Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren has always taken a proactive approach to filling what he believes are his club's biggest needs, obviously learning well from his predecessor and mentor, Bob Clarke, who also aggressively pursued any and all ways of improving his club.
Look no further than this past summer's overhaul to the forward ranks for proof. The GM took a big gamble and moved such mainstays as captain Mike Richards and Jeff Carter in order to clear salary cap space to bring in a proven goaltender in Ilya Bryzgalov. Holmgren traded for the rights to the pending UFA two weeks ahead of the July 1 free agency date, then signed him before other teams had a chance to bid for his services. While the results have been greatly mixed on the netminder thus far, you have to give the general manager credit for shuffling his deck in an attempt to improve the areas he though the team was lacking.
A similar approach would be wise in strengthening the Flyers' blueline in advance of the February 27 NHL trade deadline. With Chris Pronger out for the remainder of the regular season and playoffs with concussion-related malaise, a great void was created. While the play of rookie Marc-Andre Bourdon and the return of Erik Gustafsson from wrist surgery and Andreas Lilja from a high ankle sprain has greatly helped a defensive unit running short of healthy bodies, the corps could use an upgrade.
The current top two pairings of Kimmo Timonen - Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle - Andrej Meszaros are very solid. Gustafsson and Bourdon have been everything the club could have hoped for since their recalls from the Adirondack Phantoms, when Pronger sustained injuries. Outside of that group of six, all bets are off.
Lilja has struggled in just about every area of his game since being signed as an UFA in July, and has been a frequent healthy scratch since his return from the ankle injury. At 36 years of age and in the first season of a 2-year deal that pays him $737,500 annually, it's hard to imagine how he will help this club down the home stretch of the current campaign and into the playoffs. It appears the hope was Lilja would bring a seasoned, veteran presence to the team, much like that of Sean O'Donnell last year. Lilja's poor play has negated any off-ice positives he may have added to the locker room.
Matt Walker remains in Adirondack, where he will almost certainly stay indefinitely. The 31-year-old has been awful in the eight games (four in 2010-11, four this year) he's played with the Flyers since being acquired from Tampa Bay as part of the Simon Gagne salary dump prior to last season.
While the top six is a decent group, there are not many who believe the club can be considered a true Stanley Cup contender without some measure of an upgrade.
It's apparent that any potential Philadelphia trade will have to include at least one of their young forwards. While James van Riemsdyk, Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn, and Matt Read would head the list of those demanded in return for any significant defenders, there may also be interest in Zac Rinaldo and Harry Zolnierczyk for a lesser rear guard.
There had already been rampant rumors that Brian Burke and the Toronto Maple Leafs were seeking van Riemsdyk in a deal for Luke Schenn, Brayden's brother, prior to JvR's recent concussion. As the 22-year-old winger continues his recovery, it will be interesting to see if those rumors begin again as the deadline approaches.
Of the present cast of defensemen, Carle will be an UFA and Bourdon a RFA come July 1. Carle is in the last year of a four-year contract that pays him $3.4375 million per year, and Bourdon is in the final season of a three-year entry level pact in which he makes $875,000 annually. Whether or not either is included in a package for an elite defender remains to be seen, but Carle has been one of the club's two best defenders all year long.
Add in the fact that Timonen only has one year remaining on his $6.33 million contract, along with the uncertainty surrounding the fact of Pronger's future, and the team's corps of defenders could have a very different look in a rather short period of time.
One way to refurbish it in a hurry would be to look to Music City.
Two Nashville Predators rear guards, captain Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, are pending free agents (Weber a RFA, Suter UFA) and either would look great patrolling the Flyers' blueline. Many felt the Preds would have to deal one of their defenders after the club locked up pending UFA goaltender Pekka Rinne to a seven-year, $49 million extension in November. Nashville GM David Poile has been working with a limited budget, currently ranking 28th out of 30 League teams. But the GM says he has been given the green light by ownership to spend the full cap amount for next year, and it would certainly seem there is plenty of room to fit in new deals for both Weber and Suter.
Weber is one of the NHL's elite defensemen and is making an arbiter-awarded $7.5 million this season. Currently the fifth-highest paid blueliner, there is no doubt Weber will be seeking a hefty raise this summer. Some saw Suter's announcement over the weekend that he will not sign a new deal before the trade deadline as a sign he wants to be dealt, but it stands to reason he will likely wait it out until the summer and see what direction the franchise is headed. With a huge amount of space with which to add pieces for the stretch run and postseason, Poile could further strenghten his team's chances for a long playoff run.
