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Mobile Defensemen the Growing Trend Around NHL

By Kevin Durso, Sports Talk Philly editor 

The 2017-18 season is set to welcome some new members to the Flyers blue line full time. How many remains to be seen, but the Flyers are well on their way to turning prospects into NHL regulars.

The Flyers started the transition and building of the blue line with Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov coming to the NHL in each of the last two seasons. By virtue of their debuts at the end of last season, Sam Morin and Robert Hagg are likely to make the jump full-time as well. Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers are also rising prospects that have a chance to make the roster next season as well.

Gostisbehere and Provorov both have good skills on the offensive side of play, the ability to carry the puck and contribute offensively. Sanheim and Myers are noted for similar qualities and Hagg displayed that mildly in his NHL debut.

Overall, with four -- maybe even five -- potential defensemen coming that provide mobility to the blue line, the Flyers will be following a growing trend in the NHL.

You rarely see an NHL team today that doesn’t have a leading defenseman that is a stay-at-home guy, built on size alone. Typically, a team’s top defenseman is able to carry the puck and contribute on offense in some way while being capable on defense. Look no further than the four teams remaining in the playoffs.

Ottawa has Erik Karlsson. Pittsburgh has Kris Letang, when healthy, but Justin Schultz has proven to be an admirable replacement.

And then there are the other two teams, now facing each other in the Western Conference Final -- Nashville and Anaheim -- who are building around mobile defensemen the way the Flyers are.

Nashville is built around P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm. Ekholm is the tallest of the core group at 6’4”, 215 pounds. Yet it is Nashville’s system, an aggressive approach to playing the puck carrier and defending the opposition that helps the Predators succeed. It helps to have arguably the best goalie in these playoffs so far between the pipes as well.

Still, goals against is a team stat. Nashville has allowed 22 in 13 games in the playoffs.

In the meantime, Josi and Ellis each have 10 points. Subban has eight points. The only forwards with more points than that trio are Ryan Johansen with 13 and Filip Forsberg with 12.

Anaheim has not had the same kind of path to the West Final that Nashville has, but so much of it is defensively based. Anaheim anchors their three pairings around young, mobile defenseman: Cam Fowler (25), Sami Vatanen (25)  and Hampus Lindholm (23). Throw in the likes of Shea Theodore (21), Brandon Montour (23) and Josh Manson (25) and this is a solid group of six, all still young, all similar in build -- ranging from 5’10”, 183 pounds to 6’3”, 215 pounds -- and all active at both ends 0f the ice.

There’s a difference between being a stay-at-home defender, where the main goal is to disrupt the play with a physical style and intimidating presence, and being a two-way defensemen with the ability to both be disruptive on defense and productive on offense.

That’s what these two teams out of the West have. They are built to roll three defensive pairings the way some teams roll four forward lines with regularity throughout a 60-minute game, but don’t see any change in the amount of attack from the offensive side of play. A mildly productive fourth line can be a game-changer. So can a good two-way third pairing.

Ultimately, what teams are looking for when building a blue line is a group of six that can not only play a substantial part of every game at even strength, but serve some purpose on one side of special teams. All teams will have their specialists in those fields. For the Flyers, Gostisbehere would be a power-play only defenseman. Morin may fall a little too far behind on the offensive end to ever get power-play time, but would be guaranteed to get solid penalty-kill minutes.

But when you can get players like Provorov or what Myers is projected to be, players who have the potential to provide offense and fill a power-play role, but also are strong enough defensively to lead the penalty kill, those are the players that get the top minutes.

Those are the players that fall in the same category as an Erik Karlsson or Brent Burns or Drew Doughty, because they are all-around defensemen. Every championship team needs a leader on both ends of special teams who is also a minutes-eater. If they are the total package, it’s an added bonus.

When you look at these teams, it goes far beyond the clear top defenseman. Guys like Fowler or Josi or Subban may draw all the attention, but it is the overall grouping of players -- the impact players like Ellis, Ekholm, Vatanen and Lindholm have -- that really makes the difference.

For now, the Flyers certainly have a defenseman in the dawning stages of become a top-pairing, all-around defenseman. The rest, based on what we’ve seen from the pipeline, should be joining him soon enough.

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