It's been obvious since the loss of Chris Pronger that the Flyers are in need of a physical aspect on their blueline. Even if that area is filled, it appears there are more shortcomings.
In the throes of an awful 2-4-2 stretch since the All-Star break, it's painfully clear that the Philadelphia Flyers are in need of some changes.
It's hard to believe that the team entered last weekend with the chance to take over the top spots in both the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference standings away from the New York Rangers. The Flyers have gone 1-4-1 since that time to drop eight points behind the Broadway Blueshirts, and are now tied with the surging Pittsburgh Penguins with 69 points.
And the timing of this slump could not be any worse for the Orange-and-Black.
With the February 27 NHL trade deadline rapidly approaching, this is the worst-possible scenario for Philly. It's always best to be dealing from a position of strength and with the wheels looking like they're about to completely fall off, teams are likely going to attempt to drive up the price in any talks with Paul Holmgren.
Already having made bold moves to bolster the Flyers' wing positions over the summer, it's doubtful the GM strays from his usual approach.
While their offensive output has dropped off to just 2.5 goals per game in the eight post-break contests, the biggest concerns have come on the defensive side of their game. The Flyers have now given up 169 goals for the year, which is lower than the totals of just the Ottawa Senators (181) and Chicago Blackhawks (171) for the most allowed by any team that currently sits in a playoff spot.
The penalty-killing unit has fallen apart and while they've given up an average of over three goals per in the last eight, it's the ease with which the opposition has been able to strike that is perhaps most disturbing.
The area directly in front of the Flyers' goaltenders has been a much-too-friendly spot for opposition skaters to frequent, and the lack of a hell-to-pay attitude from Philadelphia defenders has led to far too many goals in which the netminders have had absolutely zero chance to make a save. Combined with coverage and positioning issues, if you've watched any Flyers' games in the past two weeks, the number of tic-tac-toe passing plays ending with an open net tap-in has become an epidemic.
From the time it was announced Chris Pronger would miss the rest of the year there was a general consensus that this club would eventually need to add at least one depth defenseman, and hopefully at a low cost. The top six of Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Matt Carle, Andrej Meszaros, Marc-Andre Bourdon, and Erik Gustafsson is in need of more physicality in front of Ilya Bryzgalov and Sergei Bobrovsky. Of the many areas the club misses their captain, this is one of the most blatant team deficiencies that Pronger's absence most accentuates. All of the New York goals scored in Saturday's miserable 5-2 loss were of this variety, as was Johan Franzen's third period game-winner in Detroit last night.
With Andreas Lilja a consistent healthy scratch due to poor performance, Matt Walker and Oskars Bartulis looking like they'll remain in the AHL for the long haul, and Kevin Marshall recently traded away, it appears as though there will be no help coming to the defense from within the organization.
But it is becoming crystal clear that there are more shortcomings in the Flyers' lineup than that of just the blueline as the games are becoming more important heading into the stretch drive.
During the Bob Clarke years as GM, Philadelphia perpetually possessed at least one big, shutdown centerman. In years past, the likes of a Eric Lindros (6' 4", 230), Joel Otto (6' 4", 220), Keith Primeau (6' 5", 220), or Michal Handzus (6' 5", 215) were available to clog up the middle of the opponent's passing lanes -- and help the defensemen in clearing out a few bodies from the Philly crease area along the way.
This season's version of the club shows a lack of size up the middle. With Claude Giroux (5' 11", 172 pounds), Danny Briere (5' 10", 179), Maxime Talbot (5' 11", 190), and rookie Sean Couturier (6' 3", 197 pounds) centering the four lines, the average size of a Flyers' pivot is 5' 11.75" and 184.5 pounds. Along with a physical rear guard, this team could also use a centerman in the mold of Toronto's David Steckel or the Rangers' Brian Boyle to help remedy the club's defensive woes.
The good news is some of the recent difficulties the Flyers have experienced are correctable, with the penalty kill being the most obvious. While it's hard to imagine how a team with such defensively-sound players has slipped so far while skating with the man disadvantage, watching them attempt to snuff out an opposition's power play shows a lot. Too many times the box breaks down in puck pursuit, with zone coverage instead resembling a 'T'. It's allowing penetration for open opportunities, and leaving men alone at the side of the net in the haste of a scramble to block a shot from a high-percentage shooting area. This is when the pass occurs to the open man at the weak side for the non-contested tap-in. Here's one of Ryan Callahan's three from Saturday's 5-2 loss. Notice the box coverage collapse into a 1-2-2 'T' formation, and even an 'I' for a brief moment:
As a result, the PK yielded five goals in 12 opportunities to the Rangers and Red Wings over the weekend, which included a stretch of five markers allowed in just nine chances. Philadelphia has now dropped to 19th in the overall PK rankings (81.4%), which breaks down as the 28th-ranked PK on home ice at a horrific 77.3%, and 11th on the road at 84.9%.
But last night's GWG by Franzen proved the easy goals aren't only happening while a man down.
Coverage in the defensive zone has been a mess in all situations and with numerous bad turnovers, the goalies are being called upon to come up with miraculous stops on a regular basis. This gimme from Artem Anisimov on Saturday was also at even strength:
With several other clubs deemed Stanley Cup contenders on the prowl to make necessary additions for the last couple of months of the regular season and playoffs, it is a seller's market. Philadelphia is not the only team struggling right now, and others are also looking to improve their defense. The free-falling Blackhawks, losers of their last eight, and the Boston Bruins are other contenders who will almost certainly be played against the Flyers as the deadline nears in order to maximize any return.
One thing that is important to remember amid all of the names floating around in trade rumors is that Philadelphia is not likely to cure all of it's shortcomings in one deal for a rental player. Hal Gill of the Montreal Canadiens is the most prominent in such whispers and while he would add a big, physical presence in front of the Flyers' cage, he is not the most mobile of defenders. Sometimes those types of blueliners who are not fleet afoot don't fit into certain systems, and Peter Laviolette's would probably fall into this category.
Although he will likely receive such demands, there is no way Holmgren should even entertain dealing his most-valuable assets for what would amount to a rental player. Is it even possible to rectify their recent fortunes by adding a player like Gill? It just doesn't make sense, and too many teams have made trades in times of panic that have come back to haunt them for years, and sometimes even decades.
Rookies Matt Read and Couturier, as well as their first-round selection in the upcoming draft, should be off-limits in any negotiations not bringing a defender who will help not only now, but also in the future.
With Carle set to test the free agents waters this summer and Timonen with just one more year left on his pact, there is a real need to upgrade the backline.
While the schedule has the Flyers off until Thursday when they host the Buffalo Sabres, this is a time when a deal can most-likely be completed. It would be so easy to appease the screaming fans with some type of deal, but it is imperative that Holmgren not make any kind of panic moves.
The loss of any integral assets for less than equal value is the last thing the organization needs at any point, let alone now, when things could quickly unravel on what had been a promising season.