Grading the 2010-11 Flyers’ defensemen and goaltenders

By David Strehle
NHL H
ot Stove Creative Editor

After a trip to the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals and falling just two wins shy of winning it all, the Philadelphia Flyers’ 2010-11 season fell well short of high expectations.

Subsequent to getting past the Buffalo Sabres in a tough seven-game first round series, Philadelphia’s season came to an abrupt and disappointing finish in a quick four-game sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

The result is likely to bring about a very active off-season for GM Paul Holmgren in retooling his squad in preparation for the 2011-12 campaign.

Without further ado, it’s report card time for the 2010-11 version of the Flyers; complete with comments as to the performance over the course of the season, as well as each player’s role moving ahead to next season.

In this issue, the defensemen and netminders are examined.

DEFENSEMEN


Oskars Bartulis:  INCOMPLETE

2010-11:  After playing in the first two regular season games, Bartulis was the Flyers’ forgotten man.  Over the next two months, the 24-year-old would see action in just one more contest.  Bartulis was pressed into service when Chris Pronger suffered a fractured right foot, playing in nine games from December 18th through January 11th.  The six-foot, two-inch, 184-pounder would sit again upon Pronger’s return, only returning when Sean O’Donnell went down with a knee injury at Madison Square Garden on February 20th.  In his first game back in the lineup on February 22nd, Bartulis suffered a separated shoulder when he took a late hit into the boards from ex-Flyer and current Phoenix Coyote forward Scottie Upshall.  He would miss the remainder of the regular season and playoffs.  Bartulis finished having played in just 13 games, recording no points with a -4 and four penalty minutes.  2011-12: Signed for two more seasons at $600,000 per year, Bartulis is likely to stick around in Philadelphia.  The club is once again at the upper end of the salary cap, with less than $500,000 in space left with just 18 players signed.  Affordable options like Bartulis will be valuable, but he will need meaningful playing time in order to develop his game.  Even before his injury this season, he was not receiving that.


Nick Boynton:  INCOMPLETE

2010-11:  Holmgren plucked Boynton off the waiver wire from the Chicago Blackhawks in late-February as a depth move when O’Donnell suffered a knee injury and Bartulis separated his shoulder.  Like forward Kris Versteeg, Boynton was on the roster of Chicago’s Stanley Cup championship team last June, and it was thought he might be able to step in and provide some stability to the blue line.  And his pro-rated $500,000 salary also didn’t hurt matters for a team that had very little cap space availability.  The 32-year-old rear guard’s time in Philadelphia started off better than expected, as he played well in back-to-back games on March 10th (at Toronto) and 12th (home against the Thrashers).  Boynton kept things very simple, not trying to do too much, and played physical at the right times.  Unfortunately, his third game was not so good, as he finished a -2 in only 5:39 of time on ice in a 3-2 Flyers’ victory over the Panthers in South Florida.  Boynton would end up seeing action in just 10 regular season contests with the Orange-and-Black, and logging double-digit minutes of ice time in only half of those games.  He was not in the Philly lineup after April 1st.  2011-12: An unrestricted free agent, it’s highly doubtful Holmgren makes any attempt to re-sign Boynton this fall.  The organization has a couple of young defenders that appear ready to make the big club’s roster at training camp, and it would seem that Boynton doesn’t fit into the club’s plans.


Matt Carle:  B-

Photo Credit: Bridget Samuels / Flickr

2010-11:  Many experts insinuated that Matt Carle’s excellent play last year was likely because he played alongside of stalwart blue liner Pronger.  But in a season where Pronger missed 32 games due to a myriad of injuries, Carle was forced to play much of the time with various partners.  He responded by leading all Flyers’ defensemen in scoring with 40 points (one goal, 39 assists), and tied with Andrej Meszaros for the team lead with a +30.  The 39 assists and +30 were career-highs for the former member of the San Jose Sharks and Tampa Bay Lightning.  Like most of his Flyers’ teammates, the six-foot, 205 pound native of Anchorage, Alaska struggled defensively in the club’s recently-completed playoffs.  He finished seven of the 11 postseason contests on the minus side of the plus / minus ledger, posting a -8 overall.  2011-12: Carle is entering the last season of a four-year contract that pays him just under $3.5 million before becoming an UFA next summer.  While he is still a valuable member of the team’s defensive corps, Holmgren may attempt to trade the 25-year-old defenseman at some point during the upcoming summer or 2011-12 season.  But his excessive salary, as well as the fact that he is the perhaps the least-physical defenseman on the club’s roster, will almost certainly make him a pretty tough sell.


