Philadelphia Flyers: Hakstol shakes up the defense in win over New Jersey

(Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
(Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images) /

The Philadelphia Flyers earned a hard-fought win against the New Jersey Devils on Saturday after making some last minute adjustments to the defense.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the 2018-2019 Philadelphia Flyers suddenly have huge question marks surrounding the team’s defense.

Quite obviously, with the Flyers sitting on a 3-4 record coming into Saturday’s game, and having let up 31 goals in seven games to start the year, the defense as a whole had not been a strength of the team. The New Jersey Devils are a team looking to build off a season where they made the playoffs behind Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall, and Saturday was looking like the Flyers were going to have their hands full considering the up and down rollercoaster of recent play.

The Flyers earned a hard-fought 5-2 win behind a great offensive effort, much-improved defense, and adequate goaltending. It was a win that fans should feel good about, but cautiously. The Flyers are not out of the woods yet. They need to string a few wins together and prove that they are the team many thought they would be to start the year, not the defensive mess that’s been on the ice for seven games.

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There’s no hiding it: the defense has been under the microscope, and justifiably so. Coming into the year, it was believed that the Flyers’ defense would be improved just by saying goodbye to Brandon Manning and providing sophomore Travis Sanheim with increased ice time.

So far, those moves have not exactly translated to immediate success on the ice. If anything, the Flyers defense, at times, has looked worse than it has in years.  For starters, Andrew MacDonald appears to be playing through an injury, because it’s difficult to imagine any other explanation for his level of play completely falling off a cliff.

MacDonald has always been an average NHL defenseman and on his best days can be counted on for some steady, mistake-free play, but the MacDonald we have seen in the first five games has been nothing short of atrocious. Something isn’t right with the 32-year-old, and it’s fair to say his play has contributed to a number of goals ending up in the back of the Flyers’ net.

MacDonald did come back very early from an injury that was supposed to take 4-6 weeks to fully recover, so it’s quite possible that the veteran forced himself back too early.

Macdonald’s stat sheet numbers thus far are misleading and don’t really tell the whole story about his struggles. Through five games, he’s only a minus-1 in just over 18 minutes of ice time a night. Those aren’t awful numbers by any means, especially for a player that’s getting the equivalent of second pairing minutes. But the underlying metrics offer a different view, with MacDonald currently carrying a poor Corsi-For % of 40.1 and a ghastly -11.3 CF% Relative to his teammates.

MacDonald has truly been the Flyers’ worst defenseman by a large margin, and the eye test confirms that. Whenever MacDonald has been on the ice, he’s been a liability. Head coach Dave Hakstol essentially had no choice but to bench him after game five. The Flyers’ alternate captain hasn’t just been bad, he’s been downright embarrassing, contributing his unique brand of starfish bellyflopping on the ice that typically can only be found in a Cirque Du Soleil show.

Now to be fair, MacDonald is just one player, and the team’s struggles on defense can’t be solely laid at his feet. Logic would dictate that the team is just starting slow. It’s hard to see the defensive deficiencies continuing further into the season, but after seven games, there has to be some legitimate concern regarding the way the team’s defenseman have played in front of the net and with the puck. There’s no question.

This is not to say that the forwards are absolved of blame, as the team overall just hasn’t played well in their own end. Defense is a team game, and it requires the efforts of all five skaters regardless of the situation. If the forwards don’t backcheck and clog the neutral zone, it puts more pressure on the two defensemen to make a play. There have been far too many turnovers and missed coverages by the forward group, so they must shoulder some of this as well.

Clearly, Hakstol didn’t like how his defense was performing, so it wasn’t a complete surprise to see different defensive pairings for Saturday’s afternoon showing against New Jersey. The head coach elected to split up his “top” pairing of Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov, both who have struggled in defensive zone coverage.

Provorov remained on the first pairing with Robert Hagg, who hasn’t been stellar defensively but has shown an increased willingness to jump into the offense. That has resulted in several scoring opportunities for the Flyers, and Hakstol clearly likes what Hagg has been doing. The pairing faired just fine against the Devils, posting a passable 45.22 CF% according to Madeline Campbell of Broad Street Hockey. They weren’t flashy, but they didn’t make any key mistakes either.

Provorov’s play to start the year has been concerning. He appears to be fighting the puck whenever it’s on his stick, something that is not exactly a hallmark of the Flyers’ number one defenseman. I postulated in a previous post that Provorov could perhaps still be dealing with a shoulder problem stemming back to his injury in the playoffs.

Whatever the case, the Russian is fighting through something, whether it be mental or physical. The Flyers are hoping he can find a way to get back to his normal level of play in these next few games. It’s worth noting Provorov looked better and more composed against the Devils.

Putting Provorov with Hagg meant that Gostisbhere would play alongside Christian Folin, an interesting pairing to say the least considering Folin’s inauspicious start to his Flyers career. In fact, Folin appears to be taking cues from MacDonald at times, falling to ice several times during key moments, including one truly pathetic play against Columbus where he tripped carrying the puck out of his own zone, only to give it away for a Columbus scoring chance. It was the definition of a cringe-worthy moment.

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That being said, Folin appeared to hold his own with Gostisbehere against New Jersey. The pairing posted a 69.19 CF% (via Madeline Campbell, Broadstreet Hockey). Like the first pairing, they were strong in defending their own zone and didn’t make any glaring mistakes. For a defense that had been struggling so mightily coming into the game, a lack of big-time mistakes was a positive step forward.

It’s also worth noting that the Radko Gudas-Sanheim pairing was the only pair that Hakstol did not split up, as the duo has been the Flyers’ best overall pair since the start of the season. They continued that strong play against the Devils, where they posted the best-advanced metrics of all the defense pairs, ending up with a 69.44 CF% (via BSH).

Sanheim, in particular, has had a strong start to the season and appears comfortable playing alongside Gudas. With Gudas playing a more stay-at-home style, Sanheim has more freedom to activate down low and contribute to the offense. Individually, Sanheim posted a superb 75.09 CF% (Via BSH), better than all but three Flyer forwards. Sanheim also picked up an assist on the power play. Suffice to say, the second year defenseman is showing why he was such a highly coveted prospect within the organization.

Despite the strong underlying metrics, it’s interesting that Hakstol continues to shelter the pairing a bit, according to Charlie O’Connor of the Athletic. The pairing has received mostly third line minutes, and as O’Connor points out, has avoided matchups with other team’s top lines. Hakstol is clearly attempting to bring Sanheim along slowly, giving him incrementally more responsibility when the situation calls for it, as we saw with Sanheim earning some time on the power play.

Hakstol will likely continue this course of action, careful not to put too much on his young player’s plate. And though he typically hasn’t done this with other young players like Nolan Patrick and Travis Konecny, the role of defenseman is a bit more complex and it typically takes a player longer to adjust to the speed of the professional game. If Sanheim continues to play well and adjust, he’ll be just fine.

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Overall, the concerns about the Philadelphia Flyers’ defense are justified. As a team, the Flyers just haven’t played well enough in their own zone, prompting the coach to shuffle both the forward and defensive groups. With the Flyers earning a hard-fought win against the Devils on Saturday, the hope is that the team is beginning to work their way out of the bad habits they’ve developed early on in this season.