The Philadelphia Flyers' summer reached a new level of frustration Tuesday when it was announced that defenseman Andrej Meszaros -- expected to return from back surgery and play an integral part on the team's blue line -- could miss the entire season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon.
"Andrej had successful surgery this morning to repair a torn right Achilles tendon. The surgery was performed by Dr. Steve Raikin at Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia. Andrej was injured last week during summer training in Slovakia. Andrej will be out indefinitely." -- Flyers' general manager Paul Holmgren via Flyers official website on injury to Meszaros
After overhauling his forward ranks during the summer of 2011, Holmgren's shopping list this offseason centered on revamping the club's defensive corps.
Following failed attempts to land two premiere defenders -- unrestricted free agent Ryan Suter balked at their offer and instead signed in Minnesota, and signed Shea Weber to an offer sheet, ending with the Nashville Predators matching Philly's offer -- it appeared Holmgren would stick with what he had and hope for the best.
On paper, the unit looked as though it should be solid. After a top-four of Kimmo Timonen - Braydon Coburn, Meszaros - Nicklas Grossmann or Luke Schenn, the third pair would consist of Schenn / Grossmann, with either Bruno Gervais, Andreas Lilja, Erik Gustafsson, or Marc-Andre Bourdon as the seventh defenseman.
The truth is, even in the best-case scenario -- where Timonen and Meszaros would not miss a beat coming off their respective back surgeries and contribute heavily, and Grossmann's knees would remain healthy -- there was the potential that the squad could ultimately prove inadequate against their usual rivals.
In addition to replacing the 6' 6", 220-pound hole left in the absence of captain and top rear guard Chris Pronger, another big consideration for Holmgren in adding another elite defender like a Weber or Suter was to cut down on the minutes logged by Timonen and still have the Flyers experience success. The diminutive Finn's body has worn down considerably by season's end over the past several years, and the fact that he will turn 38 next spring has to raise warning flags up and down the Philadelphia organization.
Compounding the Flyers' woes is the fact that as they put all of their energies into the pursuit of Suter and Weber, the consistent Matt Carle left as an UFA for the sunny shores of Tampa Bay.
The loss of Meszaros, the 2010-11 Barry Ashbee Trophy winner as the Flyers best defenseman, has further exacerbated Philly's blue line woes.
As things stand right now, it would appear that barring any other moves -- whether via trade or a free agent signing -- the youngsters (Gustafsson, Bourdon, possibly even Oliver Lauridsen or Brandon Manning) could play a vital role in the team's blue line this season.
Bourdon, who suffered concussion-related issues late in the season and was given a clean bill of health by Holmgren in an August 1 conference call, still remains an unsigned restricted free agent. It would stand to reason that Holmgren's time table to get Bourdon under a new contract has been suddenly and severely expedited.
The Impact of the Meszaros Injury
If he wasn't already in the process prior to Meszaros' injury, Holmgren is likely burning up the phone lines right now. And probably will be until he can make some marked improvements to his back line.
With just over $3.5 million in cap space available, Meszaros' $4 million salary will almost certainly go onto long-term injured reserve. The more than $7.5 million will enable the Flyers to add another proven defender.
The best UFA option still available would seem to be Carlo Colaiacovo, a 2001 first-round draft pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs who turns 30 in January. Colaiacovo is a late-bloomer -- having not made it to the NHL level until the 2008-09 season with the St. Louis Blues -- but is also injury-prone, having played between 63-67 games over the course of his four campaigns in St. Louis. The nice thing about Colaiacovo is he is unrestricted and would come free of losing any players from the club's current roster.
Another UFA, former-Flyer Steve Eminger, was seen skating at the team's practice facility in Voorhees, New Jersey on Tuesday. The 28-year-old defender played all of 12 games in the fall of 2008 before being shipped to the Tampa Bay Lightning with Steve Downie for Carle. The 6' 2", 203-pounder hasn't really made his mark with any of the six organizations of which he has been a part, including the New York Rangers over the last two years. While his size and the fact that he's a right-handed shooter -- presently only Schenn is a righty defenseman on the Flyers -- his level of play is reminiscent of another failed veteran, Matt Walker.
Other UFA's available are Michal Rozsival and Pavel Kubina (both right-handers), and 38-year-old Jaroslav Spacek. Kubina did not impress in a late-season stint with the club last spring and ended up in the press box for the last regular season games and playoff contests and would, quite frankly, be a last resort. Rozsival, however, could be a serviceable replacement for Meszaros, though he has had injury troubles the last few seasons. Spacek is still solid, but hasn't played more than 59 games in each of the past two seasons. He is more of what the Flyers already have, a depth player instead of a top-four.
The route of trading for a blue liner is still open, and there could be some decent options available. While Phoenix Coyote Keith Yandle appears to be a long shot, Calgary Flames GM Jay Feaster is actively shopping Jay Bouwmeester and his $6.8 million contract, reportedly seeking a top two line centerman in return. The 28-year-old is big (6' 4", 212 pounds) and mobile, and eats up a ton of minutes, something that should be attractive to Holmgren with the current state of his defensive group. The breaking point of this possibility could very well be in just how anxious Feaster is to dump Bouwmeester's massive salary.
The problem likely to be encountered for the Flyers in any trade scenario is that other GM's are likely to pounce on the fact that Holmgren is in an extremely bad situation -- much the same way Holmgren attempted to take advantage of a smaller market team like Nashville in the way they structured the offer sheet to Weber -- and it's completely expected the names that other GM's had unsuccessfully requested in past trade talks (young building block forwards Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn) with Holmgren will be demanded once again.
Holmgren doesn't seem like he will implode when dealing out of a position of weakness, and it's highly unlikely he will rip apart his young core of players without getting a franchise cornerstone in return.
One thing is for sure -- in a summer where the Flyers were looking to improve their defensive unit, it's looking like the opening night blue line corps could actually be weaker than the group in place when the New Jersey Devils knocked Philadelphia out of the postseason in late-May.