Back in 2016, in a situation that could and should have informed the Flyers’ thinking ahead of Monday’s NHL trade deadline, Justin Braun and the San Jose Sharks had a good run, finally. They’d missed the playoffs the season before, and over the 10 seasons before that, they had never advanced beyond the Western Conference final despite finishing either first or second in the Pacific Division nine times. But they broke through in ’16, reaching the Stanley Cup Final before losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games. It wasn’t a championship, but it was as close as the franchise had come to one, and one of the reasons was easy to pinpoint. The same six defensemen, Braun among them, played all 24 of the Sharks’ postseason games.
“We had our roles and bought in,” said Braun, whom the Flyers acquired in a June trade with San Jose. “That was one of the biggest things with that team. Everyone knew their role, and they came to the rink every day and just did that. Didn’t try to do more. Didn’t do less. We had a good group for the entire season, and we were thankful no one got injured.”
They had a good group, but they didn’t have the same group. Braun was one of five defensemen who played in at least 67 regular-season games for the Sharks in ’15-16, just five. To add to and solidify that core, San Jose made a move at that season’s trade deadline, sending two draft picks and forward Raffi Torres to the Toronto Maple Leafs for another defenseman, Roman Polak. Those six – Polack, Braun, Brent Burns, Marc-Eduoard Vlasic, Paul Martin, and Brenden Dillon – made up San Jose’s three primary defensive pairings in the postseason. The Sharks also had youngsters Dylan DeMelo, Matt Tennyson, and Mirco Mueller – all of whom had seen action during the regular season – if they needed them. It just turned out they didn’t. They didn’t trust those less-experienced players enough to dare to count on any of them in the postseason.
The point of that example, vis-a-vis the Flyers, is not that they should make a similar move before Monday’s 3 p.m. cutoff. In fact, the point is the opposite: The Flyers should allow pretty much any Shayne Gostisbehere-related rumors that are still being carried along on the trade winds to float away. Unless they’re getting a top-six-caliber defenseman back in return for Gostisbehere, it makes no sense to trade him. Why? Because it’s possible, even likely, that they’ll need him.
Yes, Gostisbehere has been out of the lineup of late because of a knee injury and the Flyers, without him, are surging. Yes, Robert Hagg has generally performed well in place of him. Yes, throughout his five-year career, Gostisbehere has been talented if inconsistent, volleying from seasons in which he seemed poised to become an elite play-pushing defenseman to seasons in which his carelessness with the puck made you wonder if he’d ever reach his full potential. If you want to find a reason to trade Gostisbehere, if you’re that bleak about the prospect that he will rediscover the best version of himself, you can find a reason. If general manager Chuck Fletcher learns that Gostisbehere could be the key to a trade that would improve the Flyers’ roster as a whole, he should, by all means, explore it.
But those are discussions and explorations for the offseason, not now. The Flyers are already capable of making the playoffs and, under the right circumstances, making some hay once they get there. To do that, though, they can’t allow their depth on defense to be compromised. Consider their 4-3 overtime victory Thursday in Columbus, which Braun missed because of the flu. His and Gostisbehere’s absences forced the Flyers to call up Mark Friedman, who has all of seven games of NHL experience and whose inability to muscle Blue Jackets forward Stefan Matteau out of the slot led to Columbus’ third goal.
The Flyers withstood that mistake, but it was enough to reaffirm a timeless cliché in this sport: You can never have too many defensemen. Once Gostisbehere is healthy enough to play, the Flyers will have seven defensemen who have, at one time or another, been in their regular rotation this season: Ivan Provorov, Matt Niskanen, Travis Sanheim, Phil Myers, Braun, Hagg, Gostisbehere. If it’s a problem that coach Alain Vigneault has to decide which one of those players would sit out an important game, it’s a happy one. You can count on the good fortune that the 2016 San Jose Sharks had, or you can be fully prepared for the reality of springtime hockey.