Photo Credit: Bridget Samuels / Flickr

Braydon Coburn:  C-

2010-11:  Braydon Coburn signed a two-year contract extension last summer that pay him $3.2 million annually, and played on Philadelphia’s second defensive pairing with Kimmo Timonen. The 26-year-old defender picked up two goals and 16 points, while posting a +15 during the regular season, but showed only flashes of what he is capable of when playing at his peak effectiveness.  When using his long stride to skate the puck out of his own end and taking advantage of his large six-foot, five-inch, 220-pound, Coburn can be a force.  But after recording career-highs in goals (9), assists (27), and points (36) during the 2007-08 campaign, Coburn’s offensive numbers have decreased in each of the last three seasons despite increased ice time.  The native of Shaunavon, Saskatchewan recorded a +7 in the seven-game first round triumph over the Buffalo Sabres, and scored his most-important goal of the year against Ryan Miller in the closing minute of the first period in Game 7 to begin the rout.  But Coburn then proceeded to post a minus in each of the four games against the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.  2011-12: Just like Carle, Coburn is heading into the final year of his contract.  The former eighth overall pick of the Atlanta Thrashers in 2003 will become an UFA next summer, and also like Carle could be trade bait.


Andrej Meszaros:  A

Photo Credit: Bridget Samuels / Flickr

2010-11:  Acquired on July 1st from the Tampa Bay Lightning for a draft pick, Meszaros was a revelation for the Flyers.  Many criticized the move because of Meszaros’ $4 million price tag, and the fact that he would likely be on the club’s third pairing because the first two were already set with Pronger-Carle and Timonen-Coburn.  But Mez became an invaluable piece of the Philadelphia roster this year, leading the defensive ranks in goals (8), and tying Carle for the top plus / minus rating (+30).  As the 25-year-old’s confidence grew over the course of the season, so did his effectiveness for the team.  He jumped up into offensive rushes, used his six-foot, two-inch, 223-pound body to hit with a reckless abandon, and even scored two game-winning goals in overtime.  Maybe the most-valuable attribute that Meszaros brought to the club this year was his versatility.  With Pronger’s frequent absences from the Flyers’ lineup, the native of Povazska Bystrica, Slovakia played on several defense pairings where needed.  He started the year playing on the team’s third pairing with O’Donnell, but would also see action with Carle as part of the top duo in Pronger’s spot.  With the high level at which he performed, it made Pronger’s time out of the lineup less debilitating.  Meszaros appropriately won the Barry Ashbee Trophy as the Flyers’ top defenseman as a reward for a fantastic season.  In the postseason Meszaros led all Philly defenders in goals (2), and tied Timonen for the lead among Flyers’ defensemen (6).     2011-12: Meszaros still has three more years remaining on his contract, and figures to be a key member of the Philadelphia blue line.  If he continues to play the way he did this past season, he will be a mainstay for many years to come.


Sean O’Donnell:  C

2010-11:  Signed as an UFA to a one-year, $1.3 million contract on July 1st, O’Donnell was one of the steadier defensemen for the Flyers for the first half of the season.  Paired with Meszaros for much of the early going, both rear guards were near the top of the overall NHL plus / minus leaders.  Following a knee injury in a late-February game against the New York Rangers, the 39-year-old veteran was nowhere near as effective.  O’Donnell was supposed to miss several weeks to recover from the injury but his replacement, Bartulis, was lost for the rest of the season in the next game with a shoulder injury.  O’Donnell returned early, and was noticeably less mobile than he had been prior to suffering the injury.  The six-foot, two-inch, 237-pounder played a physical game for Philadelphia, and was one of the most-knowledgable students of the game on the club.  O’Donnell still ended the regular season at a +8.  2011-12: It’s not known if O’Donnell is in the plans for the team in the fall, especially if he expects a raise as part of a new one-year deal.  There are a couple of young blue liners primed to grab a spot in the coming year, and O’Donnell turns 40 in the second week of October.  There’s no doubt that he could be of great assistance to the younger defenders but with the cap limitations facing Holmgren, it is unlikely O’Donnell’s salary could be squeezed in.


