Maybe they can talk Matt Niskanen into reconsidering his retirement.
Maybe general manager Chuck Fletcher, who, according to a league source, tried to sign defenseman Travis Hamonic in the offseason, can pull off a trade.
Maybe the defense will improve as the new pairings get accustomed to one another, and center Sean Couturier, the Selke winner as the league’s best defensive forward last year, and Phil Myers return from injuries.
But right now, the Flyers, despite their misleading 3-1-1 record, are a hot mess in the defensive end.
In the first five games, goalies Carter Hart and Brian Elliott have probably felt like ducking for cover. Pucks came at them at an alarming rate. The Flyers have allowed 37.4 shots per game, the second-highest average in the NHL.
A year ago, they allowed a league-low 28.7 shots per game.
They have surrendered 34, 33, 37, 40, and 43 shots. That’s five straight games with 30 or more. That didn’t happen at any point in the 2019-20 season.
“We have to clean up some areas, like turnovers; there’s been too many in our zone and the neutral zone,” defenseman Ivan Provorov said after practice Friday in Boston. “We just have to play a little bit smarter and defend a little better as a team. Play tighter. But it’s only our fifth game. We didn’t really have a preseason, so we’ll get better and we’ll get the shots on goal down and play better defensively.”
In Thursday’s 5-4 shootout loss in Boston, Provorov’s already-heavy workload increased because of a second-period injury sustained to Mark Friedman. Provorov played a career-high 30:46; he played 27:02 in the previous game.
Provorov, whose team plays in Boston again on Saturday night, downplayed his time on ice.
“I’m in great shape. I’ve always played a lot,” Provorov said. “I love playing big minutes; you get into a rhythm and just keep going.”
There are some out-of-their-control circumstances to the defense’s demise, including the loss of Myers and Couturier to early-season injuries. But Niskanen was not replaced by a defensively reliable player in the offseason, and that means this high shots-against pattern will likely continue until it gets somewhat masked when Myers and Couturier return at some point next month.
The Flyers have had four players leave games with injuries in their first five games. The condensed schedule has played a role, according to Bob Clarke, a Flyers senior adviser.
“There’s so many games in a shorter period of time, and even though you’re not traveling as much, the games are all so important and there’s going to be way more contact,” Clarke said Friday from Florida.
Can the Flyers withstand the loss of Niskanen, or does Fletcher have to add a defenseman?
“Thank heavens that’s Chuck’s decision,” Clarke, the team’s one-time general manager, said with a chuckle. “I had too many years of that.”
Having a veteran coaching staff will help, Clarke said.
“[Alain] Vigneault’s been through all this before numerous times. The whole coaching staff has,” he said. “They know they have to tighten up defensively. They’ll do that.”
Clarke, who has been watching the games on TV, said, “We’re a better team now, talent-wise, than we have been for quite a few years, and we have a great coaching staff and great management. It’s stable at the top and it’s stable at the coaching staff. Like every team, there are nights we can play better, but overall, I think we’re a contender in the East to win it.”
Shayne Gostisbehere will join the team at practice Monday, Vigneault said.
The defenseman had been in the league’s COVID-19 protocol, and Vigneault confirmed Friday that the Florida native had the coronavirus.
“He’s feeling all right,” Vigneault said. “You know, COVID hits individuals differently, Some don’t feel the effects, some have the effects and feel a little more tired. In Shayne’s case, I do believe he was feeling much better and working out with more intensity day by day.”
Vigneault said he didn’t have a timeline when Gostisbehere would be ready to play in a game. “It might take one practice, it might take a week,” he said.
Carter Hart will start Saturday. ... Friedman, who appeared to cut his face on the ice and missed the last 35 minutes Thursday, “should be good to go” Saturday, Vigneault said. ... Samuel Morin was sent from the 23-man roster back to the taxi squad. Vigneault said that, despite the injuries on defense, Morin will remain at left wing. “He’s been working extremely hard at improving a new aspect of his game ... and I believe at some point here in the near future, he’ll get an opportunity to play,” Vigneault said.