Veterans Erik Johnson, Marc Staal thrust into key roles on Flyers’ depleted blue line

TAMPA, Fla. — If nothing else, Erik Johnson is self-aware. The newly acquired Philadelphia Flyers defenseman, after morning skate at Amalie Arena on Saturday, admitted he hasn’t had the greatest season as part of a disappointing Buffalo Sabres squad. And, even though his getting dealt offers him a fresh start with a new club, the 35-year-old is not suddenly going to turn the clock back a decade.

“It was really tough being 13 years in Colorado and then coming to a new team. I don’t think I really played my best hockey,” said Johnson, who signed a one-year contract with the Sabres in the offseason after spending the majority of his career with the Avalanche.

“My best years are behind me.”

The Flyers know that too, of course. Their acquisition of Johnson on Friday just before the NHL trade deadline, though, serves two purposes: It provides immediate help for what is both an inexperienced and banged-up blue line, and potentially enhances the team culture that both coach John Tortorella and general manager Danny Briere have labeled as the foundation of their rebuild.



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His first game was one to forget, as the Flyers were run out of the building 7-0 by the Tampa Bay Lightning in a game that will primarily be remembered for Tortorella’s ejection midway through the first period and his refusal to leave the bench right away.

And the game was abnormal even before it started. The Flyers were forced to dress just five defensemen after Egor Zamula came down with an illness and Adam Ginning, reassigned to the AHL on Friday, was unable to make it back from the Philadelphia area in time due to weather-related flight delays, according to a team source.

In other words, it’s probably not all that advisable to form any broad conclusions from that game about how Johnson will or won’t contribute down the stretch. He was on the ice for Nick Paul’s power-play goal that made it 2-0 and maybe could have been harder around the net. He was also a bit flat-footed on Conor Sheary’s wrist shot from the high slot that made it 3-0, but Flyers goalie Samuel Ersson could have been better on both of those two scores, as well. He finished with a minus-1 rating in 19:57 of ice time, with two shots on goal and six hits.

And it’s not like anyone else on the Flyers was all that effective on Saturday either, as they got behind 4-0 midway through the first period.

“We’re usually a pretty decisive team,” assistant coach Brad Shaw, filling in for Tortorella, said after the game. “We’re usually setting the tone and playing a specific game and I thought we let them get to their game really quickly. …  Just never seemed to get our footing.”

The Flyers are fortunate in that they’ll have a chance to quickly put the brutal loss behind them when they host the league’s second-worst team, the San Jose Sharks, on Tuesday. One of the primary reasons they have managed to stay in the playoff race this season is because of their ability to quickly respond to poor efforts.

Still, they’re a bit of a different team now that they’ve lost Sean Walker, with his ability to help break the puck out of their own end and play that fast transition game that’s led to so much of the Flyers’ offense.

Johnson isn’t that type of player, and neither is another veteran who’s being relied on to play big minutes — Marc Staal, who skated in just 17 of the Flyers’ first 51 games and has now been thrust back into nightly duty with Jamie Drysdale, Rasmus Ristolainen and Nick Seeler still all on the shelf.

The Flyers seemed to realize they need to play differently in at least one of their two games after the Walker deal: They put forth an impressive, buttoned-up defensive performance in their 2-1 win in Florida on Thursday with rookies Ginning and Ronnie Attard making their respective season debuts on the blue line.

Part of the reason why they held the high-powered Panthers offense to just one goal was, according to Staal, everyone on the ice playing together as a five-man unit.

“Realizing the position we were in with some new guys coming in. I think our forwards — they always do a great job of being pretty aware defensively and playing as five,” Staal said. “We really focused on that before the game. … Just good structurally to get that one.”

Staal’s ice time has been steadily rising. He skated a season-high 19:10 on Saturday. And although he’s certainly not the fleetest of foot anymore at age 37, he has a positive expected goals percentage of 54.2 according to Natural Stat Trick, and at five-on-five has been on the ice for an even 12 goals for and 12 against.

Getting into a rhythm after being a frequent healthy scratch has helped.

“For sure. It’s definitely tough not playing when you’re used to being in the lineup every night your whole career so that was an adjustment,” he said. “Stayed positive and kept working and obviously getting an opportunity now and we’re playing really important games and it’s exciting for me to be back in and try to help this team win. … I’m starting to feel better on the ice, getting my legs and timing back more where I’m used to.”

When he signed a one-year deal in the offseason, the prevailing notion at the time was that Staal would be a prime candidate to get moved for, say, a mid-round draft pick ahead of the trade deadline. But Staal said on Saturday that it was always his intention to stay with the Flyers for the season, and now part of what has become a close group, he’s thrilled to be sticking around for the playoff chase.

“Been around these guys since September, I’ve definitely grown to enjoy this room and these guys and what we’re doing here,” Staal said. “Leaving really wasn’t a thought I had. You’ve just got to get in, you know? Get in the playoffs and see what happens. You never know.”

Staal knows that well as part of last season’s eighth-seeded Florida Panthers that advanced to the Stanley Cup Final before losing to the Vegas Golden Knights.

The Flyers have to get there first, though. And in order to do that, both Johnson and Staal are going to have to play a role.

“You check your ego at the door, it’s about winning and it’s about building the culture and continuing to go on a big playoff push here,” Johnson said. “What I just told them was I’m here for whatever you need from me, here to be a good teammate, and do whatever I can for the guys.”

(Photo of Erik Johnson: AP Photo / Chris O’Meara)

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