Our perception of the Philadelphia Flyers defense heading into the 2021-2022 season requires scheduled maintenance.
Following last season, the top priority was finding a partner to pair with Ivan Provorov. Chuck Fletcher did. He acquired Ryan Ellis after moving Philippe Myers and signing rights to Nolan Patrick. When he’s on the ice, he’s been okay. It’s tough to get a gauge on his true impact with the Flyers.
Ellis has only participated in four games this season. I’m willing to bet that few people guessed Ellis would be the inconsistent part of Philadelphia’s defense.
Instead, Justin Braun has been remarkable next to Provorov. After last season, fans may have collectively groaned after Ellis was unavailable. Braun and Provorov, on the top pair, are improving their makeshift chemistry from 2020-2021.
The only pair to remain intact are Travis Sanheim and Rasmus Ristolainen. After the first ten games, the second pair underperformed every other reiteration of a defensive line Alain Vigneault imagined. They clicked against the Washington Capitals and haven’t looked back. It’s taken the stress off of Keith Yandle and Nick Seeler on the bottom.
Let’s talk about this defense. There are encouraging signs from unexpected players, but I want to use this time to examine Fletcher’s acquisitions thus far. We’re less than twenty games into the season, but enough time elapsed to get a grasp of the Flyers’ defense.
Far and away, this is the biggest tease from the offseason. Chuck Fletcher got the RD1 to pair with Ivan Provorov. Ryan Ellis is the talent we expected, but his availability doesn’t match.
If I told you to be worried about Ellis more than the consistent play out of the Travis Sanheim and Rasmus Ristolainen pairing, you would’ve laughed in my face.
Injuries are a part of the game, but an honest assessment means Ellis has been underwhelming. What are the silver linings?
While he’s considered week-to-week, the Philadelphia Flyers are winning because of defensive efforts. Nick Seeler is filling in beautifully as the RD3, keeping the intensity. Braun fulfills Ellis’ role better than expected. He’s fifth in team scoring as a defenseman. Suddenly, Braun is as valuable on defense as Cam Atkinson amongst the forwards.
The Flyers are winning without Ellis, but it doesn’t downplay the new levels he could elevate the team. Vigneault, especially now, won’t be in a hurry to bring Ellis back into the lineup. When he was day-to-day, Philadelphia waited on bated breath regarding his status. I implore you all to relax while Ellis heals. Monitoring Ellis’ health down the stretch is the priority, especially when the Flyers have the second-best defense in hockey.
Keith Yandle/Nick Seeler
Keith Yandle and Justin Braun represented the bottom pair, originally. Nick Seeler was a long shot, finding an opportunity when Chuck Fletcher called upon him to replace Samuel Morin. Now, the unlikely pairing of Yandle and Seeler nearly played ten games side-by-side.
Seeler last played before COVID-19 disrupted sports. His combined twelve games with the Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks allowed him to display intensity and physicality. Fletcher brought Seeler to battle with Adam Clendening for the seventh defenseman spot. In 2018-2019, Seeler played 71 games with the Wild when Fletcher was the team’s general manager. Familiarity won out, and the Philadelphia Flyers are thriving.
Yandle is the mature part of the pairing. On the bottom pair, you’re looking for Yandle to facilitate the puck up the ice in transition or quarterback a powerplay. He allows Seeler to disrupt at the crease, much like the dynamic between Travis Sanheim and Rasmus Ristolainen. They complement each other’s defensive style.
A season ago, the Flyers lacked physicality and balance. Philadelphia was getting pushed around in the dirty areas, and Fletcher was sure to shock the defensive makeup.
When mixed properly, physicality and finesse make for a prototypical tandem.
I held my tongue about the second pair through the first ten games. Without Ryan Ellis in the lineup, everyone stepped up to hold their ground, including Rasmus Ristolainen. His physicality is a breath of fresh air for the Philadelphia Flyers. But, the gauge of value is comparing Ristolainen to the player he replaced: Shayne Gostisbehere.
Before the season started, I banged the drum defending Gostisbehere. He was an elite powerplay scorer of all defensemen in 2020-2021. Now, the Flyers need scoring and house a 25th ranked powerplay unit. If you were complaining about the penalty kill last season, the same energy is required about the powerplay now. Ristolainen, for the price tag, is an experiment where we’re still tracking results.
Analytically, Gostisbehere checks the boxes. He’s played ten quality games (higher than 50% Corsi rating;) including contests against six teams in a playoff position. Comparably, Ristolainen has six quality games to his credit against three potential playoff teams (if the season ended today.)
Lately, Ristolainen and Travis Sanheim are trending upward together. Individually, if you treat Gostisbehere how Ristolainen was on the Buffalo Sabres, Gostisbehere is leading the Arizona Coyotes in scoring while the Sabres have improved since moving on. Either a change in scenery was mutually beneficial for many players and Buffalo, or the whole “this player was on that team” debate model is misconstrued.
I will always praise the physicality and presence Ristolainen brings to the ice, but it’s still premature to outright claim that Chuck Fletcher made the right decision. Ristolainen plays his role in Philadelphia but taking on the expanded role as a threat from the blue line could be the extra boost that earns him an extension.
Quickly, I’ll omit Ryan Ellis from these ending remarks due to his small sample size and impact on team performance to date in 2021-2022.
Against elite teams, the Philadelphia Flyers defense has matched the opposition. Samuel Morin might not be the right fit after Nick Seeler made the most of his playing time. It’s tough to argue against the second-ranked defense, which includes Seeler in the lineup. The third pair is as sure as we thought it would be, speaking highly of Keith Yandle’s leadership.
Rasmus Ristolainen clogs the neutral zone, daring forwards to pass through. The Flyers need that. In the process of doing so, they’re severely lacking in the powerplay. Defensive positioning hasn’t ever been a strength for Ristolainen, but he can drive a play from the blue line in the offensive zone. Philadelphia doesn’t care if it’s a goal or an assist (either one means a scoring play happened.)
Chuck Fletcher built a defensive nucleus around veterans and players who need to prove their value in the NHL. A hungry defense looks dominant early on, with or without the lineup we all originally scribbled down in the offseason.
The next Flyers game takes place on Thursday against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Flyers schedule is a long and winding road, but one that should provide fans plenty of occasions to see this new-look defense begin to blossom.
Photo Credit: Alex McIntyre