Taking the Long Road
Back in the tail end of the 2014-15 season, the Flyers defensive core was hit by a number of injuries. Having traded away perpetual scapegoat Braydon Coburn and soon-to-be Cup champion Kimmo Timonon (which still brings a tear to my eye), Brandon Manning got to play a seven game run with the club to close out the disappointing season.
Signed undrafted out of college, Manning played his first season with the Phantoms in 2011-12. Over the following four seasons he put up reasonable AHL numbers (114 points in 244 games) but featured most heavily in the PIM column. Due in no small part to his willingness to drop the gloves, his personal best was 231 in 73 games during the 13-14 season.
The seven game run in 14-15 brought his NHL games played for the season to 11 (21 total in his career) and, despite the team generally being poor, allowed him to show he could cope at the highest level. As a result last season he stayed exclusively with the Flyers for the first time, starting as the 7th defenseman and dressing for 56 games, missing only three games from February 9th onwards during the Flyers impressive playoff push. He made some mistakes but was generally a reliable and steady player, ideal for the 7th defenseman role.
In this past offseason he was awarded a two year one-way deal, previously having been on single year contracts for the last three seasons. With a cap hit of $975k, many fans expected that he would be either the team’s 7th defenseman again or end up back with the Phantoms. In truth it seemed unlikely he would be risked on waivers, having just signed his first multi-year deal at a reasonable price. However, with Ivan Provorov making the team there were suddenly eight defensemen on the roster. Injuries would delay the outcome of this conundrum as Del Zotto was hurt and placed on LITR and Manning himself was day-to-day to start the season. That decision has been delayed further even after Del Zotto’s recent return due to several other lower key injuries but it seems unlikely the Flyers, if close to fully fit, would want to carry eight defensemen for an extended period – especially with a number of prospects with the Phantoms they could call upon.
Manning has managed to start the season however, and in fine form. In 13 games he has already matched last season’s point total of seven with his level of play raising questions as to his real value and whether he can keep this form up.
Numbers (Probably) Don’t Lie!
So far this season Manning’s Adjusted Corsi sits at 50.79%, so the Flyers are creating more shots than they’re conceding (5v5) while on the ice he’s on the ice but that ranks only ahead of Schultz and MacDonald.
What really has set Manning apart is the quality of goalkeeping (bear with me) while he is on the ice. Currently he is sixth on the team and leading the defense with a 91.75% save percentage (This dropped down from 94.44% before the Montreal game) – I’ve never quite understood why the NHL presents a number literally meaning ‘parts per hundred’ as a decimal of 1 (I mean I guess I could have looked it up but, you know, I didn’t). His expected goals against per 60 mins is bettered by only Gudas at 2.26. This suggests that the shots that are getting through are much more low risk and routine, though as we have seen so far this season the phrase ‘routine save’ seems to have been erased from the net minder’s lexicon. Still, it’s worth noting that the Flyers 5v5 save percent as a whole sits at 88.45%.
It’s also worth noting Manning’s zone starts. He by far starts the most defensive zone draws of any defenseman, both as a personal percentage against offensive starts (56.52%) and as an absolute number with 65 defensive starts; Streit is second with 44 with Gostisbehere at third with 41. I would infer that the coaches both trust his defensive reliability and his ability to transition play from defense to attack.
What Should We Expect Moving Forward?
Right now there’s no real reason to believe he can’t continue his current contribution to some degree. His Corsi numbers are actually down slightly from last year (51.52%) but a real difference point’s wise has been that he’s with people who are taking chances. Team shooting percentage is 6.25% (Adjusted Corsi) while he’s on the ice up from a paltry 2.59% last year due at least in part to the team actually having some second scoring. However, that 6.25% shooting percentage is pushing double most of the other defenders (though their average is also well above last seasons). Even taking this into account along with potential ice time changes with Del Zotto returning and an expected increase in play from the keepers there’s no reason to suggest that Manning shouldn’t put up between 25-35 points – not bad for a $975k cap hit.
Manning has certainly been a pleasant surprise and could certainly cause Ron Hextall some headaches come the Expansion Draft when deciding who to protect. Prior to the start of the season it would be fair to say Manning hadn’t really factored into that debate but he’s certainly started making a case for himself. Additionally, having an established defender outplay his contract would certainly help offset certain players who are achieving the opposite.
So, who’s the man? You the man, Manning my man! And long may it continue.
*All stats pulled from the superb Corsica website!
** Photo by Randy Miller