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Meltzer's Musings: Fedotenko; Which D Stay or Go?

May 1, 2013, 10:55 AM ET [478 Comments]
Bill Meltzer
Philadelphia Flyers Blogger •NHL.com • RSSArchiveCONTACT

Yesterday, there were several reports in the Russian media that Ruslan Fedotenko has signed a three-year deal with Ukraine-based KHL team Donbass Donetsk. The Ukrainian forward played for Donbass during the NHL lockout, centering the club's top line.

Fedotenko's NHL agent, Allan Walsh, tweeted a denial of the reports later in the day: "There is no truth to rumors that Ruslan Fedotenko has signed a deal with a team in the KHL. People expressing interest is not a contract."

The impending unrestricted free agent, who has evolved into a defensive specialist the last two years with the Rangers and Flyers, recently expressed unhappiness with that role. Returning to Donbass would make sense in that regard, because he averaged 18:40 of ice time and played in all game situations.

If Fedotenko ends up signing with another NHL team, he is very likely to play the same checking and penalty killing role he performed in New York and Philly. If more ice time is what he truly craves above all else, Donbass would be the right situation for him.

Even in the KHL, Fedotenko is not a high-end offensive producer. He had 18 points (8 goals, 10 assists, plus a pair of shootout goals) in 33 games before returning to North America at the end of the lockout. However, the KHL issued a Selke Trophy type of award for best defensive forward, Fedotenko would have been a top candidate had he spent the full year in the league.



NHL roster defenseman - Staying put

Kimmo Timonen: Winner of his fourth Barry Ashbee Trophy as the Flyers' best defenseman, the 38-year-old Timonen was tied for sixth in points among NHL defensemen this season. He had been fourth prior to missing the final three games of the year with a compression fracture in his right foot that had been bothering him for weeks.

Due to age and assorted injuries, Timonen has lost a step. Plays that used to turn into defensive stops now frequently become minor penalties because Timonen is forced to hook or hold the attacker. Nevertheless, he easily remains the team's top two-way defenseman and one of the better power play point men in the NHL.

Timonen signed a one-year contract extension, which expires at the end of next year. The player said at the time of the signing that he is most likely to retire after next season. That would be bad news for the Flyers, because viable replacements for a player like Timonen are hard to find.

Luke Schenn: Regular readers of my blog know that I frequently talk about the learning curve for young NHL defensemen. Schenn experienced the toughest phases of his development while he was in Toronto. It is the Flyers who have begun to reap the benefits of his ever-growing maturity and confidence as he has learned to maximize his strengths and work around his weaknesses. It is hard to believe that Schenn is still just 22 years old; an age when many D-men are still just in their first or second NHL seasons.

Schenn can still further improve his positional game so that he's not beaten on the rush, but took significant strides in that area this season. His hitting game is fearsome. He is the team's second-best shot blocking defenseman (after Nicklas Grossmann). He eats a lot of minutes and rarely seems to tire. Even his outlet passing game is underrated. If he stays healthy, which seems to be tough for Flyers defensemen to do, Schenn should be a mainstay on the top half of the team's blueline for many years to come.

Nicklas Grossmann: Injuries, both of the concussion and knee variety, are the only major concern for the stalwart defensive defenseman. The 28-year-old Grossmann's 2013 season was ended abruptly by a concussion sustained in practice during a six-day break in the Flyers' game schedule. He attempted to return to practice but was shut down after his concussion symptoms worsened. Grossmann had trouble with his balance, especially when he has rapid eye movement. The symptoms have since lessened but are not completely gone. He will visit a concussion specialist on May 6, and is slated to undergo vestibular therapy.

In terms of his on-ice play, Grossmann plays a simple yet effective game. He'll never produce more than a handful of points a year but he is a reliable shutdown defensemen, especially against big opposing forwards.

People talk about his lack of mobility, yet I don't think he was beaten cleanly off the rush more than a few times the entire season. That's because he typically plays with positional smarts, which is far more important for a defenseman of his style than pure speed. It also helps that he is one of the physically strongest D-men in the Eastern Conference.

