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July 16, 2023

A step back to move forward: A look at the Flyers' defensive depth

The Flyers' blueline is likely to give up a ton of goals this season, but the team will be willing to brunt it to find out what Cam York can handle and if Travis Sanheim can bounce back.

The Flyers' defense is going to look different this season, and maybe not for the better, at least not in the short term. 

Justin Braun retired, Ivan Provorov was traded out last month after rumors of him being near the end of the line in Philadelphia circulated for around a year, and Tony DeAngelo was bought out of his contract after a series of healthy scratches in the last handful of games and a reported trade with Carolina that fell through (just for the Hurricanes to sign him back anyway). 

That isn't to say the Flyers' defense was good last year, because it wasn't – way far from it. Their 276 goals allowed were the 10th-most in the league and their 74.7 percent success rate on the penalty kill was the 26th worst. 

They gave up a lot, and against the NHL's elite offenses – like Tampa Bay, or Boston, or the Rangers – they hardly ever stood a chance. 

They're going to give up a lot this season too, probably even more so, because as flawed as those aforementioned departed names were, Provorov still skated upwards of 23 minutes a night, DeAngelo could quarterback a power play and give you some kind of offense, and Braun was a highly-respected veteran presence who at one point not too long ago was arguably the team's best defenseman (the 2021-22 campaign was that bad).

But sometimes a step back is needed before taking the next step forward, and early into a rebuild, Danny Brière, Keith Jones, and John Tortorella seem prepared to live with whatever pain this next year could bring so long as they find out what they have for the future, especially on the blueline. 

Ahead of training camp, here are the defensemen the Flyers are projected to have at the NHL level going in:

Travis Sanheim (27)  Rasmus Ristolainen (28)
Cam York (22) Sean Walker (28)
Marc Staal (36)Ryan Ellis (32)* 
Nick Seeler (30) 
Egor Zamula (23) 

*Long-term injured reserve, unlikely to play again.

Despite being prominently tossed around in trade rumors ahead of the draft – mainly in the originally reported version of the Kevin Hayes trade with the Blues – Travis Sanheim is still a Flyer and now with that eight-year, $50 million contract extension (with a full no-trade clause) having kicked in. 

Between the rumors and an incredibly rough first year skating under Tortorella, the Flyers are going to have to hope that Sanheim – at least for now – can forgive, forget and bounce back, because if he can, then his skill set when he's at his best sure would help. Sanheim is 27, and in the past has demonstrated some great skating along the offensive blueline, a willingness and good assessment of when to jump in on the rush, and some smart and creative puck movement on the breakout. 

None of that went away and can make Sanheim a solid defender within the top four if he can fully tap into all of that again, but while finding a way to match it with the level of aggressiveness away from the puck that Tortorella's been looking for though. 

Rasmus Ristolainen is also back in the second of that five-year, $25.5 million deal former GM Chuck Fletcher signed him to back in March 2022, though his standing and expectations among the team and the fan base aren't likely to change much. His size is his advantage, he'll lay out a big hit every now and then, and put up some points if he gets some power play time, but he'll will never win anyone over once the argument turns toward the advanced metrics – which is how it's always been going back to his time with the Sabres. 

What's really going to be the main objective for the Flyers on the backend this season is seeing what they fully have in Cam York and Egor Zamula.

York, 22, was cut in camp ahead of last season but made his way back up from the AHL and took a major step into establishing himself as an everyday NHLer. He's shown off some great skating and vision that helps with breaking the Flyers out from their own zone and keeping them within the offensive one, but now this year will likely be about how much can he handle. Can he skate 20-25 minutes a night? Can he run the power play? Can he take on the top matchups? These next few months are going to be the time to find out.

The same goes for Zamula, though at a much more foundational level. A big but rangy defenseman at 6-foot-3, the Flyers have had belief for a while in the 23-year old's size and puck-moving ability, but he's been brought along slowly these past couple of years as a project down with the Phantoms and in short stints up in the NHL. 

The catch now is that Zamula is waiver exempt, so this might be sink or swim unless the Flyers want to risk a waiver claim in the event that they feel he's going to need more time down in the AHL. 

As for the rest of the blueline corps: Marc Staal signed on for the season fresh off of a run with Florida to the Stanley Cup Final and will bring a lengthy career's worth of wisdom to impart on guys like York, Zamula, Sanheim, and any other prospect on their way up. Sean Walker came over from Los Angeles in the Provorov trade and is in the last year of his contract, and so is Nick Seeler, who did garner some buzz at the trade deadline last season. 

The Flyers will likely go into the new season with roles carved out for all three guys, but come March, they'll probably all become trade chips, used both to acquire assets and to clear the way for prospects who could be ready to take that next step by then.

On that note, a look at the defensemen in the Flyers' system: 

 LevelLHD  RHD
AHL Emil Andrae (21) Ronnie Attard (24) 
 Adam Ginning (23) Helge Grans (21) 
 Victor Mete (25) Louie Belpedio (27) 
 Mason Millman (22) Will Zmolek (24) 
NCAA Hunter McDonald (21)  
 Ty Murchison (20)  
Swiss NL Brian Zanetti (20)  
Canadian Jrs.  Oliver Bonk (18) 
  Carter Sotheran (18) 
  Matteo Mann (18) 
  Ethan Samson (19) 

And points on a few of the notable names on the list...

Emil Andrae is the defensive prospect the closest to cracking the Flyers' roster and will push for a spot in training camp, though he might not make it just yet. The 21-year old Swede impressed toward the end of last season when he joined the Phantoms on a tryout for their playoff run, impressed even more at the Flyers' development camp earlier this month, and should he opt to stay in North America and the AHL for the start of this season and things keep trending upward, he'll definitely be looking at NHL playing time as the year wears on. 

Ronnie Attard, Adam Ginning, and Helge Grans are the Phantoms defensemen on the fringes of the NHL and each could see some call-ups this season, though their ceilings may cap out as middle-bottom pairing d-men. 

Oliver Bonk, who the Flyers picked up with the 22nd overall pick at the draft in June, headlines the organization's next wave of blueline prospects and the first selected under Brière, but – like with everything around the Flyers over the next couple of years – he's going to need time. The skill and potential for Bonk to develop into a top-pairing two-way defenseman is there, but he's going to need to refine it more down in juniors with the OHL's London Knights first, and that's going to take at least a year.

But the Flyers are going to have the time for it. 

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