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Will the Flyers’ new additions on defense actually be markedly better?

GM Chuck Fletcher is banking that a pair of veteran additions, and a coaching staff shakeup will be the remedy for the blue line blues.

Washington Capitals v San Jose Sharks Photo by Brandon Magnus/NHLI via Getty Images

The Flyers moved fast in remaking their blue line since the end of last season, but will the changes actually make the unit better or are we headed for more of the same this year.

In all there aren’t too many changes coming on the back end, but GM Chuck Fletcher did swap out Radko Gudas for Matt Niskanen in a trade with the Capitals, and then acquired Justin Braun for a pair of draft picks just prior to the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. There was also some addition by subtraction, with Andrew MacDonald finally receiving a buyout to get the Flyers out from under one of their worst personnel decisions in years.

But while Niskanen and Braun are in and Gudas is out, there’s also the in-house options on the rise like the finally healthy Samuel Morin and the likely season-long presence of Philippe Myers in the lineup. Though the Flyers’ defense appears to be filled out for the most part, there’s still Mark Friedman in Lehigh Valley as a potential call up should one be needed.

Potential Flyers Defense Pairings

Provorov Niskanen
Gostisbehere Braun
Sanheim Myers

The trades for veterans Niskanen and Braun fill out the Flyers’ defense, and features three right-hand shots to give the coaching staff a lot of options as far as pairings go. Should he sign a contract of some sort, Ivan Provorov slides in with Niskanen while Gostisbehere gets a pairing with the defensive-minded Braun. In this scenario that leaves Travis Sanheim and Myers together in what could be an exciting pairing.

With the three pairings as shown above, that leaves both Robert Hagg and Samuel Morin on the outside looking in. Unless Fletcher has a secret Gostisbehere trade in the works that he’s keeping very under wraps, of course. You could do worse than Hagg and Morin as extras, especially given that either would hopefully slide into a third pairing role should an injury to the regular six occur.

With that said, is that six better than the six that the Flyers iced at most times a year ago? On paper, yes, but that also assumes that all parties stay away from an long-term or major injuries with Morin a relative unknown and Hagg evolving into a mitigated disaster. It’s also safe to say that Niskanen —at worst— is a wash with Gudas, who did enjoy his best season a pro last year, and Braun is an upgrade over the combination of MacDonald/Hagg.

But while things look better on paper, the underlying numbers suggest otherwise. Using Evolving Wild’s WAR (Wins above replacement), the Flyers actually went backwards. Both Niskanen (-.3 WAR) and Braun (-1.6 WAR) were considered below replacement level while both Gudas (+1 WAR) and MacDonald (+.9 WAR) graded out better. Removing Hagg (and his -1.8 WAR) from the everyday lineup looks like a supreme bet to improve the defense alone, but judging the two veterans off of their performance last season doesn’t appear to favor the Flyers here.

It’s also important to view the veterans with some context here as well, because the track record of their careers shows above-average NHL-caliber defenders.

For Niskanen, his 2018-19 numbers could very well be the result of a Stanley Cup hangover, a culmination of several extended playoff runs in recent seasons with both Pittsburgh and Washington, and a outlying poor season. Playing in all 24 games during the Caps’ Cup run capped a six-season stretch where Niskanen played in at least 12 playoff games in addition to the regular season. The Caps also weren’t shy about partying all summer so he could have had a dreaded combination of actual fatigue and Cup fatigue. The Minnesota native also posted the worst Corsi For Relative of his career at -3.2% after a decade of plus play. The Flyers are banking that Niskanen, who turns 33 on December 6th, will rebound.

For Braun, it could be a case of simply being surrounded by elite, elite defensemen in San Jose. The Sharks, if you hadn’t heard, have a couple of guys named Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns who tend to tilt the ice towards the offensive zone for their club while other defenders are left to take a slew of defensive zone draws and situations. In the last three years, Braun has started 59.8% of his shifts in the defensive zone and has a -5.86% Corsi For Relative in that same span. Perhaps he could get a break this season with Provorov/Niskanen ticketed for shutdown minutes while he teams with the offensively gifted Gostisbehere to form a steady pair with clearly defined roles.

Time will certainly tell if Fletcher’s moves will actually make the Flyers’ defense better, but another thing that would go a long way would be to have the players already in place to play to their abilities. You could argue that Provorov and Gostisbehere took steps back while Sanheim showed his ability in flashes, but wasn’t consistently good while Myers didn’t get enough time to really get a read on.

A lot needs to happen for the Flyers’ defense to turns things around, but the pieces are in place to do so and Fletcher is certainly banking on this group going from a weakness into a strength. He —and Carter Hart— better hope he’s right, or it’s gonna be a long season.

Statistics and information courtesy of Hockeyreference and Evolving Hockey