, he reached the 700 career points milestone. The next assist he records will be his 400th with the Flyers, five away from 500 in his career.

Photo Credit: Alex McIntyre

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