Philadelphia has the nucleus of a good team, particularly with a young and talented corps of forwards to build around for years to come. The Flyers even have some enviable depth on defense, with no less than 11 blueliners who have a legitimate chance to crack the lineup and see NHL time this season.
But none of those 11 comes close to being a true No. 1 defenseman, and it's debatable whether any should really be considered a top-pairing guy at all. The Flyers thought they had that covered when they traded for Chris Pronger three years ago and signed him to a seven-year extension. But Pronger hasn't played since last November and isn't expected to play again as he remains sidelined indefinitely with concussion-related issues.
The Flyers also lost his defense partner this summer, with Matt Carle signing with Tampa Bay as a free agent. Suddenly without their entire top pairing, Philadelphia general manager Paul Holmgren dug deep into his bag of tricks for a tactic rarely used by his GM brethren and signed Shea Weber to an offer sheet.
Weber is arguably the best all-around defenseman in the league today, and his addition would have given the Flyers their No. 1 defenseman, allowed the rest of their blueliners to slot appropriately into roles they're suited for and given enigmatic goalie Ilya Bryzgalov some desperately needed support in front of him. But even though Holmgren frontloaded the 14-year, $110 million deal to make it as unpalatable as possible for the cash-strapped Predators, Nashville opted to match the offer and retained Weber's services on Tuesday.
So where does that leave the Flyers, other than right back at square one in their efforts to solidify their defense? That's a question that's more important for the Flyers than most considering they are competing in the Atlantic Division against the high-powered attack of cross-state rival Pittsburgh and a Rangers squad that upgraded its offense with the addition of Rick Nash.
The Flyers need to add some offensive punch from their blue line as well as shoring up the unit defensively to try to shut down the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and now Nash. The 11 defensemen currently vying for spots on the Philadelphia defense combined for just 28 goals last season, led by Andrej Meszaros' seven. Weber had 19 goals by himself last year.
The options for the Flyers are limited though. They can stand pat and hope that their depth will be enough to overcome the lack of a true No. 1 defenseman. Kimmo Timonen would assume that role by default and is coming off a 43-point campaign, but he's also 37 and his best days are behind him so it's not exactly the best time to ask him to take on an even bigger role.
Braydon Coburn is already a workhorse (22:02 ice time last year) and may not be capable of giving much more than he already has. Meszaros and Nicklas Grossman are solid second- or third-pairing guys, and Luke Schenn should add some needed thump (270 hits last year with Toronto) but his development stalled with the Leafs the last couple years. Veterans Bruno Gervais and Andreas Lilja are fringe players at best and Matt Walker may not even be that as injuries have taken their toll on the rugged blueliner whose $1.7 million cap hit has been buried in the AHL most of the past two seasons. Youngsters Marc-Andre Bourdon, Erik Gustafsson and Brandon Manning have promise, but defense isn't a position to rush a player into too much responsibility.
If the internal options don't quite fit the bill, the Flyers could further explore external solutions. The unrestricted free agent market, which was thin to begin with, offers little help at this point of the summer. The Flyers were one of many teams that pursued Ryan Suter earlier this month, but he chose to accompany Zach Parise to Minnesota. There's no one still unsigned who would be better than the current collection of second- and third-pairing options Philadelphia already has.
The trade market isn't exactly booming either. Perhaps the Flyers could pry Jay Bouwmeester from Calgary now that the Flames have committed $26.25 million to Dennis Wideman over the next five years. Despite an onerous $6.68 million cap hit of his own, Bouwmeester would still cost the Flyers plenty if the Flames were even to make him available. And he may not be the answer to the Flyers' needs anyway. Bouwmeester has struggled in Calgary, managing just 3, 4 and 5 goals in his three seasons with the Flames after back-to-back 15-goal campaigns in his final two years in Florida.
Philadelphia's other option is to go back to the offer sheet well once more. Montreal's P.K. Subban and Washington's John Carlson are the most attractive restricted free agents still unsigned. But as Philadelphia found out with Weber, there's no guarantee of actually getting either even if Holmgren really wants to risk the wrath of his fellow GMs by issuing another offer sheet.
The Flyers would probably be best served not to panic now and overspend in either cap space or assets for any of the questionable options available at this point. Their wisest course of action may just be sticking with what they have, hoping the quantity of solid if unspectacular defensemen they have in place will overcome the lack of top-end quality and possibly upgrading later when the trade market expands during the season.
It's not as exciting as seeing Weber pull on an orange and black jersey, but it's the best the Flyers can do at this point.
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