Grossmann is not one to attempt -- or complete -- many stretch passes, but he makes the short-range pass adequately. He is one of the NHL's best shot blockers and also ranked among the defense leaders in hits. Grossmann even dropped the gloves and fought George Parros (for the second time among the Swede's three career NHL fights) when he felt the team was lifeless and needed a spark.

Between Schenn and Grossmann, the Flyers are good shape in terms of large-framed defensive defensemen who play a physical game. That assumes Grossmann recovers fully from his most recent concussion and can stay reasonably healthy next year.

Erik Gustafsson: Come next season, Gustafsson is no longer eligible to be sent to the AHL without passing through waivers. He will have an opportunity to win an opening-night roster spot. Whether he can grab and hold a starting six spot for an 82-game season remains to be seen. In terms of his game, I discussed Gustafsson and other young Flyers defenseman in-depth in my April 19 blog.

Chris Pronger: Due to the NHL's over-35 contract rules and refusal to place a career-ending-injury exemption into their Memorandum of CBA Understanding with the Players' Association, Pronger cannot retire until 2017 without his full cap hit counting as dead space on the Flyers' salary cap. Instead. he will spend the next four years on the Flyers' injured reserve list with the team having the ability to use long-term IR to gain an allowance to exceed the salary cap ceiling. NHL rules prohibit buying out injured players, even with the transitional two amnesty buyouts allowed in the next two years. So Chris Pronger will officially be a member of the Flyers' roster until the end of the 2016-17 season.

NHL roster defensemen - On the fence

Braydon Coburn: Coburn became a whipping boy among many fans this year. He had a poor season after a strong second half and playoff run in 2011-12. There's an often-overlooked context to his struggles in 2013, but they were struggles nevertheless.

By default, the big-framed but smooth-skating Coburn was expected to take on greater puck-moving duties this season than he had in the past. That role had been vacated by the departure of Matt Carle. Coburn time-on-ice workload increased to an average 22:36 (highest on the team) and there were preseason hopes that he could rediscover the offensive game he displayed in the 2007-08 season, before he was re-cast in more of a defensive role following the acquisitions of Carle (in 2008-09) and Chris Pronger (2009-10).

It is an understatement to say that Coburn had difficulties adjusting his game to his expanded role. His turnovers figured to increase slightly with more puckhandling duties, but the increase was way too high. He was charged with 31 giveaways in 33 games this year (0.939 per game), compared to 43 in 81 games (0.53) in 2011-12. Meanwhile, despite efforts to get more involved in the offense, his point production rate actually decreased from 0.296 points-per-game in 2011-12 to 0.151).

In hindsight, Coburn's problems this year should have been expected. It takes time for a player to make adjustments, and Coburn had less than a half-season's worth of games (in a non-lockout year) before suffering a season-ending separated shoulder in March. He did not play during the lockout, had an abbreviated training camp without any preseason games to work on things and the in-season practice schedule was curtailed. Coburn tends to be a better second-half player in most seasons, anyway.

Finally, it should also be said that when Coburn was paired with Grossmann, it was a fairly equal partnership. Before the injury bug bit, the pairing started to settle into a similar groove to the one they displayed as a reliable shutdown duo in the 2011-12 season. It was the portion of the season when Coburn was asked to play with Bruno Gervais that his own game really started to go south.

The bottom line, though, is that Coburn is accountable for his own play. Even in an 82-game season with a full training camp and preseason, he is probably is not capable of fulfilling what is essentially the team's number two defenseman role (number one in terms of total ice time). He is better as a number three or four with Grossmann as the number four or five.

There is a chance that the 28-year-old Coburn, who has three seasons to go on a contract that carries a cap hit of $4.5 million, could be dealt this summer. He has a partial no-trade clause in his contract but an NTC does not pre-empt trades so much as giving a player more say in potential destinations. Despite his down year, his combination of size and skating as well as his collection of NHL experience at a career-prime age makes him a desirable commodity. The separated shoulder he sustained is not a major concern. The injury simply happened too late in a non-playoff year for the player to return.

