At a reported 6’5″, it is hard to miss the Flyer’s defensive pairing consisting of big men Derian Hatcher and Braydon Coburn, as they step on the ice. This well-calculated combo has complimented speed and youth with tough, physical defense.
While Hatcher, 35, can boast a Stanley Cup and multiple captaincies, Coburn has all the tools of a successful, competitive defensive force thrown into the lap of a 22-year-old.
Among other shared attributes between the players, it is also worth noting that both players were selected eighth overall in their respective NHL entry drafts. The Minnesota North Stars picked up Hatcher in 1990 and Don Waddell and the Atlanta Thrashers selected Coburn in 2003.
Coburn, born in Calgary, Alberta, came to the Flyers on February 24, 2007 in exchange for Alexei Zhitnik as the Thrashers prepared for a playoff run with hopes of bolstering their blue line with Zhitnik’s veteran status. Prior to the trade, Coburn appeared in 29 contests for the Thrashers and posted four assists and 30 penalty minutes in 2006-07. He also spent 15 games with AHL-affiliate Chicago Wolves notching 11 points (one goal, ten assists).
The previous season, 2005-06, despite a recommendation to find housing in the Atlanta area, Coburn spent a majority of the season with the Wolves totaling 26 points (six goals, 20 assists) and 136 penalty minutes in 73 matches. Coburn was called up for nine games that season due to injuries among Atlanta’s blue line and tallied an assist and four penalty minutes in Thrasher blue.
Coburn’s first appearance in the NHL came at the BankAtlantic Center, October 5, 2005, in a 2-0 loss to the Florida Panthers. This game also marked the resurgence of a groin problem in highly touted netminder, Kari Lehtonen, that plagued the team the rest of the season (and has resurfaced again recently in 2007).
Also to be noted, Coburn, a veteran of the Canadian World Junior Hockey Championship team that brought home the gold in Grand Forks, ND and silver in Helsinki, Finland in 2005 and 2004 respectively, had experience skating with a few young Flyers. Jeff Carter and Mike Richards were both members of the gold medal squad in addition to Rejean Beauchemin (drafted in 2003 by the Flyers), and Alexandre Picard – a defenseman in the Flyers system currently playing for AHL-affiliate Phantoms – who was cut from the championship roster following selection camp.
At practice prior to last Tuesday’s game versus the Thrashers, Coburn cited these familiar faces as a reason why he has settled into the locker room so well: “It’s been real easy. I knew a lot of guys coming in, beforehand, and we’ve got a real tight group here.”
After arriving in Philadelphia, Coburn finished the season with the Flyers, debuting the orange and black on February 27, 2007 in an overtime loss in Long Island versus Rick DiPietro and the Islanders, which also marked his 22nd birthday.
Coburn’s first NHL goal came on March 4, 2007 in an overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. With 6:20 remaining in the first period, a shot from just inside the blue line managed to hop the pad of Marc-Andre Fleury giving the Flyers a 2-0 lead heading into the first intermission. On the assist were Picard and Richards, who has become another key element to Philadelphia’s successes thus far in the season with nine points (five goals, four assists), second only to Daniel Briere.
So far this season, Coburn has two assists, both exhibiting his impressive mobility and speed on the ice. In particular, in last Saturday’s overtime win versus the Carolina Hurricanes, Coburn single-handedly set up the Flyer’s top scoring line with a backhand pass that was tapped to Simon Gagne by Briere. Gagne was poised for an easy shot inside John Grahame’s left post putting the orange and black on the board.
According to Coburn, “[Skating] seems to have always been a strength to my game, ever since I was a little kid and I always have tried to make sure I’m working on it…”
Coburn’s successes thus far and average ice-time of 19:36 per game, leave some to question why he had such difficulty cracking the top six defensive roles in Atlanta. According to Coburn, it was just a matter of giving him the ice time.
