After receiving tough news Tuesday about veteran blueliner Kimmo Timonen, the Philadelphia Flyers moved quickly to replace their most experienced defenseman by signing Michael Del Zotto to a one-year, $1.3-million contract. But the fact GM Ron Hextall turned to a former hot property whose stock has fallen precipitously is an indication Philly’s defense corps could be the area that prevents the Flyers from securing a playoff berth this season.
Since star blueliner Chris Pronger had his career ended in 2011 by post-concussion syndrome, the Flyers have been searching to bolster their blueline. Timonen and Braydon Coburn are the only holdovers from Pronger’s time in Philadelphia, and because the organization hasn’t been able to produce a home-grown d-man of impact, they’ve had to look elsewhere – namely, the New York Islanders, from whom they acquired former Isles blueliners Mark Streit (via free agency) and Andrew MacDonald (via trade). They dealt skilled young winger James van Riemsdyk to Toronto for Luke Schenn. And those moves didn’t produce the desired result; Philly was 17th in Corsi-for last season and were in the lower tier of the NHL in goals-allowed (20th overall at 2.77 goals per game).
Those numbers won't improve with the arrival of Del Zotto, who at age 24 has arrived at a crossroads in his five-year NHL career and who had to accept a major pay cut (from $2.55 million last season) to continue playing in hockey’s top league.
In many ways, it’s astonishing a player who was so highly regarded after being drafted 20th overall in 2008 became radioactive enough – particularly at a time when puck-moving defensemen are so few and far-between. As New York Post columnist Larry Brooks explained, part of the explanation why is he’s been seen as difficult to coach and unable to adapt his game. It’s essentially on him to reclaim his spot as an up-and-coming young blueliner instead of the down-and-going route he’s been travelling.
But even if he does reverse his career trajectory, Del Zotto isn’t going to replace the qualities the 39-year-old Timonen (who still could return to the lineup at some point this season) brings to the table. He’s got nowhere near Timonen’s panic threshold nor his innate sense of smart positional play. He was averaging 16:17 finishing last season in Nashville and in Philly, he won’t have the strong structural defensive approach the Preds are famous for. This won’t be trial by fire – this could very well be trial by garbage fire.
And the Flyers themselves? Well, just compare their blueline to any of their rivals in the Metropolitan division. On paper, at least, is it comparable to Pittsburgh’s or the Rangers’? No. Is it better than Washington’s rejigged defense corps? No. Is it on the same level as Columbus’? Maybe.
And that’s the point: the Flyers have some of the top young forwards in the game, and may have found a long-term answer in net with Steve Mason. But even if and when Timonen returns, their blueline isn’t fearsome to anyone.
And a reclamation project such as Del Zotto isn’t about to change that.