The Flyers know their defensemen have to be a team strength if there's going to be any type of turnaround in 2022-23.
Their biggest moves in an offseason that drew some ire addressed the back end. They traded for Tony DeAngelo to be their top-pair, righty-shot insurance on Ryan Ellis. They brought back veteran Justin Braun to solidify their depth. And they like their prospects, led by Cam York, Egor Zamula and Ronnie Attard.
They did not address much up front.
"We felt our biggest weaknesses right now were on defense," Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said July 13 on Day 1 of free agency. "So adding DeAngelo and Braun we feel helps our group, gives us a much better top six in the event that Ellis takes longer to heal to get back. If Ellis can come back quicker, we have depth and we can figure out what to do if we have too many good players. It's not a problem if you have too many good defensemen.
"But right now, my bigger concern was not having enough good defensemen and relying too much on young players like we did last year. Fixing the defense was extremely important to us."
Two other additions, head coach John Tortorella and his right-hand man Brad Shaw, are set to oversee that important group.
Shaw, the assistant coach tasked with penalty kill and defensemen responsibilities, sees a lot to work with on the Flyers' back end. What intrigues him most is that he believes Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim are not done developing.
Entering the NHL at 19 years old, Provorov has played 450 games already. He's 25 and has had a lot on his shoulders over the Flyers' last two seasons. The team has struggled considerably and that has weighed on him.
"He's got a real seriousness to him," Shaw said. "You get the occasional smile, which I think would help him. I think if you start trying too hard in this game, you can get in your own way once in a while. But I love him. He looks ultra competitive, he can skate, he can shoot, pass the puck — there's really nothing he can't do.
"We'd like to get more push from our other guys, I'd love to see Sanny push him for ice time, I'd love to see internal competition. I think we're going to give Tony a chance to play a role that maybe he hasn't done on a regular basis at this level. And I expect the best from him. We're going to push forward with that.
"Provy is probably the biggest piece of that puzzle, but we'd like to add as many as we could, as many big pieces. ... But he's a horse. He looks like you can keep pushing him and keep pushing him, and guys like that are ultra valuable. They can eat up minutes, plus they can be productive in those minutes, and that's a nice combo."
The Flyers got their first game look at the Provorov-DeAngelo duo in Wednesday night's 3-1 preseason loss to the Capitals. It's very early, but the Flyers will need those two to build chemistry as quickly as possible.
"We've seen what Tony can do offensively, we've seen Provy's great two-way game," Shaw said. "Sometimes the combination works fantastic when you do that and sometimes it gets a little disjointed."
Sanheim was a bright spot in a dark 2021-22 season for the Flyers. Shaw feels the 26-year-old is only getting better.
"Provy is an overt leader, like he's out there," Shaw said. "He likes to sort of be at the head of the parade. Sanny is maybe not quite as obvious, but he's another ultra-competitive guy.
"Guys like him are exciting because you can't really even see the ceiling, you can't see the finished product. The finish line is so far down the road. And I feel like that's still for Provy, too. I still think he's learning. He's logged a ton of minutes, a ton of an important minutes already for this organization. I still think we're not even close to the finished product for him and that's exciting.
"Not only do they have a little bit to prove from last year, the guys that are coming back, but they also have a lot of room for growth. That's going to be a big part of our job, is giving these guys enough space so that they can keep building on who they are as players and then eventually you hope that translates into a fantastic team game, so we get this organization back where we want to be."
Shaw likes the makeup of Sanheim with his size and skating ability.
"To me, he's a skater first, he finds a lot of solutions with his feet," Shaw said. "Whereas some guys are better with their sticks or their eyes or their puck movement on defense. He's got a nice combination of game that allows him to play a little bit different type of two-way game."
He views Sanheim as a critical foundation piece.
"He's probably going to be just as valuable down the road as any guy we have on this team. And that's exciting," Shaw said. "You watch these guys grow as players and human beings and young men. You try not to put limits on them and sometimes unfortunately we do in how we treat them or how we play them or how we talk about them. I think the potential he has is really exciting — not just for him but for this organization as to where he can take his game.
"Hopefully I can help impact that a little bit in a positive way, but it's going to be him taking those strides and making those decisions and those commitments."
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