There’s a lot that can be said about defense. In fact, the Flyers offseason has been one large retooling process in their own zone. Even though the defense seems much improved from last season, there really has not been that much upheaval within the unit.
The top four from last season, Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Matt Carle, and Ryan Parent, are all still very much a part of the unit this season. The one real substantial addition has been future Hall-of-Famer Chris Pronger.
Many suspected this summer, at least the ones with any common sense and knowledge about hockey, that Ray Emery would be a lateral movement to Martin Biron. His style is a bit different, but Biron was not necessarily a bad goalie either. Problems with the breakout, holding on to leads, and mental lapses by blueliners were the main reason fans in Philadelphia were ready to run Biron right out of town.
So far though, Emery seems better predecessor. The defense seems better. So, who is responsible? It’s not like the Flyers’ play-style or scheme has been altered in any way. The team is basically the same on paper with the one major addition. Is Chris Pronger the cause?
It’s a tough thing to prove that one man could be the cause in a drastic defensive turn-around for the Flyers, but after surviving the hardest opening schedule in all the NHL, the Flyers are 9th in goals against average with only 2.57 goals given up to opponents per game. Last season they finished 16th with 2.83. Though the difference may not appear to be too vast when discussing decimals, the Flyers gave up 232 goals last year, and so far this season, they’re on pace to give up only 210 with the roughest patch of their season behind them. Last year, 210 goals against would have finished 6th in the NHL. 16th to a possible 6th is a gigantic leap.
The offense doesn’t seem to have been hurt much either with the losses of 25+ goal scorers, Joffrey Lupul and Mike Knuble. Last year, the team finished tied for fourth with the Chicago Blackhawks in goals scored per game with 3.17. This year the Flyers have traded back and forth with the Washington Capitals for the league lead in goal-scoring but are currently in second place with 3.57. In 2008-09, the Flyers scored 260 goals. Right now they’re on pace for around 293, which would have easily put them in first place last season.
With 17% of the season in the books, the sample size is small, but there is still evidence that the Flyers are looking much better than they did last season, especially when taking into consideration their injury list and the teams they have faced so far.
Meanwhile, the team that traded Chris Pronger to us for offensive depth in Joffrey Lupul and a possible future all-star defenseman in Luca Sbisa isn’t looking so hot. Anaheim’s 18th ranked defense in 2008-09 has dropped to 26th while their offense hasn’t really gotten any kind of immediate boost thanks to the addition of Lupul.
In fact, Lupul has scored 5 goals and added 3 assists in 15 games played. Pronger has 3 goals and 11 assists in 14 games played and is one of four Flyers averaging a point a game or better.
The change in the Flyers’ team has been noticeable in individual players as well. Perhaps none though have benefited more from the Flyers big-name offseason pick-up than defenseman Matt Carle.
Once upon a time, Matt Carle was a second round selection by the San Jose Sharks from the outstanding 2003 draft class that also produced Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, and Braydon Coburn as well as a who’s who new-era of NHL talent. Carle, a native Alaskan, joined the University of Denver to further his development in the NCAA. He saw immediate success while in college and during his third year at the university he won the Hobey Baker Memorial Award as the best college hockey player of 2005-06. He forfeited his final season of NCAA eligibility to sign an NHL contract with the Sharks, and begin his professional career right after the Pioneers’ season was over.
He played 12 regular season games with the Sharks to close out 2005-06 tallying 3 goals and 3 assists. In 11 postseason games that year, he tallied 3 more assists, and the future looked bright for the young puck-moving defenseman. It wasn’t until after his first full season of NHL competition that people began to peg him as a future Norris candidate for the best defenseman in the NHL. In 2006-07 at the age of 21, he played 77 NHL regular season games tallying 11 goals and 31 assists, which was far and away better than any other defenseman on the team.
The following season though, he hit a sophomore slump to end all sophomore slumps. 62 games saw only 2 goals for a total of 15 points from the young blueliner. Things for Carle went from bad to worse, as he found himself traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning the following offseason in a package that included veteran Dan Boyle heading back to the Sharks.
In Tampa Bay things didn’t get much better. He got off to a slow start. His offensive game wasn’t progressing well and his defensive issues were hurting the team. He was traded on the cheap to the Philadelphia Flyers for problem-child Steve Downie and the Flyers’ offseason disaster, Steve Eminger. With a competent defenseman in place to help out Timonen and Braydon, the Flyers slowly turned their poor start in 2007-08 around. While Carle wasn’t anywhere near perfect, he certainly helped out. In Philadelphia though, his mental mistakes and careless afterthoughts to his own zone sometimes got him into trouble. He still did not have the defensive mentor he’d been lacking all his career, and though he was paired with Coburn, the young Flyers’ acquisition from a few seasons earlier was not the help Carle needed.
This is where Chris Pronger stepped into the picture.
While Timonen and Coburn were finally reunited on the blueline, Carle was given the opportunity to work with a true two-way heavyweight of the NHL world. The effect on Carle has been nothing short of amazing. Knowing that he has a safety-net in Pronger behind him, Carle’s offensive game has flourished. In 14 games played he has scored 2 goals and added 10 assists in 14 games played. Along with Pronger, he is in the top 10 in points scored by defensemen so far this season, and his incredible +14 plus/minus leads every single NHL skater regardless of position.
Meanwhile, Pronger goes about his business relatively quietly. He is actually 6th on the Flyers in hits with 17. He has not clobbered anyone just yet, but he doesn’t have to. Instead he makes his presence felt on the score board while making that simple poke-check or forcing an all-star forward to the outside for a bad-angle shot on Emery. He’s easily the best defenseman on the blueline, which isn’t a knock against Timonen either, who is one of the most underrated blueliners in the game today.
His defensive play so far this season is a lot like his effect on the team; subtle but all-encompassing.
Is there proof there any proof of the Pronger Effect? Of course not, but there is certainly evidence out there. So far he has been as advertised. If this continues through the postseason as well, it’s very possible that he could be the factor that ends the drought in Philadelphia. That’s why Holmgren brought him to the orange and black right?