Philadelphia Flyers: Promising young defense finally taking shape

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - FEBRUARY 23: Travis Sanheim #6 of the Philadelphia Flyers skates against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the 2019 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game at the Lincoln Financial Field on February 23, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - FEBRUARY 23: Travis Sanheim #6 of the Philadelphia Flyers skates against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the 2019 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game at the Lincoln Financial Field on February 23, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

The Philadelphia Flyers find themselves in the thick of the wild card race, while their young defensive corps continues to develop and impress along the way.

On July 7th, 2009, one day after acquiring him in a shocker of a move, The Philadelphia Flyers announced they would be signing future Hall of Fame defenseman Chris Pronger to a seven-year, $34.9 million extension. It was a banner day for an organization that seemed like they were a few players away from possibly being a contender.

They possessed enough young talent- guys like Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Simon Gagne, Scott Hartnell, Matt Carle, James van Riemsdyke, and Claude Giroux, to name a few. The addition of Pronger was the move that was supposed to put them over the top, and for good reason. The Canadian blue-liner was still considered an elite defender, even in his mid thirties.

But adding Pronger was about more than just getting a star player. This allowed the Flyers to assemble one of the strongest defensive units in the NHL, particularly their top four which included Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Carle, and now Pronger.

More from Philadelphia Flyers

That team would go on to be a Stanley Cup contender for the next several years, despite the fact that Pronger’s career as a Flyer and ultimately as an NHL player would come to an unfortunate and abrupt ending following an ocular concussion that would remain symptomatic, forcing him to hang up his skates.

But during Pronger’s reign as the Flyers’ top rearguard, the team was a perennial playoff lock and one of the toughest team’s to play against due to the strength of the defense. Between Pronger’s physicality, the smoothness of Timonen’s game, Coburn’s thoroughbred speed, and Carle’s steadiness and consistency, it felt like the Flyers had finally formed a defensive corps that could help the team end their lengthy championship drought.

Enter the tail end of the 2019 season, and while the Flyers do find themselves in the hunt for a playoff spot after one of the more bizarre seasons they’ve had in some time, the focal point remains fixed on the core of young players that has begun to round into form as we approach yet another critical off-season.

The saga of embattled former GM Ron Hextall has been well documented to this point. And while Hextall’s failure to improve the club, along with his unwillingness to move certain players forward in their development at certain stages, hampered the organization for several years(not to mention continuing to employ a head coach that consistently played less skilled players over the more talented youngsters) it’s more than fair to say that Hextall’s most important work with the organization seems to have finally brought this fan base some real hope and promise for the future.

That promise is being realized in the Flyer’s current top four defensive group consisting of Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Philippe Myers. This is a group that fans have pined over for almost five years, imagining the day that would come when the team would be able to ice their next stud top-four. And while there’s still plenty of work to be done both defensively and by the team as a whole, the play of the young defensemen has stirred up quite a bit of excitement and for good reason.

Provorov and Gostisbehere, two players whom many considered to be the top pairing on the team, have both struggled this year defensively. Now, to be fair, the team as a whole received sub-standard goaltending for basically the entire first half of the season. When a team has to dress seven goaltenders in a season, at some point, that is going to negatively affect the guys playing in front of him. So to some extent, metrics like oiGA% (On Ice Goals Against Percentage) and oiSV% (On Ice Save Percentage) may not accurately reflect the true play of these players.

Goaltending aside, both players struggled with defensive coverage and at times seemed downright lost in their own zone. With Ghost, you are always expecting to give up a certain amount of defensive coverage because of the offensive upside, though the organization is still hoping that his defensive game can be improved. Provorov, on the other hand, showed last year that he can be a rock solid number one defenseman, and his struggles this year at times have put the fan base on edge.

Now for the good news: both players seemed to have found their respective games as we enter the final stretch run to the playoffs. Gostisbehere’s Corsi numbers (52.6 CF% and 5.0 CF rel%) have improved to more closely resemble those from his 65 point season a year ago, and while the offensive scoring numbers will not top what he did in that season, he still has a chance to crack 40 points. Not bad in a season where your team fired the head coach, general manager, defensive coach, and couldn’t find a reliable goalie until the new year.