The irony here is the pair will be watching to see what moves are made to gauge ownership's commitment to winning, but the amount of cap space they will have to work with could be extremely limited next year based on what it takes to re-sign these two integral pieces.
There is no hurry for Poile to do anything hasty, as he has the option of trading Suter's negotiating rights prior to July 1 and running the risk of losing him for nothing in return via free agency.
Philadelphia will be one of the big players in determining their destinations if one of the two were to become available during the offseason, but that won't help the club now.
There have been some other names floating around for some time as potential defensive acquisitions, but that list is quickly shrinking.
In addition to the probability that both Weber and Suter are not available at the present time, the Carolina Hurricanes officially took Tim Gleason off the market Monday by inking the solid 6' 0", 217-pounder to a four-year, $16 million extension (click here for the SB Nation NHL story). Gleason was another name that came up each time a Philly blueline upgrade was discussed, but Holmgren now has one less option to weigh.
Waiting until deadline day to make something happen will likely come at a greater cost, as it has been reported the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins and Western Conference powerhouses Chicago Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks lead the pack of legitimate contenders who are seeking to add depth to their respective bluelines. Any sellers will be able to pit rival suitors against one another and drive up the cost of any return.
Holmgren could eventually still look to Carolina as the Hurricanes, who sit in the 15th and last spot in the East, will soon become sellers. 6' 5", 226-pound Bryan Allen plays a physical game that should be attractive to the Flyers, especially with the absence of Pronger, the team's most physical rear guard. The 31-year-old is in the last year of a deal that pays him $2.9 million each year, and could give Philadelphia a presence to clear the area in front of the Flyers' net.
Jaroslav Spacek could be another option in Carolina, but the defender has battled injuries the past two seasons. He has played in just 27 games this year, and is currently out after sustaining a head injury on January 14. Throw in the fact that Spacek turns 38 years old in less than two weeks, and it would seem that this would be a last gasp acquisition if Holmgren finds himself beaten to the punch on the more attractive defensemen.
With it becoming clearer which teams are likely to become sellers, some other blueliners that may be in the mix include Hal Gill of the Montreal Canadiens; Pavel Kubina, Marc-Andre Bergeron (both would be excellent additions for the power play) and Brett Clark of the Tampa Bay Lightning; Andy Sutton of the Edmonton Oilers; Johnny Oduya of the Winnipeg Jets; Robyn Regehr of the Buffalo Sabres; Adrian Aucoin (modified No-Trade Clause) and Michal Rozsival (who does have a NTC, but it's doubtful the Flyers would be on the list of eight teams he can list as not wanting to go to) of the Phoenix Coyotes; and any one of these Calgary Flames -- Jay Bouwmeester (though Holmgren would have trouble making room for his humungous $6.8 million salary), Mark Giordano, Cory Sarich, and Anton Babchuk. All four have some form of a No-Movement Clause / NTC, so the players would also have to be willing to waive any clause that pertains to them. Calgary also has two others that might interest Philly in Chris Butler and Scott Hannan.
Kubina, Aucoin, Rozsival, Sarich and Babchuk also represent another component lacking on the Flyers' defense corps -- a right-handed shooting blueliner.
There may be others who become available as the line between the clubs that will qualify for the postseason and those who likely won't are further defined over the next few weeks.
While they possess a highly mobile unit, one of the most glaring needs on the 2011-12 Flyers club (in Pronger's absence) is the lack of physicality of their core of blueliners. Bourdon is probably the most physical of the group, but he isn't the shutdown guy to be logging crucial minutes as the team is protecting a late lead.
Something that has haunted Philly goaltenders all year long, especially Bryzgalov, has been deflections from the space directly in front of the cage. There has been no price to pay for venturing into the slot or crease areas, and as a result Philadelphia has suffered the consequences. It comes as no coincidence that the Flyers have had trouble with teams that boast defensemen who offer hard, deflectable shots, and larger forwards who are hard to clear from the front porch. Boston exploited this weakness in their four-game sweep of Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference Semifinals last spring, and have not had much trouble scoring against the orange-and-black in their last two meetings in the present campaign.
If the Flyers are going to be viewed as a legitimate Cup threat, this is an area that must be addressed by the February 27 trade deadline -- which is just four short weeks from yesterday. With Holmgren's track record, he is likely taking the aggressive route and attempting to make the defense's foundation stronger for the stretch run.