Flyers' defense is healthy and ready for the season's start

The Flyers' Nick Grossmann shadows the Capitals Alex Ovechkin. Grossmann was a top shot blocker last season before missing the final 18 games with a concussion. AP
The Flyers' Nick Grossmann shadows the Capitals Alex Ovechkin. Grossmann was a top shot blocker last season before missing the final 18 games with a concussion. AP
Posted: October 01, 2013

The Flyers allowed too many odd-man rushes last season, gave opponents too much time and space in the offensive end, and were in the bottom third of the league in goals surrendered.

They have most of the same defensemen back this season, but there is a major difference.

They are healthy.

Will it translate to success, or will the absence of Chris Pronger - the snarling, crease-clearing defenseman whose Hall of Fame career has ended because of concussion symptoms - continue to haunt them?

During their 1-5-1 preseason, the Flyers defense struggled, but goalie Ray Emery downplayed the miscues.

"It's part of getting used to each other, part of getting used to the system we're going to play," Emery said. "Even by making mistakes, you're still learning. You're learning what not to do, right? It's kind of a trial-and-error thing; we're all competitive guys who want to win. We want to allow no goals and score as many as we can, but you're just getting the kinks out, I think."

A year ago, three of the Flyers' top defensemen - Nick Grossmann, Braydon Coburn and Andrej Meszaros - missed a combined 70 games because of injuries during the lockout-shortened, 48-game season.

All are 100 percent now.

"It's awesome to get them back," said Luke Schenn, who led NHL defensemen with 187 hits last season. "I mean, obviously they're veteran guys who have played a lot of games. They're big bodies back there who can skate with the puck. . . . It's only going to help."

Grossmann, one of the league's top shot blockers last season before missing the last 18 games with a concussion, said he "had a long summer of rehab to get back to feeling normal again."

A 6-foot-4, 230-pounder whose physicality was missed when he was sidelined, Grossmann said he didn't want to use last year's injuries as an excuse for the team's poor defensive play.

"We had a lot of players coming and going, but we have to be better," the Sweden native said. "We have everyone back and hopefully it's a fresh start here."

Meszaros agreed.

"We had a lot of bad luck with injuries last year, but they're part of the game," he said. "That's all behind us now."

Meszaros played just 11 games last season, a year in which he was hindered by a dislocated left shoulder. In about a one-year period, Meszaros had surgery on a herniated disk in his back, ruptured his right Achilles tendon, and endured the shoulder injury.

"There was never a point where I doubted I'd ever come back," he said.

Meszaros, a 6-2, 223-pounder who is in the final year of his contact, conceded the biggest hurdle wasn't anything physical.

"When the doctor cleared me to play [before training camp], mentally was the main thing," he said. "Get your head on straight and not think about it and not worry about what will happen out there."

Like Meszaros and Grossmann, the 6-5, 220-pound Coburn has returned to good health. He missed the last 15 games with a separated left shoulder.

"Last year," he said, "is behind us. We're looking ahead."

Defensive logjam

The Flyers allowed 2.9 goals per game last season, putting them in a tie for 22d among the 30 NHL teams.

Based on the preseason, coach Peter Laviolette is altering the pairings.

A year ago, Schenn and Kimmo Timonen formed the top defensive duo. In the preseason. Timonen, still effective after all these years, was matched with Coburn - they have excelled together in the past - while Schenn was with Mark Streit, and Meszaros was with Grossmann.

Erik Gustafsson, a puck-mover who helped Sweden win the IIHF World Championships in May, could start the season as the extra defenseman. It's no secret the Flyers would like to work him into the top six, though Gustafsson did not have a great preseason.

Because of the defensive logjam, there have been rumblings that Meszaros might be dealt to open a spot for Gustafsson.

"It's out of my hands, and I just have to be at my best and play my game," Meszaros said. "I'm not really thinking about [the rumors]. Obviously I love it here and would like to stay, but we'll see what happens."

In 2010-11, his first year with the Flyers, Meszaros had eight goals and was plus-30 as he was named the winner of Barry Ashbee Trophy, given to the team's best defenseman.

The Flyers, who have never recovered from the franchise-jarring loss of Pronger, desperately need Meszaros, Coburn, and Grossmann to return to form if they are going to get back to the playoffs after a rare absence last season.



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