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In adding Matt Niskanen, did the Flyers upgrade their defense?

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And who are the Capitals getting in Radko Gudas?

Washington Capitals v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

Three days ago Chuck Fletcher made another move, this time in an attempt to bolster the Flyers’ defensive corps. In the one-for-one deal, he sent Radko Gudas to Washington and recieved Matt Niskanen in return. The Flyers are also retaining 30% of Gudas’s salary, which results in a $1,005,000 cap hit for one season.

By retaining salary in the trade the Flyers made it clear that not only do they feel that Niskanen is a better fit than Gudas, but an exceptionally better fit. They wouldn’t have agreed to the deal if they didn’t believe that to be true, of course.

But how true is that exactly?


What he’s shown of late isn’t the Niskanen of old

A few short seasons ago Niskanen was a legitimate top-pair defender on a very good Washington team. Acquiring that player would be a no-brainer, and would result in Ivan Provorov having the veteran, right-shot defensive partner that many believe he needs. But Niskanen hasn’t been that player for two seasons now.

SB Nation’s Capitals blog, Japers’ Rink, explored the veteran defenseman’s declining play last season, and found that a hand injury he sustained all the way back in October of 2017 coincided with his drop-off in performance. As the season progressed there were signs of improvement, as he was essentially a break even play driver by both Corsi and Expected Goals from February through the end of the regular season, but he still wasn’t the truly great defenseman that he had once been.

Breaking down his numbers by offense and defense, it becomes clear that Niskanen’s statistical decline has been driven more by his offensive impact than his defensive one. Even in his early Washington days he wasn’t driving offense relative to his team, but it took a turn for the worse last season. His -4.83 Corsi-For per 60 minutes RelT ranks last among all Capitals defenders, and his -0.44 Expected Goals For per 60 minutes RelT ranks last among all Capitals skaters. Simply put, Washington generated dangerous scoring chances at their lowest rate when Niskanen was on the ice.

He still had a positive impact defensively, though not as strong as they were used to seeing from him. Still, his -0.29 Expected Goals Against per 60 minutes RelT was beat by only Jonas Siegenthaler, who only appeared in 26 games, and Nick Jensen who played with Detroit for the majority of the season. It seems that when Niskanen took the ice not only did the Capitals find it harder to generate dangerous chances, but their opponents did as well.

This is reflected in Dom Luszczyszyn’s metric, Game Score, although his defensive impact doesn’t look as strong when compared to the rest of the league.

via Dom Luszczyszyn

Last season Niskanen had a Game Score Added Value (GSAV) of -0.1, suggesting that he was a slightly below average defenseman. By comparison, Gudas’s GSAV of 1.1 suggests that he provided top-four value this season. It does take into account usage, and while Niskanen faced tougher competition, he also played with better teammates than Gudas on average.

Now, the positive here is that the model does project “Nisky” to have a bit of a bounce back season, and sees him providing top four quality on-ice value once more.

Plus, there are tangible reasons to believe that he’ll rebound as well. To go along with his generally solid finish to the season, he was still performing well via Corey Sznajder’s manually tracked statistics over the last two seasons. In the 37 Capitals games tracked two seasons ago, Niskanen had a 42.3 possession exit percent, which was the second best on the team, and through 22 games this past season his 40.7 possession exit percent ranks first among lineup regulars. He clearly hasn’t lost the ability to make a clean pass up the ice.

On the other hand, Niskanen will turn 33 in December and it’s entirely possible that his performance in ‘18-19 wasn’t just a blip, and is simply the player that he is now.

More recently the Capitals have made a few shrewd moves to improve their aging blue line, and they’re hoping that they’ve found another. Ahead of the 2018 NHL trade deadline they acquired Michal Kempny from the Chicago Blackhawks, and this past season made a similar addition in Nick Jensen via the Detroit Red Wings. While Jensen wasn’t as under the radar as Kempny — the former did average over 20 minutes per game with Detroit prior to the trade — they both were seen as players who could probably succeed in a big role on a higher caliber team if given the chance. This is especially true for Kempny, who went from receiving third pair minutes in Chicago to being a key cog in the Stanley Cup winning Capitals’ defense.

It’s not hard to envision a scenario where they’ve found another underutilized defenseman in Gudas, but it’s far from a guarantee.

How “Gud” is Gudas?

In today’s NHL Gudas is a bit of an anomaly. He doesn’t possess above average puck skills, nor is he the fastest of skaters, yet he’s been able to get the job done by playing more of a vintage “defensive defenseman” style. The good ones are rare, but still do exist.

Over the last three seasons no Flyers defenseman has a better Corsi-For percent (CF%) RelT than Gudas, and only Travis Sanheim has a better Expected Goals-For percent (xGF%) RelT than Gudas. But if he’s not an above average puck mover, and isn’t particularly adept at denying zone entries, what causes his results to appear so strong?

Gudas does shoot the puck a ton, but that doesn’t mean that he’s broke Corsi. That’d be the case if his on-ice results were driven by a plethora of shots coming from the point, but in actuality it’s his ability suppress dangerous shot attempts against that carries more of the blame.

Negative defense is good.
via Micah Blake McCurdy

He accomplishes this by making strong reads in defensive coverage, winning board battles, and delivering hits that actually cause a change in possession. Of course not every hit he throws accomplishes that, and he’ll still take himself out of position at times, but generally speaking he seems to make his hits count for a bit more on average.

