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Matt Niskanen, Justin Braun proving Chuck Fletcher right

The two biggest trades during the Flyers’ off-season seem to have paid off.

Vegas Golden Knights v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

In an effort to improve team defense, over the Summer Flyers General Manager Chuck Fletcher sought out veteran players who had the reputation of being reliable in their own zone. Specifically, on defense. This led to trades with both the Washington Capitals, and San Jose Sharks, that saw the team acquire Matt Niskanen, and Justin Braun.

While there was a contingent of backers, both trades were criticized at the time, with one of the more prevailing thoughts being that team added two players who were past their primes and, more importantly, whose positive on-ice contributions were no longer outweighing their negative ones. But so far, that hasn’t been the case.

Coming off of a season in which the Flyers allowed the third-most goals against per game, Fletcher made it clear that cutting that number down from their mark of 3.41 was of top priority. Truth is, that number was likely to improve a fair amount even if they had iced the exact same team, provided that the Flyers didn’t have nine goaltenders suit up for them. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that when their new additions on defense have hit the ice, the team has out-shot and out-chanced their opponents considerably.

For Niskanen, standard statistics paint a pretty picture. He sits second on the team in points by a defenseman, and is a plus-player while playing an average of just under 22 minutes a night. But the same cannot be said for Braun. Given that plays that lead to goals get magnified, it’s no surprise that Braun, who has a team-low rating of -10, hasn’t exactly had the warmest of receptions with the Philly faithful. He’s been on the ice for a lot of goals against. However, like Alain Vigneault had said about a few of the team’s early season losses, the results don’t accurately reflect the process.

Turning to Evolving-Hockey’s relative to teammates (RelTM) statistic, which does a better job at pulling out an individual's impact than a regular relative stat would, Braun looks to have been one of the Flyers best defensemen at 5-on-5 through the early portion of this season.

Along with RelTM, Corsi-for percentage (CF%) and Expected Goals-for percentage (xGF%) have been included in the table below for context.

Flyers Defensemen 5v5 Shot Metrics

Player RelTM CA/60 RelTM xGA/60 CF% xGF%
Player RelTM CA/60 RelTM xGA/60 CF% xGF%
Justin Braun -5.88 -0.54 54.48 55.70
Ivan Provorov -2.63 -0.12 54.00 53.64
Travis Sanheim 1.68 -0.08 51.91 52.95
Matt Niskanen -0.10 0.10 51.91 52.07
Shayne Gostisbehere 0.86 0.37 50.20 42.62
Robert Hagg 6.04 0.06 46.51 46.39
Philippe Myers 5.27 -0.01 46.54 44.54
Data is Score and Venue adjusted; Negative is good.

While most of the above numbers match the perception surrounding their starts to the season, two players in particular stand out — Braun, and Philippe Myers. While Myers no doubt has the tools to become a very good defenseman in this league, that hasn’t been the case to date. And, again, with goals being the most memorable part of the game, it’s no surprise that Braun’s on-ice save percentage at 5-on-5 is a team-low 86.86%, while Myers has benefited from a team-high 95.62%. Throw in the fact that the former is a veteran with one year remaining on his contract while the latter is an up-and-comer with a ton of potential, and it’s easy to get caught up in the narrative. I certainly bought into it.

If the Flyers continue to own ~54% of the shot share and ~55% of the expected goal share at 5-on-5 with Braun on the ice, his goal differential and plus-minus will improve.

When it comes to Niskanen, visually speaking he’s been outstanding so far, breaking up numerous odd-man rushes and just being sound positionally. His offensive contributions have been great, and needed given Shayne Gostisbehere’s struggles, and his assumed impact on Ivan Provorov, who has been enjoying his best start to a season in his young career, has been an added bonus.

Both defensemen have also played a large role on the Flyers much improved penalty kill that currently sits third in the league in success rate.

It’s worth noting that Radko Gudas seems to have gotten off to a good start with the Capitals as well, so while Niskanen has successfully filled a role that the Flyers desperately needed to be filled, it’s a trade that has worked out for both teams so far.

All things considered, both trades probably fall in favor of the Flyers right now, but it was far from a guarantee when the deals went down. Depending on who you talk to, those who watched a lot of Braun’s play in San Jose either came away thinking he was severely underrated or severely overrated, all depending on what a person values in a defenseman. And Niskanen had showed legitimate signs of decline just a season ago, though there were reasons to believe that he still had more to give, like a strong finish to the season and still-good transition stats at the time.

From back when the trade was first announced:

If Niskanen is indeed in an irreversible decline, then they’ve made the team’s defense worse. But if he’s capable of playing at the level that he did over the final two months of the season, then they’ve added a solid top-four defenseman who can help their transition game — something Gudas didn’t do for them.

Turns out he was not in an irreversible decline after all, and has not only helped their transition game, but has helped them in just about every facet. So credit Fletcher and co., the Flyers have been a much better team when their newest acquisitions on defense have been out there on the ice.

Data used courtesy of Evolving-Hockey and Hockey-Reference.

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