The Philadelphia Flyers have two major weaknesses to address in the offseason as well as over the next few years: a lack of quality goaltending and young talent on the blue line.
Despite the disaster that veteran goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov has been since joining the team for the 2010-11 season as a high-priced free agent, fixing the blue line and giving it more young talent and depth remains general manager Paul Holmgren's top priority going forward.
You need a reliable goaltender to win a Stanley Cup, but he doesn't need to stand on his head to have playoff success as long as he is given a strong group of defensemen to play behind.
For example, the Detroit Red Wings won three Stanley Cups with Chris Osgood as their No. 1 goalie. Osgood was a talented goaltender, but he wasn't an elite player, and the Red Wings were able to win championships in this scenario because they had tremendous blue-line depth.
During the 2010 Stanley Cup Final, Philadelphia got a firsthand look at a team whose strong defensive depth was able to overcome most of its goaltending issues when the Chicago Blackhawks beat the Flyers in six games with a good-but-not-great goalie in Antti Niemi between the pipes.
Chicago had three solid defensive pairings in front of Niemi, including top-four defensemen such as Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Brian Campbell and Niklas Hjalmarsson.
The most effective way to build a Stanley Cup contender is to build defensive depth and talent through the draft, which is what the Blackhawks have done over the last decade. It's also a plan that the rival Pittsburgh Penguins are following, evident by their 2012 first-round selections of blueliners Derrick Pouliot and Olli Maatta.
For a good model on how to build a strong blue line, the Flyers should look at the division rival New York Rangers.
They were in a similar position in the first few years after the 2004-05 lockout, which is having a veteran group of defensemen without much elite young talent, not enough top-tier defensive prospects and failing to make smart decisions when signing veteran blueliners to new contracts.
The Rangers didn't make a deep playoff run post-2005 lockout until they acquired, drafted and developed young defensemen. Starting with the 2005 NHL Draft, the Rangers have used six of their first- and second-round picks on defensemen. Five of those selections were first-round picks, including Marc Staal (2005) and Michael Del Zotto (2008).
New York understood that it wasn't going to be a Cup contender unless it made a stronger effort to build blue-line depth through the draft and make fewer marquee signings in free agency for veteran defensemen.
Of the six picks I mentioned above, two of them are top-pairing defensemen (Staal and MDZ) and 2012 first-round pick Brady Skjei promises to be a fantastic player after spending the 2012-13 season at the University of Minnesota.
In that same time frame (2005 draft to the present), the Flyers have used four picks in the first two rounds on defensemen and none of those players are still with the organization—including Luca Sbisa, who is the only defenseman the team has taken in the first round since 2005.
Instead of stockpiling young defensemen for the future, the Flyers have taken too many forwards with their first-round picks.
For example, with the No. 8 pick in the 2011 draft, the Flyers selected Sean Couturier. To his credit, Couturier had a good rookie year and has the potential to be an above-average defensive forward at the NHL level.
However, selecting Dougie Hamilton would have been a much smarter decision for Holmgren. Hamilton's size (6'5", 200 pounds), high hockey IQ and fantastic offensive skills made him a perfect player for the Flyers to develop into a top No. 1 defenseman.
When the Flyers passed on Hamilton, the Boston Bruins drafted him. He has tallied 15 points in 39 games this season as a rookie.
Philly also passed on Jonas Brodin, who was taken right after Hamilton by the Minnesota Wild with pick No. 10. Brodin is arguably the NHL's leading candidate for the Calder Trophy as the rookie of the year in 2013.
During the 2011 draft, the Flyers took another center in Scott Laughton when talented defensemen Mike Matheson, Maatta and Skjei were still on the board.
Not only do the Flyers need to draft more defensemen in the first and second rounds, they must give these players the time and experience needed for them to develop. The worst thing that a team can do to a young blueliner is bring him to the NHL before he's ready for the speed and physicality of the game, both of which are much greater than what is found at the junior, AHL and NCAA levels.
After he was drafted, the Rangers gave Staal two additional seasons in the OHL before bringing him to the NHL. They also had Del Zotto spend another season in the OHL prior to his NHL debut. This extra time to develop was a major factor in preparing these young players for the NHL and it contributed mightily to both of them having impressive rookie seasons for New York.
Teams cannot expect young defensemen to step into the NHL and dominate. With that said, it's not surprising that just two defensemen have won the Calder Trophy in the last 15 years.
Another way to build defensive depth is through the trade market. Since the asking prices for established defensemen are so high throughout the year, pulling the trigger on these kinds of moves and giving up top prospects rarely makes sense.
This means that teams should try to acquire young defensemen in trades that include veteran forwards, which is what the Rangers did in 2009 when they received Ryan McDonagh from the Montreal Canadiens in a deal involving veteran center Scott Gomez.
At this year's trade deadline, the Blueshirts were able to acquire former first-round pick John Moore from the Columbus Blue Jackets in a trade that involved elite winger Marian Gaborik.
The Flyers traded two franchise forwards following the 2010-11 season when Mike Richards and Jeff Carter were dealt to the Los Angeles Kings and Blue Jackets, respectively.
Holmgren didn't get any defensemen in these trades, and although he added some quality forwards to his roster in Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek, he missed a glorious opportunity to acquire some of Los Angeles and Columbus' top young defensemen, such as Jack Johnson, Jake Muzzin, Slava Voynov, David Savard and Moore.
During the summer, it wouldn't be surprising if Holmgren uses some of the Flyers' forward depth to acquire a top-four defenseman to begin the rebuilding of his team's blue line. However, trading Couturier for a player like Anaheim Ducks winger Bobby Ryan, which has been speculated about for some time, makes no sense and would fail address any of Philly's most glaring weaknesses.
Overall, the Flyers need to start following the model that the Rangers have used over the last few years to build blue-line depth:
- Draft plenty of defensemen in the first two rounds.
- Do not rush these players to the NHL until they are ready.
- Don't pass on highly rated defensemen in the draft, even if there's a forward available who is expected to make an immediate impact in the NHL.
- Stay away from high-priced free-agent defensemen.
- Acquire young defensemen when trading star forwards.
To begin the reconstruction of its blue line, Philly must draft a defenseman in the first round of the 2013 draft. The best players available for teams with a lottery pick are Seth Jones, Joshua Morrissey, Ryan Pulock, Darnell Nurse and Mirco Muller.
In the salary cap era, it's so difficult to build a quality blue line that's loaded with talent and depth because defensemen are so expensive to sign. This is why you must build this part of your team through the draft and give these players the time they need to develop their skills.
Building a strong blue line is not a quick process and it often takes many years, but if the Flyers do it the right way like the Rangers did, they will be rewarded in the future.
The Rangers have been patient with their young defensemen and it's time for the Flyers to do the same.
Having a goaltender of Henrik Lundqvist's caliber certainly helps the Rangers, but they didn't make it to the Conference Finals with him until the team assembled a fantastic blue line with the ideal amount of talent and depth.
No matter who is playing at the goaltender position for the Flyers, this team won't win a Stanley Cup until it builds a blue line that has enough depth and young talent.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs in Boston.
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