Photo Credit: Bridget Samuels / Flickr

Chris Pronger:  B

2010-11:  After playing in all 82 games during his first campaign in Philadelphia, Pronger suffered through an injury-plagued 2010-11 season – one in which he appropriately referred to as a “year from hell”.  Commencing the year on the shelf following off-season knee surgery, it set the tone for what was to come over the course of the year.  The Flyers’ top defenseman would play in just 50 regular season contests due to various ailments.  The 36-year-old blue liner was just getting back into top form again when he suffered a fracture in his right foot after blocking a slap shot in Montreal in mid-December.  It is no coincidence that Philadelphia was the NHL’s top team at the time of the injury, because as Pronger goes, so go the Flyers.  This was evident again in late-February, when he took a shot off his right hand late in a game against the New York Islanders.  After X-rays proved negative, Pronger played in four more games.  The club had been developing bad habits, and the veteran defender had called players out behind closed doors for their careless play.  After a home win over the Oilers in early March, it was announced that Pronger had sustained a break in his hand that had gone undetected previously.  He again required surgery, and the team struggled without their on-ice leader in the lineup.  It was originally thought that Pronger would return for the final weekend of the regular season, but after suffering a “set back” in early-April, the six-foot, six-inch, 220-pounder wasn’t ready for the beginning of the postseason.  The Flyers’ defensive play was faltering down the stretch without him, and also suffering in Pronger’s absence was the club’s power play unit.  Without his big shot from the point, Philadelphia’s output with the man advantage was paltry.  With the Flyers trailing their first round series with the Sabres, 3-2, Pronger came back for Game 6.  He played just 4:33 - all of the power play - but his mere presence was a lift for his teammates.  The Flyers won in overtime on Easter Sunday to force a Game 7 back in Philadelphia.  Pronger played in that contest and saw 17:27 of ice time, picking up an assist in the 5-2 triumph.  The power play was anything but an advantage for Philly without him, but upon his return the unit improved to 3-9 in Games 6 and 7.  Unfortunately for the Orange-and-Black, Pronger was laboring with back pain that persisted through a loss to the Bruins in Game 1 of the second round.  He would not play the rest of the way and after the team’s elimination from the playoffs, it was announced that the hulking defenseman had a herniated disc in his back.  Surgery was once again required, and a successful discectomy was performed on May 12th.  It will be about six weeks from time of the surgery that Pronger can begin full exercise.  2011-12: The results with and without the dominant defender on the Philly blue line this year spoke volumes about his overall value.  His presence is obviously a key to success, but it isn’t the only issue for Philadelphia regarding Pronger.  There are still six years remaining on his contract, at an annual cap hit of more than $4.9 million.  Since it is an over-35 pact, the club is on the hook for the full amount, regardless if Pronger is able to play or not.  Pronger’s health is a must for Philadelphia to again be among the league’s elite squads.  If the majority of the news surrounding Pronger this year involves injuries and surgeries, the outlook for the Flyers will indeed be bleak.


Photo Credit: clydeorama / Flickr

 

Kimmo Timonen:  A-

2010-11:  Timonen turned 36 during the regular season and was once again one of the Flyers’ best defensemen.  He finished second in goals (6) and points (37) among Philly blue liners, and was the only defender to score shorthanded (which he did twice).  The native of Kuopio, Finland finished with a +11 rating, and was the unit’s leader with Pronger out for much of the season.  Timonen scored a goal, recorded six points, and was a +3 in the postseason.  When the team didn’t play well down the stretch and when they were bounced out in the second round by the Bruins, Timonen was visibly upset and voiced his displeasure at the disappointing finish.  ”That’s what pisses me off the most,” Timonen told Teemu H. of Broad Street Hockey after their elimination.  ”We weren’t even close.  There was no effort which I find unbelievable.”  There is no doubt that Timonen cares about the team’s performance, and he was to meet with Holmgren last week.  You can bet that the 12-year veteran gave the GM an earful as to what he felt was wrong with the club, and what he believes is necessary for the Flyers to achieve the ultimate success.  2011-12: With two seasons left on a contract that pays him $6.33 million per year, Timonen is the highest-paid Philadelphia defenseman.  At five-feet, 10-inches and 194 pounds, he is one of the team’s smaller defensemen.  But Timonen, who is entering his fifth year in the City of Brotherly Love, is both savvy and smooth.  He should remain as one of the most effective Philly blue liners at least through the end of his deal.


