Grading Potential Flyers Defensive Signings
No team wants to look around at the end of the summer and realize their only option is Seth Jones.
The Philadelphia Flyers ended the 2020-21 season with a solid defensive performance in terms of overall performance but were undoubtedly a shell of their previous campaigns unit. The loss of Matt Niskanen proved too much for the defense core, coaching staff, and team to reconcile.
Now, the Flyers are looking to make one major signing on the backline, so they can take one more swing at the Stanley Cup before their window most likely closes.
While there are multiple options for Chuck Fletcher and co to pursue, only a handful of defenders make any sizable difference. Adding to this, a handful of landmines in this defense class are expensive, problematic, and certainly not worth their asking price. Fletcher has a difficult offseason to navigate, but some players can completely reshape the Flyers’ future. Who are they?
Get This Guy At All Costs
This tier will consist of the only Norris Trophy caliber defenseman available.
I am focusing on Micah Blake McCurdy’s model for some of my analyses. I believe he has the best player profile generator in the business at the moment, and he has some of the most straightforward templates to understand. So, without further ado, here are my opinions.
Dougie Hamilton is far and away from the best available defenseman this summer. He is 14% better than average at offense, 3% better than average at defense (the negative percentage is good for defensive isolates), and has a fantastic shot. While he may be labeled an offensive defenseman, he is not a one-dimensional player who does not offer anything defensively. He is, in fact, a solid defender but defends in an unorthodox way. Dougie uses offense to become an above-average defender. By limiting puck control for the opposition team, Hamilton prevents any possible excursions by the opponent into the Hurricanes defensive zone. While not traditional defense, it works, and that is all that matters.
Secondly, Hamilton is the only player available at the moment who is a Norris caliber defenseman. His isolated impacts are utterly elite and put him in a rarified category – think Erik Karlsson or Brent Burns – and does not require a trade. Finally, Hamilton would be the undisputed starter on the first powerplay for the Flyers and add a dynamism that the team sorely lacks at the moment on the point. Ivan Provorov, the previous defenseman on the Flyers’ powerplay, was 8% worse than average on the powerplay last season; Hamilton was 2% better.
Elliotte Friedman reported that the Flyers are not expressly interested in the defenseman, which is not a good sign. Fletcher not pursuing Hamilton would be a real misstep. Hamilton is the best player available.
Very Good, Will Definitely Make a Difference
Another solid offensive defenseman with actual defensive frailties. Since the 2018-19 season, Ekholm has struggled to prevent players from entering the slot and creating chaos. This loss of defensive stability took Ekholm from an elite Norris caliber defenseman to a solid offensive defenseman who has severe problems in his own zone. While the Swedish player still can offer something, his expected goals percentage has tumbled the previous three seasons, where he is now under 50%. Some of this could be due to age; some could be due to his time spent with Ben Harpur, where the two players were shelled while struggling to create much.
Ekholm, like Hamilton, could solve a new glaring issue for the Flyers, who quarterbacks the first powerplay. While Ekholm receives very little time on the Nashville powerplay, he has the tools to be a contributor to the man advantage.
Finding the complementary player is easy; getting Ekholm, less so. Ekholm needs a partner who can shoulder more of the defensive load so the Swede can fully express himself on the ice. This player solves fewer of the Flyers’ problems but is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. I would not offer him a deal over four years, though.
The first defense-first player on the market. In terms of a seamless transition into the team, Ellis may be the easiest to facilitate. He would perfectly fit into either of the Flyers’ top two pairs and provide some stability to a generally error-prone Flyers defense. His isolated impacts are less flashy than either of the defenseman listed above, but they are still impressive.
Unfortunately, Ellis’s contract when he turns 36, and he is paid $6.25 million a year. However, Ellis played on a pair with Roman Josi that dominated opponents but sadly faced poor goaltending luck with an on-ice shooting percentage of 5% but faced an opposition shooting percentage of almost 10%. You would expect this duo to fare better in the upcoming season if Ellis is still around.
Ellis would add a supportive player who allows another two-way defender to express himself on the ice fully. I would keep him away from expressly offensive defenseman like Shayne Gostisbehere; however, a player like Travis Sanheim would thrive next to Ellis. While Ryan may be an exciting player and maybe a better fit for the Flyers, the price is high, and his contract does not make it an easy acquisition. That could be enough for Fletcher to stay away from the player.
Players Who May Be Available, But Are Either Unattainable or Do Not Fit
The Minnesota Wild player finally had a positive impact season, but it took until his age twenty-six season, and he still struggled defensively. He draws penalties well and has strong offensive impacts, but I doubt he fits into the Flyers’ long-term plans. His $6,000,000 contract does not provide me much inspiration. I would look at other offensive defensemen before Dumba.
His name has started to pop up, but he only moves if the Toronto Maple Leafs can get Dougie Hamilton. I doubt the Flyers have any ability to sign Rielly. Adding to this problem, Morgan is terrible at defense. He has hovered around 10% worse than average at defense for the previous three seasons and only impacts his team positively when his offensive output hits Hamilton levels of success. Thus, he does not make any sense as an acquisition and is most likely unavailable.
A stop everything from happening type defenseman. While maybe that is enough to restart, or cover Gostisbehere, I would not pursue this player. I do not believe he is more than a bottom four defenseman, and I would feel uncomfortable putting him on anything other than my bottom pairing. It does not make sense for the Flyers, and there are cheaper players with similar outputs. So I would look for that first.
The Columbus and American blueliner is limited. There is truly no other way to say it. Jones is a negative on Columbus’ offense, defense, powerplay, and penalty kill. He does not shoot the puck exceptionally well either. Some may say that he had one poor season on a Blue Jackets team that was slowly falling apart all season; however, he has been a net-negative impact player for almost four years. Jones receives a lot of love from the press for nebulous reasons and because of his conditioning.
For example, when Jones played 58 minutes of five versus five hockey, he was out-attempted 51 to 68, out-chanced 21 to 29, and lost the high danger chance count 4 to 6. However, the conversation after the game was about his unbelievably high time on ice. While yes, it was impressive, but what he did at that time was poor. Maybe conditioning matters for something, but it certainly did not slow down the Tampa Bay Lightning at all.
Then, the American defenseman followed up a poor series by getting throttled in the last season. Jones has not shown me anything that makes me want him to dawn the orange and black, and he may struggle in an already mistake-prone defensive core.
For those who might say that it was because of his partner or the Blue Jackets as a whole, his main partner, Zach Werenski, maintained a positive expected goals impact offensively and stymied opponents’ defense. This is simply a Jones problem, and I do not believe he is a suitable addition to the Flyers whatsoever. Fletcher needs to stay away.
Fletcher signs Jones and puts him on a top pairing with Provorov, and it does not work but looks successful because the Flyers finally get a save next season. The key issue with the team last season was the constant siege the defenseman put the goalies under by surrendering high danger scoring chances and receiving league worse high danger goaltending. Maybe the goaltending saves the flaws of the defense core, but I would not test that theory.
Players like Ekholm and Ellis would take the team down the right path in terms of directing play; however, Hamilton would give the Flyers their best defenseman since Kimmo Timonen. Maybe Fletcher gets back in the race for Dougie, but I highly doubt it now. Perhaps Jones is better than I think, but I have yet to see that in action. Nothing speaks to that happening either.
The Flyers need substantial retooling, which means adding the correct pieces. The right parts available this offseason, and adding players of their ilk will revitalize the team. However, a wrong step in a few areas may hamper any possible hope for the next season. We will need to see what happens.