Provorov has experienced somewhat of a resurrection as of late, providing the type of game that reminds you why the Flyers were so excited about him at the foundation of the defense for years to come.  His numbers on the season are not what you would want to see from your number one defenseman (47.9 CF%, -2.0 CF rel%). However, logic dictates that players logging 25 minutes a night like Provorov are on the ice more and are thus pitted against the other team’s best players. In a year where he’s struggled from the jump and the team has had less than ideal goaltending, it’s not surprising to see those types of numbers.


The above video (from Charlie O’Connor’s piece on the Athletic breaking down the Flyers’ recent win over the Islanders) highlights some stellar play from Provorov where he breaks up a pass into the defensive zone and then subsequently cuts off the pass back out high. He then flips the puck out to the high forward which begins the breakout. This is the level of play that Provorov has shown a propensity for, and the kind of hockey sense that makes him such a reliable defender.

With Provorov and Gostisbehere hopefully getting back to their high level of play from recent years, further excitement has come in the form of two players who Flyers fans have been salivating over ever since their junior days. For starters, Travis Sanheim has morphed into a number one defenseman right in front of our eyes after never truly gaining the trust of former coach Dave Hakstol, a man who was content to let the uber-talented Sanheim sit in the press box in favor of less skilled players like Andrew MacDonald and Brandon Manning.

Sanheim’s talent has been on full display through the second half of the season, and it appears he’s set to absolutely take off as an NHL player. The soon to be 23 year-old has the ability to be a formidable, I daresay scary opponent for NHL forwards because of his combination of size and speed. He can beat you with his stick, out-muscle you on the boards, and out skate you in a foot race. Sanheim looks like the real McCoy.

His possession metrics aren’t overly impressive, but again, the defense has not been helped out by goaltending this season. Sanheim’s numbers are going to continue to improve the more time he spends on the ice. More importantly, he looks like he belongs, and he’s not getting downright bullied by opposing forwards like some young players tend to do at this stage. His level of maturity is impressive.

Like Gostisbehere, his offensive acumen is often on display, and he’s still just learning how to be an NHL player. His development this year into a bonafide offensive threat should scare other NHL coaches. On the season, Sanheim has 31 points (9G, 22A). He regularly jumps into the play and either keeps scoring chances alive or creates them himself.

Simply put, he’s a fun player to watch when he’s shooting up the ice after breaking up an opposing zone entry chance and sending it the other way. It’s even more exciting to watch him finish that kind of play with a scoring chance or a goal. That’s the kind of player that Sanheim can be in this league, and the Flyers are going to benefit from his services for a long time.

Rounding out the Flyers future top four is Phil Myers, a player who most fans weren’t sure if they would see in orange and black this season. Myers joined the team in February and like Sanheim, has flashed both offensive ability and rock-solid defensive skills.

To the delight of the fans, Myers has exceeded expectations during his relatively small sample size. Sure, he’s had the rough outings that you’d expect from a rookie playing in his first stretch of pro hockey games, but Myers hasn’t looked out-of-place by the eye test and his numbers through nine career games (50.0 CF%, 6.5 CF% rel, 1G 1A) suggest that he’s going to be, at the very least, a competent NHL defenseman. Still, I think his ceiling is much higher than that.

Myers is not a player who was taken with a high draft pick by Ron Hextall or Paul Holmgren. he was not a highly touted prospect who factored into the future like Sanheim, Ghost, Provorov, and even Samuel Morin. No, that Myers took more of a circuitous route to the NHL is all the more reason fans are excited about his future with the club. It’s as if the organization was gifted a player they never expected to have, and it could be a gift that continues to give for years to come.

Like Sanheim, Myers has the potential to be an absolute force on the blue line. He may not ascend to the offensive heights of Sanheim and Ghost, but with his size and speed, he’ll be difficult to play against every single night no matter the situation.

Next. Wayne Simmonds seems open to Philadelphia Flyers reunion in offseason. dark

No matter what the rest of the 2019 season holds for the Philadelphia Flyers, the future of the defense has never looked brighter. The Flyers finally have their young defensive players not only playing every night, but excelling. It hasn’t been an easy season for Flyers fans, but it appears that for the first time in a long time, things have a real chance to take a turn for the better.