Flyers future on defense looks bright

Posted: February 26, 2014

With the possibility that Kimmo Timonen retires after the season and Andrej Meszaros signs a free-agent contract elsewhere this summer, the Flyers' defense could have a lot of changes next year.

The good news is that the Flyers have the rights to some talented young defensemen who are with the AHL Adirondack Phantoms, or playing for junior, European or college teams.

"Everybody has to find their identity or what's going to enable them to make it to the next level," Chris Pryor, the Flyers' ever-traveling director of scouting, said recently. "Sometimes, especially from a defense standpoint, it takes a little time to find that, to find where their game fits and what their niche is."

Some young defensemen, like Marc-Andre Bourdon - a physical player who is again battling concussion issues after restarting his career with Adirondack last month - have had a taste of the NHL. In Bourdon's case, he could be in the Flyers' lineup next season if he can regain his health. (Bruno Gervais, an eight-year NHL veteran who is now the top-scoring defenseman with the Phantoms, can become a free agent after the season and is a long shot with the Flyers for next season.)

Oliver Lauridsen, who is difficult to play against because of his size (6-foot-6, 220 pounds) and long reach, and Brandon Manning are two other Phantoms who had look-sees with the Flyers and are on their radar. So are hardworking Mark Alt (acquired from Carolina last year) and concussion-riddled Matt Konan.

"It depends on what kind of guy you're looking for and what you need him for," said Pryor when asked which players were closest to being NHL-ready. "They all bring different things."

The Flyers haven't drafted a defenseman who became an all-star for them since Behn Wilson in 1981. Jimmy Watson, a five-time all-star, was the best defenseman the Flyers ever drafted - and that was in 1972.

Pryor believes that some from the Flyers' group of prospects - including Sam Morin, Robert Hagg and Shayne Gostisbehere - have the potential to break the long drought of homegrown defensive talent.

"I think people are going to be excited about these guys in the next couple years," he said. "Now whether it's next year . . . that remains to be seen, but I think we have some kids that are coming."

Opportunities away

The Phantoms' Manning, who plays with physicality but needs to be more consistent, is well aware that - barring trades or free-agent signings - there could be job openings next season with the Flyers.

"We probably have three or four good players who could step in and maybe contribute," said Manning, who has 20 points and 193 penalty minutes in 52 games. "You don't know what's going to happen with trades or free agency, but you definitely see things could change and it gives you hope."

Morin (6-6, 202 pounds) and Haag (6-2, 204), players who one day could be Flyers cornerstones, have made major strides since being selected in the first and second rounds, respectively, last June. Morin had 27 points, 100 penalty minutes and a plus-9 rating in 46 games with Rimouski Océanic, his junior team, while Hagg has given a strong account of himself as a 19-year-old playing against men in the prestigious Swedish Hockey League.

And while both figure to benefit from another year of seasoning next year, Pryor would not rule out the possibility of them earning a spot with the Flyers in the 2014 training camp.

"In a perfect world, you'd probably like to bring them along [slowly]," said Pryor, who is also high on 6-4, 184-pound Reece Willcox, a fifth-round draft pick in 2012 who is having a strong sophomore season at Cornell. "But who knows? If the kids have a big year of training in the summer and all of a sudden they come to camp and they're ahead of where you thought they would be and don't look out of place. . . . Sometimes they take a big step and then you have to reevaluate."

Hagg is a puck-moving, two-way player, and Morin is a defensive force who plays with a physical edge."He has a little mean streak in him, but down the road, I think he can be that type of guy, too," said Pryor, meaning Morin has an offensive upside. "He'll give people a little more than they think he will. I'm not going to say he'll put up big numbers, but people just look at him as a big guy and I think he has a little more puck savvy than people give him credit for."

Morin has made progress working with Kjell Samuelsson, a Flyers' player development coach. He has had some up-and-down moments, "but overall, he's made big strides this year, and to say where he's going to be from April to next September, I don't know," Pryor said. "A lot of that is going to come down to Samuel. And knowing the kid, one thing that makes him the guy he is, is his attitude and work ethic."

Hagg may be ready to sign an entry-level deal and leave Sweden, while Gostisbehere, selected by the Flyers in the third round of the 2012 draft, could sign and bypass his senior season at Union College, where you play about two games a week. Is he ready to face bigger, more talented players, the grueling travel, and the grind of a much longer pro schedule?

"That," Pryor said, "is a big adjustment for them. And you're playing against men. I think for a kid coming out of college or junior, the biggest adjustment is the first year going to the American Hockey League."

Gostisbehere, a small but speedy defender who is one of the Flyers' most intriguing prospects, has "offensive instincts and mobility, and I think it's going to allow him to" make an impact, Pryor said.

The physical Morin and offensive-minded Gostisbehere might make an excellent pairing one day, Pryor said.

"They're a good complement; they bring different elements," Pryor said. "They're like some of the pairs we've got, like Kimmo [Timonen] and [Braydon] Coburn. I'm not comparing them, but it's a good balance." We get excited at some of our young guys coming up, but more so than anything else, you need patience."

According to Pryor, Gostisbehere is in a "good situation" at Union, a national collegiate powerhouse that could be at the Frozen Four at the Wells Fargo Center in April.

"The team has done well and he's a big part of it," Pryor said. "He'll have one more year, eligibility-wise, if he decides that's the route he wants to go."

After the season, Pryor and the brass will get together and decide whether to offer Gostisbehere and Hagg contracts.

"We'll take a peek - as we do with all our kids at the end of the year - to figure out what's the best situation from a development standpoint," Pryor said. "With all these kids, they have to want to do it, too. Mentally, they have to buy in and be on the same page as we are.

"First and foremost, they have to want to make that step."

We'll have that conversation after the season."

Speaking about Hagg, Pryor said: "Does he want to come over here and start carving his path over here, or does he think he needs one more year over there? He has to make that decision in his own mind, as does Shayne. . . . Robert's playing with men over there [Sweden] now, and he did well at the World Juniors, so we'll see what he wants to do."

In 2008, the Flyers wanted their prize draft pick from 2007, winger James van Riemsdyk, to leave the University of New Hampshire after one year and turn pro.

Van Riemsdyk, now starring with Toronto, wasn't ready, so he remained in college before signing after his sophomore season.

"JVR wanted to stay in school another year; he thought that was the best situation for him," Pryor said. "As it turned out, from a developmental standpoint, it worked out all right. Now with Shayne, I can make an argument either way right now, to be honest. He's in a good situation. They have good coaching there and they have a good team.

"Now with Mark Alt, he left school [the University of Minnesota] . . . and he's learning the pro game and he really likes it, but that's for Mark Alt," he added. "I think each case is different, and I think you have to have a conversation on each guy on an annual basis on what we think is best for them - and also what they think is best for them."

scarchidi@phillynews.com

@BroadStBull

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