“I’ve gotten a chance to play a lot [with the Flyers], and play in a lot of different situations. I think that’s the biggest thing. Just being able to get a good opportunity to play.” Furthermore he added, “I’ve been able to fit in with what they’re trying to do here and have had a lot of good help from the coaches and my defensive partner Hatch.”
So far, the pairing of Coburn and Hatcher has the highest even-strength time on ice per game and sees about 23 shifts in each contest. The pair is also tied at a plus/ minus rating of six, falling second among defensemen behind Randy Jones who boasts a plus eight rating.
In keeping with the theme of success and confidence that has been buzzing around the locker room and many Philadelphia publications, Coburn has said that he feels the Flyers organization has confidence in him, a theme echoed by head coach John Stevens. General Manager Paul Holmgren, in particular, has noted that there are many aspects of Coburn’s game that appeal to the organization. Former Thrasher’s teammate Niclas Havelid was quoted on the topic in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution late last season, “when [Coburn] gets his confidence up, he’ll be a great player.”
In response to all this talk of confidence, Coburn replied, “I think once you get to play and you have those successes, that’s a good way to build confidence and that’s what I’ve been able to do here so far.”
As for his approach to the game itself, Coburn can’t cite anyone in particular that he compares his style of play to, “I just try to do what comes natural and do what’s in the system, and try to keep it simple for myself,” Coburn explained.
In speaking with John Stevens prior to last Thursday’s contest versus the Devils, a lot of focus was put on the squad’s young defensemen “taking care of things in their own zone” in addition to being “involved on the attack” a style of play described in relation to 26-year-old, New Brunswick, CA native, aforementioned Jones.
In response to focus on the “two-way aspect” of his game, Coburn stated “You’ve always got to be joining the rush and helping the attack.” Coburn then interjected, “Obviously to play defense you’ve got to play in your own end and you’ve got to be good in that department.”
Upon entering the team’s official website, visitors are greeted with a flash animation sporting the “Back With a Vengeance” theme and citing SI.com referring to the Philadelphia team as the “Most improved team in the NHL.”
When asked about what is being coined the fastest rebuild in pro sports history, Coburn explains, “Right now, we’re trying to build for a full season. We’re really happy with the guys we’ve got in the room, and I think we’ve got a good bunch so we just want to keep trying to win games.”
Winning games is the plan as the Flyers head into an eight game road trip starting in Sunrise, Florida with stops in Tampa Bay, Boston, Montreal, Washington, Manhattan, and Newark. Although the team will be back in Voorhees, NJ for practices following the contest in Red Sox country, the team will not be seen at the Wachovia Center until November 10 versus captain Sidney Crosby and cross-state rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
As for Coburn, the young defenseman is relying heavily on the mentorship of defensive partner, Hatcher, a task that Hatcher has taken squarely on his 6’5″ shoulders. So far Coburn seems receptive to the responses of his coaching staff and leadership and continues to grow as a player. Coach Stevens seems to think that, at 22, Coburn has just barely tapped into a reserve of talent and strength that will carry him into his NHL career.
In a transcript from an NHL.com chat with 2003′s first round draft picks, Coburn was asked “How does it feel knowing you are another prospect on a team with Kovalchuk and [now Ottawa Senator] Heatley on it?” The then 18-year-old’s response was “It’s a really great honor to be associated with those guys. It’s some big shoes for me to fill. Fortunately I have size 15 feet.” This exchange almost emulates the environment of the Flyer’s locker room. Although there is a light hearted air of camaraderie and good times, there is an ever-present theme of honoring the traditions of Flyers past and the expectations of the organization’s present and future.
As Coburn continues to hone his game, one can hope he will be influenced by the physicality of teammates Hatcher and captain Jason Smith. But most importantly, with the almost scientifically calculated mix of chemistry, leadership, and talent, there is no doubt that the Flyer’s locker room is one of the best possible homes for this young defenseman to develop and grow.