This Defense Can’t Rest

By Al Alven

As the big club took the gas pipe yet again this spring in the first round of the NHL playoffs, fans of the Philadelphia Flyers are yearning for at least a little good news about their favorite NHL team. One of the few bright spots that actually does take a little of the sting out of another disappointing May, is the nice depth that has accumulated on the bullion throughout the Flyers system. And NHL quality defensemen are at a premium in today’s watered down NHL.

At the top of this promising list is Wilmington, Delaware native Mark Eaton. Eaton is a slick skating offensive defenseman who played one year of college hockey under former Flyer Dave Poulin at Notre Dame. The Flyers signed Eaton last summer and he has been turning heads ever since. Eaton compiled 36 points in his first pro season with the AHL Phantoms, including 6 power play goals. He is the heir apparent to Eric Desjardins job as the top offensive defenseman in the system.

Some of the brass in the system wanted GM Bobby Clarke to bring up Eaton towards the end of the season. But since the Danuis Zubrus debacle, Clarke seems to be leaning towards the taking the slow road with his blue-chip prospects from here on out. Time spent learning the pro game in the minors is never a bad idea especially when you are talking about a defenseman with the natural offensive skills that Eaton possesses.

Mark has nice size (6’2″ 190 lb.) to go along with his effortless skating stride and has seemingly picked up the nuances of man-to-man defense rather quickly in the AHL. Clarke said that late season pickup Steve Duchesne will not be back with the club so that opens up at least one job on the Flyers blueline. And it look as though that that opening has Mark Eaton’s name written all over it.

Contender number 2 for a job on the Flyers backline is Ryan Bast. Bast was signed away from the Calgary organization when Flames GM Al Coates left the back door open and Clarke tendered Bast an NHL contract. That was something Coates should have done himself and the clever Clarke jumped all over Coates’ faux pas.

Mean is the one word that comes to mind when one watches Ryan Bast play hockey. Bast quickly established himself as a team leader for the defending Calder Cup champion Phantoms. He led the AHL in plus/minus last year with the Saint John Flames but his stats in that category took a little bit of a hit coming from Bill Stewart’s defensive system to the more wide open style employed by Phantoms coach Bill Barber.

Bast played a few games up with the Flyers this season and sure didn’t look out of place. The Flyers like their defenseman to play a simple game and that fits very well into Bast’s natural style. Smart with the puck, Ryan plays within himself and very rarely gets caught out of position. Bast spent 160 minutes in the penalty box and it is safe to say that an opposing player felt most of those them. That is one of the things that Bast has in his favor. The Flyers desperately need a smart defenseman that play with attitude. If Ryan shows that he can clear the crease on the NHL level, he can stake a claim to one of the top 7 jobs on the Flyers blueline.

The wildcard on the Flyers future blueline is Mikhail Chernov. The 6’2″, 200 pounder is the type of player that people do not enjoy playing against. If Ryan Bast plays mean then Chernov plays nasty. These two spent some time this season as defensive partners with the Phantoms. I wish I had a nickel for every slash that was handed out by that combo this past year.

Chernov’s strength is the big hit. The Flyers were curious to see if Mikhail could make the adjustment to North American hockey without losing his aggressiveness. After one year in the AHL, those questions seemed to be answered. The Russian skates well and plays the game hard. He only has to cut down on his mental mistakes to seriously make a charge for a job with the Flyers. Chernov plays a style that could turn some heads in camp next fall, especially with the GM complaining in the press about a lack of physical play by the Flyers backline.

On the horizon, but shining brightly, is Seattle Thunderbirds defenseman Jason Beckett. Beckett skates for former Flyers GM Russ Farwell out there in the WHL and seems to be a real prospect. A stay-at-home defender, Beckett also plays with a bit of a mean streak. Like Ryan Bast, Jason is the consummate team guy. Beckett skates well and has added some muscle to his 6’2″ frame. Scouts love his attitude and see him as a solid number 4 defenseman in the NHL someday. He plays within himself and scouting reports claim that he won’t hurt the team no matter what the situation is on the ice.

Beckett was drafted by the Flyers with a pick acquired in the Dan McGillis/Janne Niinimaa deal last year. Jason should continue to develop as he garners lots of playing time with Seattle. His plus/minus rating is head and shoulders above most of the rest of his club and may be ready to be a Flyer in about three years after as short apprenticeship with the AHL Phantoms.

Dmitri Tertyshny has already spent his first year in the NHL and guys like Andy Delmore (Phantoms) and 6’6″ Ian Forbes (OHL-Guelph) give the Flyers that much more young talent on the blueline throughout the organization. And with two more expansion drafts in the near future, that kind of depth is a luxury that few NHL teams have these days. The Flyers have both quality and quantity on the blueline and that makes me smile especially when I remember what Grandma Hot Tub used to tell me as a child.

“Defense wins championships. Now, go clean your room.”