If he remains in Philadelphia, Coburn figures to have a bounceback season next year. It would certainly help matters if the team is able to deploy him in more of his natural role rather than the team crossing their fingers that he better adapts to leading the defense in average ice time again.

Andrej Meszaros: Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren had no choice but to say about Meszaros what he said for public consumption at Sunday's locker-cleanout day. According to Holmgren, the organization is not worried about Meszaros' ability to make a healthy return to the lineup for the start of next season and play effectively. The GM described Meszaros' series of major injuries in a one-year period -- back surgery, Achilles tendon repair surgery, separated shoulder, torn rotator cuff surgery -- as a run of bad luck.

Earlier in his career, Meszaros had good luck in terms of staying away from such injuries. He's had a couple of shoulder operations since then and that has to be of particular concern no matter what the party line is. Meszaros' game is predicated on playing fairly aggressively and blasting the puck from the point.

Meszaros looked surprisingly good in making a somewhat ahead of schedule from a torn Achilles tendon suffered last summer. Then he separated his shoulder in the fourth game of the season. Upon his return to the lineup in early March, his game was a mess at both ends of the ice. He was chronically out of position, tentative and indecisive with and without the puck. His year of hell came to an end late that month when he was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff and scheduled for surgery.

The big Slovak, who missed the final 20 games and all but the last playoff game of 2011-12 and was sidelined for 37 games this year, has one season remaining on a contract that carries a $4 million cap hit. With the cap ceiling decreasing, the Flyers need to make a decision this summer if the 27-year-old can be relied upon to stay in the lineup next year. Beyond that, they need to determine if he is still part of the team's long-term plan on defense with UFA status looming in the summer of 2014.

At the present time, Meszaros does not carry much trade value due to his injury concerns and cap hit. I wouldn't say he has zero trade value, however, because proven NHL defensemen in their 20s will always find takers.

I do not think the Flyers will go into next year with all three among Meszaros, Coburn and Grossmann returning. I don't think Grossmann is going anywhere this summer, especially in light of his concussion concerns, but one should never say never. It seems likely that the Flyers will either make a salary-dump involving Meszaros or one working around Coburn's partial no-trade clause that yields an NHL roster player coming back the other way.

If Meszaros is retained, the Flyers will cross their fingers and hope that he makes a healthy return while regaining the form that him to win the Barry Ashbee Trophy in 2010-11.

Bruno Gervais: Max Talbot's best friend was brought in last summer on a two-year contract with the hope that he could be a serviceable number six defenseman at a discount price. It didn't work out very well this season.

Gervais was adequate when playing very limited minutes on the third pairing, but got exposed when injuries throughout the lineup propelled him into an expanded role. The more I saw him play, the more I thought he's really more of a number seven NHL defenseman than a starting-six caliber player.

Gervais is a real likable guy off the ice and there is no questioning that he has NHL caliber skating ability, speed and puck skills. However, I have to be honest and say that he is not exceptional even in those areas and really doesn't jump out to me as a defensemen who can perform any starting role effectively enough to stay in the lineup for the long haul.

Even most sixth defensemen have one area of specialty, whether it's their shooting, their shot blocking, or whatever the case may be. Gervais is more of a generalist than a specialist. He's show that in stints with three NHL teams.

I would describe Gervais at the NHL level as average to below average in his defensive coverage reads. He's OK on breakouts but nothing special. He'll kick in the occasional goal on the pinch but he's not an offensive defenseman at the NHL level. He's not physical.

The 28-year-old Gervais will probably still be a Flyer come training camp but I would suggest that his return to the club next year at the NHL level depends on what else the team does this summer. It may also depend on what some of the young defensemen do in camp. He could come back as the number seven defenseman or else he could be waived and assigned to the Phantoms. His $825,000 salary falls below the threshold where the team would absorb any cap hit if he is sent to the AHL.

