For the Flyers’ defense, the future is nearly here


This post is part of Flyers Day on PHT…

The thing about drafting and developing defenseman is that it takes time and patience.

Oh, sure, there are some guys like Aaron Ekblad and Drew Doughty who can step into the NHL right away. But the large majority of them don’t.

Take Duncan Keith. Drafted in 2002, it took him three years until he joined the Blackhawks, and he still had some developing to do once he got there.

P.K. Subban was drafted in 2007. He stayed in junior for two additional years and then spent one season in the AHL before joining the Habs.

Shea Weber, speaking of Subban, took a similar path after being drafted in 2003. Two addition years of junior, then a few games in the AHL before graduating full-time to the Predators.

So it takes time and patience.

And let’s face it, that hasn’t always been the calling card of the Philadelphia Flyers. Under late owner Ed Snider and former general manager Paul Holmgren, Philly was arguably the most impatient team in the league. It was an admirable trait in many ways; the Flyers just really, really wanted to win the Stanley Cup again, and they were willing to flex their financial muscle to accomplish that goal. But at times their impatience cost them, and they learned the hard way that there are no quick fixes in the salary-cap age.

Suffice to say, it’s been a different attitude under GM Ron Hextall. The Flyers have not won a playoff series since he took over from Holmgren in May of 2014, but the fans are excited and optimistic all the same.

With all the young defensemen in the system, how could they not be pumped? Shayne Gostisbehere — a Holmgren-era pick, it should be noted — just finished second in the Calder Trophy voting after his stellar rookie season, and he was only the start. 

Gostisbehere was drafted in 2012. The next year came Samuel Morin and Robert Hagg. In 2014, Hextall added Travis Sanheim to the mix, then in 2015 got perhaps the jewel of the Flyers’ prospect pool when he selected Ivan Provorov seventh overall.

Over four years, it was quite the haul of defensemen.

Of course, it remains to be seen which of them will thrive in the NHL. Chances are, one or two won’t. But the great thing for the Flyers is that not all of them need to pan out. It would be nice if they all did, but there’s wiggle room for a bust or two.

That’s what patience has bought the club. And in 2016-17, the Flyers will continue to be patient.

“[Defense] is a harder position to play [than forward],” Hextall told reporters recently. “We’ve got enough players on our roster to play for the Flyers this year. So we’re not sitting here going Player X, Player Y has to play in the NHL. We’re not going to force one of these kids now. If one of these kids, or two or three comes in and they’re better than the guys we have, that’s competition.”

Now, granted, patience does have it limits. The Flyers have brought their young defensemen along responsibly; they haven’t given in to the temptation to trade them for older, “win now” pieces; and Hextall has remained committed to the long-term plan.

Just don’t mistake this for a team with zero urgency to win now, because there’s actually plenty. Claude Giroux is 28 years old, right in the prime of his career. Wayne Simmonds is 27 and Jakub Voracek is 26. Throw in Sean Couturier, 23, and Brayden Schenn, 24, and the Flyers have assembled a pretty impressive collection of forwards, all under 30 years of age.

The urgency comes from the desire to compete for a Stanley Cup while that forward group is still young and impressive.

And whether that happens will depend a lot on the youngsters on the back end, and how quickly they can start making a real impact.

Related: Flyers sign T.J. Brennan to multi-year deal