Kolupanowich: Overall defense the issue in Philly, not just goaltending

By: Tim Kolupanowich, Executive Editor
@TimKolupan_

You have to give Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren credit for having the courage to completely revamp his team in hopes of finally finding a capable goaltender. But alas, all his effort was in vain as once again shaky goaltending was evidently the team’s Achilles’ heel throughout the season.

The truly devastating part of the whole scenario isn’t just the inconsistent play of Ilya Bryzgalov, but his contract as well. Not only is Bryzgalov signed for eight more seasons with a cap hit of $5.66 million, he has a no movement clause so he can’t be traded or sent to the minors.

Even though (despite his .902 save percentage and 3.02 goals against average) he was arguably the Flyers’ best player in the semifinal series against the Devils, he did not provide the shutdown goaltending expected of a $51 million puck stopper. Russia didn’t even want him for the World Championship, opting instead for Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov and Konstantin Barulin of the Kontinental League’s Moscow Oblast Atlant.

Potentially, the best news for the Flyers are the rumors of an amnesty clause in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, which allows a team to buyout one contract without any penalty against their salary cap. Bryzgalov would still get every dollar entitled to him in his contract, but the Flyers will no longer have to put up with their inconsistent, sometimes-borderline-insane philosopher.

That said, their problem, however, stems from more than just a bad goalie. While they were second to Pittsburgh in goals per game in both the regular season and playoffs, their inability to shutdown the opposition in front of Bryzgalov and adapt to a new style of play ultimately led to their downfall. They tried throughout the Devils series to dump and chase and Martin Brodeur was able to clear the puck out himself almost every time.

Holmgren needs to spend his summer, assuming he can buyout Bryzgalov, searching for a capable goalie, not necessarily a superstar, and solidifying his defense. Chris Pronger, for two seasons, made their blueline look better than it really was. But without him, there is no player with the ability to take control of the defensive zone. Although it may not have been quite as evident in the regular season with so much focus on the exceptional play of Claude Giroux and the various Flyers’ rookies, the team certainly missed Pronger immensely in the postseason.

The Devils not only won nearly all the races and battles for loose pucks, but they have everyone on the team playing responsible defense. On paper, the Flyers had a better blueline, but they certainly didn’t play that way. After coach Peter Laviolette proclaimed Claude Giroux to be the best player in the universe on more that one occasion, the team probably thought they would steamroll over anybody with their offensive depth. They were lucky to play Pittsburgh, who somehow had an even worse defense, but had they played any other team, they would have likely lost in the first round.

Here’s a trade proposal that could help them out: James van Riemsdyk to Nashville for the negotiating rights to Ryan Suter.

The two teams have been trading partners in the past, so there is familiarity there. The Flyers traded Peter Forsberg to the Music City at the 2007 trade deadline for Scottie Upshall, Ryan Parent and two draft picks. The Flyers then traded one of those picks back to Nashville for the rights to Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen.

(Tim Kolupanowich/CM)

Here’s why this deal makes sense.

Nashville needs a big body up front capable of scoring goals. Van Riemsdyk showed last season he is capable of scoring big goals in bunches. He was the second overall pick in 2007 and next season will be his magical fourth year. He only scored 11 goals this season (granted, that was mainly due to injury), but if Predators GM David Poile opts to take a risk on van Riemsdyk and his $4.25 million cap hit, he could be handsomely rewarded. He would be their third highest paid forward, but still cheaper than Suter and Shea Weber will cost them. Speculation is the Preds will only be able to keep one defenseman and they would surely try to keep their captain and with Barry Trotz as their coach, they’d find a way to cope with the loss of a stud defenseman.

This year, the Flyers showed they don’t need van Riemdsyk. He missed 39 games this season due to various injuries and they didn’t miss a beat without him. In return they would get a defenseman they could center around, not one as dominant as Pronger, but then again, nobody is. And while Weber gets most of the attention and may be more flashy, Suter is every bit as good. In the past six seasons, Weber has 97-156-253, a plus-36 rating and 102 power play points, while Suter has 37-185-222, a plus-36 rating, 97 power play points and has averaged more minutes per game in five of those seasons.

Suter alone wouldn’t help the Flyers, but he would certainly be a start.

The Flyers can outscore any opponent in a gun-and-gun style of game, but they cannot out-defend. They have to change their game and with an absurd amount of offensive depth, they can easily make move to acquire better defensemen. Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn are both solid, but neither is a true first-pairing blueliner. Carle is fourth in the playoffs with 13 giveaways and Coburn is ninth with 10 and while acquiring Coburn for Alexei Zhitnik was a steal, receiving any player in that trade would have been a win for the Flyers.

A personnel and philosophy change is the only thing that will really help the Flyers. They may be one of the most exciting teams for fans to watch, but the most exciting thing is to watch your team lift the Stanley Cup. And that won’t happen with the team designed as it is now.

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