The Keys to Defensive Depth and How the Flyers Can Learn From the Penguins

In light of the defensive injuries plaguing the Flyers of late (including a possible concussion for Chris Pronger), the defensive depth of the farm system has been put to the test.

Kevin Marshall and Marc-Andre Bourdon are with the team in Anaheim while Matt Walker is on his way to join them, should he clear re-entry waivers at noon.

It’s not a particularly promising group.

I researched a few weeks ago how NHL teams acquired starting goaltenders, and came to the conclusion that it starts with good drafting. In review of how a deep defense is constructed, I looked at how the Pittsburgh Penguins, ranked 9th in the NHL in goals allowed/game, built theirs.

Surprise! It starts with drafting too.

The Penguins have dressed eleven different defensemen thus far this season. One came through a trade (Matt Niskanen), one was signed as an undrafted free agent (Ben Lovejoy), four were signed as free agents, and the remaining five were drafted within the organization (two of which are considered part of their top four defensemen).

The Flyers have dressed ten defensemen themselves. Five of their six starting defensemen were brought in through trades, as was Walker. Marshall and Bourdon were drafted while Andreas Lilja was a free agent and Erik Gustafsson was an undrafted free agent.

Notice the difference? Every one of the Flyers top five came at the cost of value from within the system. The Penguins, on the other hand, were able to build their core from within and supplement them with free agents.

Since 2004, the Penguins have drafted eight defensemen with a selection before the 70th overall pick (this excludes Brooks Orpik, who was drafted #18 overall in 2000).

Seven of these players are still within the Penguins’ system. Only Alex Goligoski is no longer with the team, and that’s because the Penguins were able to hose the Dallas Stars for James Neal (3rd in the NHL in goals) AND Niskanen.

The Penguins have also drafted twelve other defensemen in that time after the 70th pick. Only  one is signed with the organization- Alex Grant.

By comparison, the Flyers drafted five defensemen before the 70th pick (of which only Marshall and Bourdon are signed) and twelve after (of which two are signed).

With all due respect to Marshall and Bourdon, they do not have the same pedigree as the defensemen that Pittsburgh has drafted. Simon Despres, who made his NHL debut last night against the Washington Capitals (where he earned his first assist) was drafted in 2009. He has since won silver for Team Canada at the World Juniors Championship as well as the Memorial Cup Championship with his QMJHL team, the Saint John Sea Dogs.

John Morrow, their 2011 first round draft pick, was recently announced as having made the cut for Team Canada for the 2012 WJC.  There were zero Flyers prospects invited.

The reason that defensive depth is critical is two-fold. The obvious scenario is that which the Flyers are facing currently- significant injuries to their top seven defensemen. The second is that defensemen are so valuable when other teams are in need that a Stanley Cup caliber team can be built simply by trading the surplus, whether they’re top four defensemen or just adequate bodies that can fill other teams’ short-term needs.

Give credit where credit is due- Penguins general manager Ray Shero has been very good at retaining his first round draft picks over the years and the return has been invaluable. Despres was drafted #30 overall when the Pens won the Stanley Cup. The Flyers gave up their last four first round picks for Pronger (who has had five surgeries since the trade) and Kris Versteeg, who they turned around for a 2nd round and a 3rd round draft pick over the summer.

It’s anyone’s guess if Paul Holmgren will hold onto his low round draft picks this season, but the health of this team has highlighted just how sparse the defensive depth is when compared to our hated Keystone competition.

For the latest Flyers news and updates, you can follow me on twitter (@JoshJanet).

One thought on “The Keys to Defensive Depth and How the Flyers Can Learn From the Penguins

  1. Good article.

    Pronger a bust, multi-million ‘tough guy’ who is always hurt…Always something with this guy, kinda like Michael Vick…Flyers have had problems with defense, especially depth, for many years, and I don’t think Holmgren really gets it as far as defensive hockey (or goalies)…They need good young guys, develop them, let them grow as a group.

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