So if what we’re saying is true, and he’s such a good defensive player, then why weren’t the Flyers playing him more? And more importantly, why do they feel that Niskanen is such a significant upgrade? Some of this likely stems from his recent history as a member of the Flyers’ top four. Because when he’s been given those minutes lately, he’s faltered. Or at least it appears that way.

Going back four years, his first in Philadelphia, Gudas and Michael Del Zotto served as the team’s top defensive pair following Mark Streit’s ... injury. You know, that injury. The success of the pairing was a pleasant surprise for the Flyers, as they went on to post a CF% of 54.99, and an xGF% of 53.96. Each figure was well north of the team’s, leading to the pair’s +7.26 CF% relative and +8.81 xGF% relative. One good season four years ago doesn’t tell us what he’s capable of now though, so let’s continue.

One year later, in the 2016-2017 campaign, Gudas found playing time in the Flyers’ top-four again, mainly alongside Brandon Manning. The pair performed fine, but they were no where near as good as Gudas and Del Zotto were the season prior, or when they were reunited in that same season.

Then came the 2017-2018 season, where Gudas began the year with then-rookie Sanheim. It’s been discussed here many times already how the two had awful puck luck, represented by the duo’s 94.9 PDO, which ultimately led to Sanheim’s removal from the lineup for an extended period of time. With Sanheim in the AHL, Gudas was back playing with Manning again, and while they were about a break even Corsi pair, the team noticeably struggled to get out of their own zone whenever they stepped onto the ice.

And then this past season Gudas’s numbers hit a new low alongside Robert Hagg, but his own play seemed to be elevated from the season prior. Despite horrendous numbers from the pair (42.57% CF, 42.87% xGF) Gudas was able to leave the season with a +2.45 CF% RelT and a +3.64 xGF% RelT. His results away from Hagg were strong enough to bring his shot metrics up to respective levels of 49% and 51%.

In sum, Gudas began his Flyers career as a strong, yet unconventional top-pair defender with Del Zotto, who arguably had the best season of his NHL career. This was followed by a middle-pair role with Manning that went just OK. He then played with Sanheim in a bottom-pair role and had every mistake they — mostly Sanheim — made wind up in the back of the net, burying them in goal differential. And finally, after struggling with Manning in a top-four role through the latter half of the regular season and the playoffs that year, he played a mixed role last season, mainly with Hagg.

It’s no coincidence that his struggles while playing in the Flyers’ top four can be directly tied to the time he spent with Manning, who found himself in the AHL at times this season, and Hagg, who has struggled to push play in the right direction with any partner. There’s no doubt that Del Zotto having a career year and Sanheim being, well, Sanheim, helped inflate Gudas’s good performances a bit, but the only bad stretches of his Flyers career had come alongside two players who were, at best, number six defensemen.

So is Gudas really incapable of succeeding as a team’s number three or number four defensman, or was he given an impossible task that he ultimately failed to complete?

The Verdict

If the question is who the better player is right now, based on their last three seasons, for me the answer is Gudas. However, given each player’s strengths and weaknesses even those who share that opinion can understand why the Flyers feel that Niskanen is a better fit for the team moving forward.

For better or for worse, it seems that they were no longer confident in Gudas being anything more than a third pair defenseman for them. They were also not comfortable with the idea of Philippe Myers playing top four minutes right out of the gate, which is completely understandable. This meant that unless Gudas or Myers were going to play the left side of the ice, one or both of them wouldn’t have a constant spot in the lineup.

Niskanen is also a much better puck mover than Gudas, and if their goal is to improve their zone exits, they’ve likely done so. Furthermore, the Flyers probably didn’t want to commit to Gudas long-term, and Niskanen should give them an extra year to decide if they need to go out and add another top-four defenseman to the roster, or if someone like Myers is ready to take over.

And speaking of Myers, it seems likely that he’ll be sliding right into Gudas’s previous role, meaning the defense could look something like this barring any other moves being made:

Provorov - Gostisbehere

Sanheim - Niskanen

Morin/Hagg - Myers

It’s not dramatically different from a year ago, but bounce back seasons from Provorov, Gostisbehere, and yes, Niskanen, would go a long way in improving the Flyers record.

If Niskanen is indeed in a 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.

As for the Capitals, there’s no real obvious downside to the move. Niskanen is no longer the high-end player that he used to be, and Jensen, who will likely move up the depth chart as a result of this trade, is better suited for a top four role than he is at the current stages of their careers. Gudas may challenge for a top four spot himself, but seems more likely to serve as one half of the team’s third defensive pair — a role that he has a strong history of performing at a very high level in to date.

To go along with seemingly upgrading their blue line, they’ve gotten themselves out from under the final two years of Niskanen’s contract that carries a $5,750,000 cap hit. While cap space isn’t a problem for the Flyers right now, and likely won’t be a problem for them next Summer either, this was an important move for the Capitals to make for the future of their roster.

They still have big decisions to make in regards to a number of both restricted, and unrestricted free agents this off-season, but it’s the 2020 roster that poses tougher decisions to make, and bigger contracts to hand out. Both Nicklas Backstrom’s and Braden Holtby’s current contracts are set to expire at the end of the 2019-2020 season, and now they’ve freed up just under six million dollars in cap space to help them afford the pay increases that they’ll be looking to receive.

All things considered this trade feels like a slam dunk for Washington, and more of a wait-and-see move for Philadelphia.

Data courtesy of Corsica.hockey, MoneyPuck, Natural Stat Trick, HockeyViz, and CapFriendly.