PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 29: Joe Vitale #46 of the Pittsburgh Penguins handles the puck in front of Marc-Andre Bourdon #43 of the Philadelphia Flyers during the game at Consol Energy Center on December 29, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Flyers won 4-2. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
The desire to acquire a defenseman has not gone away. The question though, is what do Marc-Andre Bourdon and Erik Gustafsson need to improve upon?
The NHL trade deadline is less three weeks away. After giving up 11 goals in two games over the weekend (one of which was an empty netter), the Flyers' defense has come under scrutiny once more. Calls for a defender to be brought in via trade are growing louder, as are those that continue to disparage the goaltending offered by Ilya Bryzgalov, even after he pitches a 65-minute shutout.
Before going any further, let it be said that the Flyers could certainly use an upgrade on defense. The problem, though, is that this statement applies to every NHL team. This isn't unique to the Flyers, nor is it indicative of an actual problem existing on the blueline.
Currently, the Flyers are pairing rookie Marc-Andre Bourdon with Matt Carle and rookie Erik Gustafsson with Andrej Meszaros. This leaves Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn as the experienced pair, the one charged with shutting down the opposition's best each and every night.
Naturally, any improvement on defense would come at the expense of either Bourdon or Gustafsson. Bourdon has been subject to criticism lately due to turnovers, and while it is fair criticism, the question that should be asked is: Do you want fewer goals scored against when the rookies are on the ice, more goals scored by the Flyers, or something else entirely?
The reason this question must be asked is because it helps frame what it is that these two aren't doing well enough. If the Flyers were to upgrade their defense, surely there must be something that needs improvement.
So far, Bourdon ranks behind only Andreas Lilja and Chris Pronger with 2.15 goals against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play. Simply put, opponents aren't scoring when Bourdon is on the ice (or Lilja, for that matter). On the other end, Erik Gustafsson is riding the small sample size wave to a whopping 4.10 goals for per 60 minutes, good for best on the team. Up to this point, the Flyers are scoring a lot when Gus is on the ice.
So here you have two guys, one who provides offense and one who provides defense. It's tough to justify improving upon such impressive numbers, so then why are we talking about the need to upgrade?
My guess is that a lot of people are either spoiled by having only one weak link behind Pronger, Timonen, Coburn, Carle, and Meszaros or they just aren't comfortable with Bourdon, Gus, and Lilja. That's fine, it's reasonable.
In the playoffs, without any moves ahead of time, the team will likely use Carle and Meszaros together as the second pairing, needing someone to anchor the third pairing. Saying Lilja is not good enough to carry Bourdon or Gustafsson makes sense since it's true. But the Flyers don't need anything more than a #5 defenseman, if they even need that.
Looking through pending unrestricted free agents, there are a handful of guys who fit that bill.
Zanon currently faces second and third line competition starting in his own zone 58.6% of the time, yet he still has a positive CorsiRel. Some of that may be how terrible the Wild are at possession metrics, but he's put in difficult spots on a bad team and makes the Wild better when he's on the ice. A 31-year old pending UFA with a $1.9 million cap hit is exactly who the Flyers could use. He shouldn't cost much either, which is why he's my recommendation, if you believe the Flyers need to make a trade.
Jurcina was the guy I often said I'd prefer in the #5 spot instead of the trade to acquire Meszaros. At the time, the Flyers were looking for the same thing they are now: a solid contributor who can play behind their big four with a less-than-optimal partner.
Well, Jurcina keeps doing exactly that. Just like Zanon, he's facing second and third line competition, but he's starting in the offensive zone 52.2% of the time. Not the hardest minutes, but more than adequate for the job the Flyers would ask. He also has a positive CorsiRel and only costs $1.6 million. Since he's only 28 though, it may take a little more to get him from New York.
Allen is someone we've talked about here before, and for good reason. He faces first and second line opponents while starting in the defensive zone 57% of the time and he still has a CorsiRel of 2.0. There is little to no offensive upside for Allen (in the last 5 years, he hasn't scored more than 16 points), but he's big, plays the tough minutes and plays on the PK. Bryan Allen is probably a top-4 defenseman, but I doubt many people realize it. Which is why the price tag on him is probably a bit too high for a $2.9 million pending UFA.
If the Flyers can make a conditional pick one of the biggest pieces in the deal, maybe the price works for the Flyers. Allen is probably the biggest talent upgrade here, but he'll also cost the most.
The three guys above would all make great additions to the Flyers blueline, but they would likely all be rentals. And while they are almost certainly better than Marc-Andre Bourdon and Erik Gustafsson, the fact remains that Bourdon isn't getting scored on yet and Gustafsson provides more offense than any of these three will.
Preemptively upgrading a presumed weakness is fine, but what will it cost? Given the right deal - think Tom Sestito and a 3rd round pick - I would be ecstatic if these guys are manning the third pairing come April. If the Flyers go with a rotation of Bourdon, Gustafsson, and Lilja, I'd be fine with that too.