Flyers still lacking on defense

Flyers goalie Steve Mason passes the puck. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Flyers goalie Steve Mason passes the puck. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 08, 2014

As he surged forward to step into a slap shot Sunday night, Mark Streit struck the puck with such force that when it clanged off the left goalpost, the sequence sounded like a pair of reports from a firing range.

Streit beat Buffalo Sabres goaltender Nathan Lieuwen cleanly, and the puck caromed to Matt Read for an easy goal, for the first of Streit's three assists in the Flyers' 5-2 victory, and for the sort of dynamic play that the Flyers sought from Streit when they signed him last offseason.

General manager Paul Holmgren had handed Streit, who turned 36 in December, a four-year, $21 million contract - a deal that most NHL teams would have been reluctant to approach, if not refuse to offer altogether. But Holmgren was desperate to add a measure of speed and skating ability to the Flyers' corps of defensemen, and his acquisition of Streit was at least a nod to the realities of pro hockey in the 21st century.

Of course, Streit's presence alone hasn't been enough to contemporize the roster. Though the Flyers took care of their business Sunday against the league's worst team, all but assuring themselves of a playoff berth, their defensemen remain the reason it's difficult to envision them making a deep postseason run.

Goaltender Steve Mason has been fine, and the Flyers have enough scoring balance and depth among their forwards. But the essential asset for any elite NHL team these days is a group of mobile, efficient defensemen, and it's there that the Flyers suffer in comparison to the league's elite franchises - even acknowledging that the trade-deadline acquisition of Andy MacDonald has improved them in this regard.

Last year's Stanley Cup Finals were a showcase for this truth: the Chicago Blackhawks with Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya; the Boston Bruins with Zdeno Chara, Johnny Boychuk, Torey Krug. The Flyers' likely first-round opponent this year, the New York Rangers, have perhaps the NHL's best skating defenseman in Ryan McDonagh, plus Dan Girardi, John Moore, and Marc Staal. They will have an advantage that the Flyers will be hard-pressed to overcome.

"What you're looking at are defensemen who can get the puck and move it up," Flyers defenseman Hal Gill said. "There's a lot of ways to do that. There are skating defensemen who are going to get it and skate away from issues, and there's defensive defensemen who are going to take away time and space."

Gill is 6-foot-7, 243 pounds, and in this, his 16th NHL season, he has appeared in just four games for the Flyers - none since Dec. 21. He has always been one of those defensive defensemen, slow on his skates but stout as a sequoia, and he survived this long by adapting, by learning how to position himself better to fend off a forward or block a shot. "You kind of keep up with the changes," he said. "Wasn't it REO Speedwagon? 'Roll with the Changes?' "

In the present-day NHL, though, such smarts can get defensemen just so far. After the league, to create more scoring as it emerged from the 2004-05 lockout, eliminated the two-line pass and began penalizing obstruction, it took just a season for teams to figure out how to counteract the rule changes. They could pack all five skaters into the middle of the ice to keep offenses on the perimeter of the rink, and they could make sure they had defensemen who could chase down the puck in the defensive zone and move it out of harm's way. If those defensemen saw opportunities to join an offensive thrust, as Streit did Sunday, that was acceptable, so long as they possessed the speed and instincts to retreat in time.

"With the modern defenseman, you have to be capable of doing a little bit of everything," said Streit, who leads all Flyers defensemen in goals (nine) and points (38) this season. "It seems like in a lot of games the only way to create offense is that fourth guy who jumps into the play or even rushes the puck because everybody has three guys back. If you're a good skater and can read the game, it's a big plus."

It's no secret that the Flyers, since the loss of Chris Pronger, have considered this aspect of their roster to be a weakness, though coach Craig Berube's demand that the team's forwards back-check like demons has mitigated the problem.

Before he signed Streit and traded for MacDonald, Holmgren was willing to spend $110 million over 14 years to pry Shea Weber away from the Nashville Predators in 2012, and it's possible the Flyers will make another play for Weber this summer. Holmgren paid market value, if not more, for Streit, for a small step toward a more dynamic defense, and no matter what happens in this year's playoffs, there's no reason to think he won't try to spend again. These are the Flyers. There's never a reason to think such a thing.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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