CONCLUSION

OVERALL DEFENSEMEN GRADE:  B-

After going through the first half of the season as one of the best defensive teams in the league, the Flyers struggled to keep the puck out of their net for much of the stretch run.  They ended up yielding 223 goals this season, which was only sixth-best among playoff-qualifying Eastern Conference clubs.

While the club’s blue line and goaltending was partially responsible, Philadelphia’s forwards also didn’t play well in their own end.

The team will need to acquire more depth for the upcoming season, especially with the question marks where Pronger’s health is concerned.  Not having the big defenseman in the lineup for a good portion of the year definitely hurt, but the general state of confusion defensively was mysitfying, given the number of veteran leaders on the team.

Pronger’s rehabilitation from back surgery will be an important development to keep an eye on as the summer progresses, and there are other question marks heading towards training camp.  Will O’Donnell be re-signed?  Will both Carle and Coburn be on the Flyers’ blue line next season, or will they be dealt before becoming UFAs next summer?

Will Holmgren attempt to bring in a legitimate right-handed shooting defender, especially with Vancouver’s Kevin Bieksa and Sami Salo, and Montreal’s James Wisniewski available as UFAs?  The Flyers have not had a decent righty since Eric Desjardins retired during the 2005-06 season, and it has been one of the adverse affects on an impotent power play.  Without a right-hander to man the left point on the man advantage, one-timers from that side of the ice are non-existent.  Holmgren brought Matt Walker to Philly in the Simon Gagne trade, but he was a complete bust.  Due to various injuries, Walker saw action in just four NHL contests this season.  When he was in the lineup, he was ineffective – even in pre-season matches.

If Holmgren is to bring in a big name defenseman, more room will have to be made to fit them into the club’s bloated cap situation.

Meanwhile, Erik Gustafsson, who nearly made the club out of training camp last year, should be ready to claim a spot this fall.  The 22-year-old has two years left on his entry-level contract at $900,000 per season, and had a very good season with the Phantoms.  The five-foot, 10-inch, 180-pound native of Kvissleby, Sweden did not look out of place in three games with the Flyers this year, and possesses slick offensive creativity from the blue line.

Others who may get a long look in camp are Marc-Andre Bourdon (21, 6′, 0 “, 205 pounds, $875,000) and Kevin Marshall (22, 6′, 1″, 191 pounds, $845, 833).


GOALTENDERS


Photo Credit: clydeorama / Flickr

2010-11:  Signed as a free agent last May, Bobrovsky was looking like an early season front-runner for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie-of-the-year.  The 22-year-old slumped down the stretch, but still finished with a 28-13-8 record, with a 2.59 goals-against average and .915 save percentage.  Head coach Peter Laviolette named Bobrovsky as his starter for the postseason, and the native of Novokuznetsk, Russia did not disappoint in his first game.  Bobrovsky held his team in the game into a scoreless third period, eventually yielding a goal to Patrick Kaleta in a 1-0 loss.  In Game 2, he gave up three early goals, was pulled in favor of Brian Boucher, and disappeared from the lineup as Michael Leighton was brought back into the rotation.  As the Boucher-Leighton tandem eventually faltered, Bobrovsky again played.  He started the fourth and final game of the Boston series, playing well in keeping the Flyers tied into the third period before taking the loss.  2011-12: There is no question that Bobrovsky is the team’s goaltender of the future.  With two years remaining at $1.75 million per season, the only issue regarding Bobrovsky is when he will be ready.  With Pronger and Timonen heading into their late-30′s, the time to win for Philadelphia is now.  Goalie coach Jeff Reese said he believes Bobrovsky is “two-to-three years away from being a workhorse”, so talk around Philly is that Holmgren will attempt to bring in a legitimate number one guy over the summer.  Bobrovsky could be the backup, or maybe even end up being the starter with the AHL’s Adirondack Phantoms.


