The Battle for the 6th Defensive Spot
Preseason games are a time to look at the individual players. It’s hard to draw any conclusions about the team specifically because the lineups are different every night. The young guys and rookies get the most playing time in the first few games or so, so it does not paint a clear picture of the real team.
Defense isn’t a very glamorous position to analyze. Many people are going to be turning their heads when an 18 year old shines in the goal scoring department or when a new forward brought in during the offseason shows promise of bringing offensive depth. And a goaltender pulling off a shutout will cause discussion the same way a goaltender struggling will even if it is only the preseason. So that leaves the defensemen to be somewhat of an afterthought.
How often do fans talk amongst each other about a good active stick by a defenseman to break up a chance for the opposition to go the other way? These things don’t necessarily go unnoticed, but they aren’t flashy. On the other hand, if a defenseman finds himself with a goal thanks to a nice slapper from the blueline, he is going to get attention.
For these reasons and others, the small battle for the 6th defensive spot with the Philadelphia Flyers is not something that is being brought up by many. But when you sit down and actually think about it, it can be somewhat intriguing.
First and foremost, the Flyers have two guys that have their NHL experience going for them. Twenty-four year old Oskars Bartulis and thirty-six year old Andreas Lilja may be the top two candidates for that job. They could even be rotated from time to time until the young guys are fully NHL ready.
Bartulis has never really given anyone the greatest reason to become a huge fan of his. But in his defense, last season seemed like it was going to be a good one for him until Scottie Upshall put him on the shelf in February. There is nothing great about his game. But it is hard to say that he is below average for a 6th defenseman. He quietly goes about his job and has been around some wonderful defensemen on this Flyers team that may be able to rub some little things off on him.
Andreas Lilja definitely has the experience going for him. At his age, he could be the Sean O’Donnell of the first half of last season. Once again, there is nothing flashy about him, but he is a tougher guy than Bartulis. He has that veteran grit of a defensive defenseman, and he also has a Stanley Cup under his belt.
That leaves three twenty-two year olds with their own chances at making this Flyers team.
Erik Gustafsson has the biggest shot. He played in three games with the Flyers last season and fans really seemed to love him. He has looked solid so far this preseason. Then there is Kevin Marshall, another defenseman for the Phantoms. Marshall has been with the Flyers organization since 2007. He is a home grown defenseman that is going to crack the lineup one of these days. The question is whether or not that will happen this season. Another young defenseman with an outside chance is Blake Kessel. He is more known for being the brother of Maple Leaf Phil Kessel than anything else. The one thing going for him is his right hand shot. He hasn’t been bad, but the chances for him are very slim.
Even if you aren’t an observer of defenseman, this little battle can garner some interest. One should take some time to maybe take a second look at these five guys the remainder of the preseason. Defense isn't glamorous but it is certainly important. It will soon be seen just who earns that 6th spot and also who earns the 7th spot.