Marc-Andre Bourdon: Bourdon suffered three concussions in less than a calendar year and over a span of fewer than 30 NHL and AHL games. After the third concussion, he was shut down for the remainder of the 2012-13 season. He has reportedly suffered from vestibular issues similar to Grossmann's and, while he's made substantial progress, is still not symptom-free. He will see a specialist on May 6.

NHL roster defensemen - Departing

Kurtis Foster: He has one asset:a heavy slapshot. That one asset was not used frequently or well enough to compensate for below-average mobility and an average-at-best positional game. Foster is an unrestricted free agent this summer and is unlikely to be re-signed by the Flyers.

Kent Huskins: With the Flyers' blueline decimated by injures, the 33-year-old veteran was acquired basically as a favor from Detroit, where he was seldom used. Huskins played well in his eight games with the Flyer prior to suffering a concussion in Montreal. He was cleared to return with two games left in the season but was held out for precautionary reasons while the team took a look at prospects Brandon Manning and Matt Konan.

Although impending unrestricted free agent Huskins made only $750,000 this season and would be unlikely to command a raise, Holmgren indicated that the Flyers prefer to let Huskins find employment elsewhere while opening space for prospects such as Gustafsson. Personally, I prefer Huskins to the younger Gervais as a candidate for the seventh defenseman role.

If the Flyers do not re-sign Huskins this summer, the conditional seventh round pick sent to Detroit will be nullified.

Matt Walker: Walker did not play a single game for the Flyers or Phantoms this year, due to assorted mid-to-lower body problems, especially a bad hip. He and his $1.7 million cap hit spent the entire year on injured reserve, followed by LTIR.

The 33-year-old Walker's odious contract, which the Flyers absorbed when compelled for cap reasons to trade Simon Gagne to Tampa Bay in the summer of 2010, finally expires this summer. He got paid an actual salary of $2 million this season (injured players had to be paid during the lockout) and grossed $5.5 million in his three years in the Flyers organization after Tampa foisted his long-term contract on Philly.

The ROI: Walker played eight NHL games and 44 in the AHL over the last three years.

ON the Farm: Callup Candidates

Oliver Lauridsen: I wrote an in-depth analysis of the Great Dane's strengths and weaknesses in my April 19 blog. In my opinion, Lauridsen needs additional work on his skating, positional play and puckhandling before he can realistically compete for a full-time NHL job.

Many Flyers fans have jumped on the 24-year-old Lauridsen bandwagon based on what they saw in his 15 games with the big club. He played well. That is a very small sampling of games, and the League does not have a "book" on him yet. Lauridsen was considered a third-paring AHL defenseman until very recently.

Through sheer hard work and determination, he's made dramatic improvements in the last two seasons. However, he is still raw in key areas. For instance, Lauridsen was charged with 12 giveaways in his 15 games with the big club. That is way too much for a defensive defenseman, especially one who played an average 15:08 per game. He was fortunate than only one or two ended up in the Philadelphia net.

A restricted free agent this summer, Lauridsen has unquestionably raised his stock in terms of being a call-up player from the AHL. He showed more than enough during his late-season stint with the big club to demonstrate that he can spend time in the NHL without being overwhelmed by the speed of play or hopelessly overmatched in one-on-one situations.

Even so, the Flyers already have basically similar style players in Luke Schenn and Nicklas Grossmann and additional AHL development time would not hurt the late-blooming Lauridsen.

Brandon Manning: Manning had a rough second season in the AHL but performed adequately (save for one notable gaffe against Boston) in his second cup of coffee in the NHL. For more on Manning, see my April 19 blog. Manning is a restricted free agent this summer.

Matt Konan: Konan dressed for the final two games of the NHL season, completing a rookie campaign that saw him get injured before the start of the season, spend a little catch-up time in the ECHL and then play 45 games for Terry Murray's Phantoms. As a 6-foot-3 player with good mobility, the 21-year-old Californian has the opportunity to play in the NHL if he continues to improve. He's at his best when he keeps things simple and plays with a little bit of an edginess.


Coming tomorrow: A look at six draft-eligible defensemen who may be on the board in the first round when the Flyers pick at 11th overall.

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