Photo Credit: Jayne Shives / Wiki

Brian Boucher:  B

2010-11:  Finishing up the last year on his two-year deal ($925.000) this past season, Boucher was the perfect soldier for the Flyers.  He did everything asked of him, and without complaint.  When he thought he would be the starter when Leighton had off-season surgery but the job was instead given to Bobrovsky to open the campaign, Boucher filled the backup role to perfection.  He finished the regular season with a respectable 18-10-4 mark, and led the team in GAA (2.42) and save percentage (.916).  Boucher got the win in the final regular season contest in relief of Bobrovsky, when the Flyers absolutely had to get a victory to win the Atlantic Division crown.  In the playoffs, Boucher recorded all four Philadelphia wins in the Buffalo series.  But as each netminder took a turn falling flat when given the reigns to take control of the net, the 34-year-old native of Rhode Island may have fallen the hardest.   2011-12: Again an UFA, it remains to be seen if the team will attempt to re-sign Boucher.  It would seem unlikely, given Ed Snider’s comments about the carousel of goalies the club experienced during the postseason never happening again.


Photo Credit: Resolute / Wiki

Michael Leighton:  INCOMPLETE

2010-11:  Leighton’s year has been one full spectrum of contradictions.  After coming onto the scene off the waiver wire and taking Philadelphia to within two wins of capturing the Stanley Cup, Leighton was re-signed (two years, $1.55 million annually) as an UFA last summer.  Expecting to be the team’s number one, he instead began the year on injured reserve after undergoing back surgery during the pre-season.  The 30-year-old came back to find Bobrovsky had wrestled the starting job away from him, and Leighton was sent to Adirondack.  He played in just one NHL regular season game with the Flyers this year, and made a return during the playoffs.  That didn’t end up so well, as he lost Game 5 of the Sabres series in overtime, then was yanked for good after giving up three soft Buffalo goals in Game 6.  2011-12: With one year left on the contract he signed last year, it is unclear where Leighton fits into the Flyers’ plans.  If it is deemed necessary for Bobrovsky to get the bulk of the workload in Adirondack, it is conceivable that Leighton could back up whichever goaltender Holmgren brings in to lead Philly.


CONCLUSION

OVERALL GOALTENDER GRADE:  B-

While Bobrovsky played better than anyone could have foreseen and Boucher was the consummate backup, the Flyers lack of a clear cut number one created a circus-type atmosphere around the team in the postseason.

Even though the organization has historically ignored the crease area, the signing of Bobrovsky last year as a free agent was a huge step in the right direction for Philadelphia’s future.  With the recent signing of Finnish netminder Niko Hovinen to a free agent pact and Joacim Eriksson and Jakob Kovar looking ready to make the trip to North America very soon, the Flyers’ net situation appears bright for upcoming years.

With Snider’s proclamation that the team’s goaltending situation will indeed be rectified this summer, the speculation as to which goalie Holmgren will attempt to secure has commenced.  Ilya Bryzgalov is the biggest free agent fish, and Holmgren inquired about his availability when the Russian played for the Anaheim Ducks back in the 2006-07 season.  Bryzgalov won the Cup in Anaheim that season, and has established himself as one of the best netminders in the world in Phoenix the past two years.  In order to afford the kind of contract it will take to sign Bryzgalov, salary will have to be moved off the current payroll.

Other names of interest include Tomas Vokoun (UFA, played with Florida Panthers in 2010 for $5.7 million), Miikka Kiprusoff (Calgary Flames; three more years remaining at $5.833 million annually), and Niklas Backstrom (Minnesota Wild; two years remaining at $6 million per season).  Holmgren could choose to trade for either Kipper or Backstrom, and both the Flames and Wild are looking for more scoring up front.  It just so happens that if the Flyers try to deal for a netminder, forward is the spot where they would have to move salary.

While it’s bound to start the Jeff Carter ($5.272 million) rumors, there are other forwards that would be more desirable to deal.  Much-maligned winger Scott Hartnell ($4.2 million) tops the list, but he would have to waive his NTC in order for anything to happen.

Holmgren could also go a cheaper route if he finds it impossible to land an expensive backstop.  Pitches could be made for Jonathan Bernier (L.A. Kings, $1.25 million), Anders Lindback (Nashville Predators, $875,000), or Cory Schneider (Vancouver Canucks, $900,000), but the question of experience and how far these guys could take the Flyers would be genuinely pertinent.


*All salary numbers were obtained from www.CapGeek.com.


If you have any comments or questions, you can email the author at dstrehle@nhlhotstove.com.  You can also follow him on Twitter – @David_Strehle