Bill Meltzer: Meltzer’s Musings: MacDonald and Coburn Out Four Weeks, Phantoms, and More



Being a defenseman is often a thankless job. The player’s mistakes are magnified compared to those that forwards make. An unforced turnover or lost coverage that results in an opposition goal or being forced to take a penalty can stand out more than an otherwise solid performance in 20-plus shifts. Hockey people don’t hyper-focus on one or two bad shifts in a game — they look at a bigger picture — but fans are often quick to do so.

Braydon Coburn is a player whom a segment of the Flyers fan base has turned into a favorite whipping boy over the years. Coburn is not an All-Star caliber defenseman. He is sometimes prone to making “the big mistake” that overshadows everything else he’s done in a game. He also doesn’t have much of an offensive game. The simpler he keeps his game, the better he does.

That does not mean, however, that Coburn is an easily replaceable player. What his critics fail to recognize is that he plays a lot of tough minutes against other clubs’ top lines and has certain attributes — a rare combination of size and mobility, the stamina to handle short rest periods between shifts, long reach and a quick stick — that make him tough to replace in the lineup. This is the reason why the Flyers have continually resisted trade offers in recent years.

The left foot injury that Coburn sustained on opening night in Boston has kept him out of the lineup for the last six games. The team has gotten a chance to see what life would be like — at least until some of the organization’s defense prospects develop — without number 5. It hasn’t been a pretty picture.

The current blueline even WITH Coburn has players forced to play bigger-than-ideal roles for players of each individual’s skill set. Without Coburn and without the presence of Kimmo Timonen that had been part of the off-season plan for 2014-15, it has become a patchwork operation from game to game.

The Flyers have managed to post a 2-2-2 record in the last six games because they have scored a lot of goals (apart from getting shut out in Chicago on Tuesday). They would have at least one more win in that mix if they could defend even marginally better.

The Flyers forwards don’t get a pass here, either. Successful hockey is all about teamwide commitment to two-way play. The forwards have a role to play in back pressure, gap control, coverages, puck management, board work, skating, etc.

Likewise, the Flyers need goaltender Steve Mason to have more games like Game 7 of the Rangers’ series and opening night in Boston. He hasn’t been awful — despite ugly stats — but the Flyers need him to come up with that one extra save here and there that he was making last season and have been going in the net so far this season.

A good example was the Patrick Kane stuff-in power play goal off a end-board carom in the first period of Tuesday’s game. The goaltender was by no means to blame for the goal. However, if Mason scrambles over in time and robs Kane — he made quite a few of those sorts of saves last season when it looked like he’d have no chance to get over — that first period might not have so disastrous. A 2-0 deficit at intermission after getting outplayed so severely would have seemed recoverable. At 3-0, the mountain was already too steep even for a team with the Flyers’ undeniable comeback ability.

Everything in hockey is symbiotic. Sustained subpar defense will eventually drag down the goaltender just as a goalie letting in repeated soft goals will eventually erode the confidence of the team in front of him. This has two potential outcomes, both negative. The team either starts playing TOO defensively and stops skating or it falls in the mindset that is has to outscore the mistakes and takes low-percentage gambles that result in more breakdowns.

In stretches, the Flyers have been able to play at a high two-way tempo. They did that for much of Wednesday’s win in Pittsburgh, except for the first portion of the open period. Sustaining it from game to game is the big challenge.

In the meantime, it would help the Flyers if Coburn were back in the lineup. He has been practicing for the last week and, to outside observers and Berube, has seemed OK. However, an athlete knows his own body better than anyone else. Coburn did not feel ready to play in Dallas or Chicago. He remained out of the lineup in Pittsburgh as well.

Berube said the right things when asked about it. He told the beat writers at the games in Chicago and Pittsburgh that the player has to be the one to make the call that he feels well enough to play.

“He’s just got to be confident that he feels he’s ready to go,” Berube said to CSN Philly and HockeyBuzz writer Tim Panaccio. “That’s all it is. Sometimes it takes a little longer. A guy doesn’t feel proper, he doesn’t feel like he can help the team, so he made the decision not to play.”

Despite the coach’s words, the frustration is clear. The team really needs Coburn available to work back into his regular minutes-eating role. The blueline right now is like tissue paper.

The thought of any of Andrew MacDonald, Mark Streit, Nicklas Grossmann or even Nick Schultz going down in addition to Coburn is a nightmarish proposition. Michael Del Zotto has had some good moments with the puck on his stick and quite a few bad ones without the puck while Luke Schenn has neither been as bad as his minus-eight suggests nor consistently reliable enough this season to assign more minutes.

When the Flyers hit the ice in Voorhees today in preparation for tomorrow’s game against Detroit, there will be a lot of eyes on Coburn. Things have gotten to the point where he either needs to play — even if it is means the team plays a forward short and starts seven defensemen for the next couple games — or to be shut down for a longer period of time.


The Lehigh Valley Phantoms (2-1-0) start a busy weekend slate tonight that will see them play three games in as many nights. Tonight, the Phantoms return to home action at the PPL Center, taking on the Hershey Bears (3-1-0). Game time is 7:05 p.m. EDT.

The Phantoms are on the road for the rest of the weekend. Tomorrow night, the club heads to New York State for a 7:05 p.m. game with the Binghamton Senators. Last season, the Phantoms won four of six games against the Sens.

On Sunday, the Phantoms have a return match with the Bears in Hershey for a 5:00 p.m. tilt. This weekend’s two games with Hershey will be the 185th and 186th all-time meetings between the Phantoms and Bears since the Flyers ended their AHL affiliation with the Bears and the Phantoms were added as an AHL franchise. All time, the Phantoms are 86-88-10 against Hershey.


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