Flyers Must Choose Between System, Roster Changes in Order to Improve
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
By Charlie O’Connor (@THG_Charlie)
With only twenty games remaining in the lockout-shortened season for the Philadelphia Flyers, reality is staring the team in the face: a playoff appearance becomes more and more unlikely by the day.
After tonight’s 5-2 drubbing at the hands of the New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia finds themselves in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, with a 12-15-1 record. And with a five-day break looming, the Flyers could be in need a miracle by the time they retake the ice on March 24th in order to make the playoffs.
For a team that made the postseason comfortably in 2011-12 – what happened?
The defense remains the biggest issue, an issue that has not been properly addressed since the likely-to-be career ending injury suffered by Chris Pronger. Last season, with Matt Carle, Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn serving as anchors, the Flyers survived the injury with the help of better-than-expected contributions from players like Marc-Andre Bourdon and late season acquisition Nicklas Grossmann.
This season, they have not been so lucky.
Carle is no longer a Flyer; he was allowed to leave via free agency as the team pursued and failed to acquire both Ryan Suter and Shea Weber. Timonen is one year older and slower, and now sees most of his ice time with Luke Schenn, a downgrade from former partner Carle. And Coburn’s play has fallen off a cliff, as he has not responded well at all to increased ice time and responsibilities (22:43 minutes per game in 2012-13 to lead all Flyer defensemen).
Formerly a defense filled with elite puck movers, the Flyers now have only one defenseman (Timonen) that can consistently initiate the breakout successfully. Coburn and Andrej Meszaros have the ability to do so, but both are erratic and inconsistent. Schenn and Grossmann lack the skating ability and offensive instincts of top tier puck movers, and the revolving door of sixth defensemen (Lilja, Foster, Gervais) has been unable to provide more than rare contributions to the attack.
Coach Peter Laviolette’s preferred system is predicated on an aggressive breakout and forecheck. With Pronger and Timonen as his top two defensemen, and Carle, Coburn and Meszaros providing support, the Flyers were able to generate offense at an elite level, especially during the 2010-11 season when they led the Eastern Conference with 259 goals. But that elite defense corps is long gone.
However, Laviolette’s system has not adjusted sufficiently to react to his new personnel. Philadelphia’s struggles against the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils exemplify this stubbornness, as the team has been unable to adapt to its rivals’ preferred styles of play. Combined, the Flyers are 5-17-1 against the Rangers and Devils over the past two seasons.
It is clear that with the current personnel, Laviolette’s system is simply not working. With an absence of puck movers, the Flyers both struggle to exit the defensive zone consistently and to carry the puck efficiently through the neutral zone. As a result, teams that place an emphasis upon a dedicated neutral zone presence (New York) or a formidable, aggressive offensive zone forecheck (New Jersey) prove to be overwhelming matchups for Philadelphia.
The Flyers have two options: change the roster, or change the system. The status quo will simply not suffice.
In order to change the roster, Philadelphia must find a way to acquire more puck-moving defensemen. To start, Carle needs to be truly replaced, as the burly, bruising Schenn has failed to do so from an offensive standpoint. But more importantly, Philadelphia still needs a true #1 defenseman to replace Pronger. Timonen no longer can take the necessary ice time to be a true anchor, Schenn and Grossmann are too one-dimensional, and Meszaros is too injury-prone.
Coburn was the team’s last hope for a top tier defenseman to emerge from within the organization. But his disastrous season in the role has put an end to that pipe dream.
To acquire the necessary pieces for Laviolette’s system to function properly, trades would need to be made, as the free agency market lacks any true difference-makers on defense. Young forwards such as Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn, Matt Read, Scott Laughton, and even the 2012-13 season standout Jakub Voracek would need to be made available for the Flyers to consummate an aggressive trade for a top-tier defenseman.
Of course, there is another option that could allow the Flyers to avoid raiding their forward depth in order to build a team capable of thriving in Laviolette’s system.
Abandon the system entirely.
Both general manager Paul Holmgren and chairman Ed Snider already explored this option prior to the start of the season. As Bill Meltzer of HockeyBuzz reported back in January, John Paddock was placed in an assistant coach role with the main purpose of functioning as a defensive consultant of sorts to Laviolette. Snider also hinted in preseason interviews that the Flyers’ current system under Laviolette may be a bit dated.
“If you watch the playoffs and saw how teams played and how we couldn’t adjust to New Jersey when they were bringing all their men back and then we had like three forwards on five players, it’s hard to score,” Snider said. “So we have to adjust accordingly to make sure that we’re up to date with what’s going around in the league.”
Laviolette, throughout the season, has attempted to implement a version of this hybrid collapsing-yet-aggressive model championed by both Holmgren and Snider. But as the standings prove, success has been limited at best.
To truly implement a new system that better suits the current personnel, the Flyers would have to take a new route. Namely, ending the popular Laviolette’s tenure as head coach.
Laviolette’s contributions were pivotal in snapping the Flyers out of their 2009-10 funk and delivering an Eastern Conference Championship to Philadelphia. His system also worked wonders the following season, as he molded the Flyers into an offensive machine.
But a slower, thinner defense simply does not allow for Laviolette’s system to work as intended.
If the Flyers decide to restructure the roster in an attempt to build around Laviolette as a head coach, they will need a very active offseason in which they target fast, instinctive puck-moving defensemen, and must not be afraid to expend valuable assets to acquire the necessary pieces.
However, if they decide to stay the course with their current roster structure, then Laviolette is not the man to lead this team to respectability in the short term. The personnel simply does not match the system.
Either way, it should be a very interesting few months in Philadelphia.