The Philadelphia Flyers are heading into free agency with an unexpected need.
Matt Niskanen retiring has left a hole on the right side of the Flyers blue line. Re-signing Justin Braun ensures that the Flyers aren’t losing two right defensemen, but he isn’t exactly a top-four guy anymore like Niskanen was.
The Flyers will need to replace Niskanen on the blue line and that’s not going to be an easy task. They have some guys that could step up into bigger roles, but that’s not a guarantee and could be too big of a risk to take if they want to take another step forward next season. On the other hand, they may not want to mortgage their future by trading for a top-pair defenseman or handing out a large contract to a top free agent.
There are really three routes that the Flyers can take to replace Niskanen. They can roll with their in-house options, sign a free agent, or make a trade.
Option 1: Rely on in-house options to fill the gaps
Let’s start with the easiest move: no move at all.
The Flyers may not need to bring in any outside help to fill in for Niskanen. They have six NHL defensemen with five under contract and Philippe Myers set to be re-signed as a restricted free agent.
With Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, and Myers all steadily improving, those three can form a formidable trio as half of the Flyers’ defense corps. The other three aren’t as consistently reliable, however.
Shayne Gostisbehere has had more downs than ups recently, but he could join the top four if he finds his form. Robert Hagg just had his best season so far, but that isn’t saying much as all he proved is that he can be a third-pairing defenseman. Justin Braun was re-signed shortly after Matt Niskanen’s retirement and the two were linked after being acquired last offseason. However, Braun can not eat up top-pair minutes like Niskanen did, and is a bottom-four (or bottom-pair) defenseman at this point in his career.
Along with those six, the Flyers also have Mark Friedman who could fill in as the seventh defenseman. Fletcher even went out of his way to mention Sam Morin in his press conference after Niskanen retired. It’d be better to have Hagg or Gostisbehere as the extra defenseman, but Friedman and Morin could be serviceable.
The Flyers also have several defensive prospects that should be ready to make the jump to the NHL in the next few years. They may not want to lock in another defenseman with term.
This may not be the ideal scenario, but it is certainly a possibility for the Flyers.
Option 2: Sign a free-agent defenseman
If the Flyers want to add some insurance and flexibility on the blue line, they’ll need to add another defenseman. They have six NHL defensemen and a few waiting in the wings, but an injury could derail that. Moreover, they may need another top-four defenseman, or at least second-pair defenseman, if they want to remain a top team in the league.
So, who is available in free agency? Well, there are a few different tiers of defensemen available.
While signing someone like Alex Pietrangelo, Torey Krug, or Tyson Barrie would bolster the blue line in a big way, it would also put the Flyers in a pickle for the coming years. They already have the trio of defensemen (Provorov, Sanheim, Myers) that they’ll need to both pay in the next few years (well, Sanheim and Myers at least) and protect in the expansion draft. A top free agent would take up one of those slots.
Looking down the free-agent list a bit, there are a few options that would be cheaper and more reasonable to sign. Kevin Shattenkirk and Sami Vatanen are two names to keep an eye on.
Shattenkirk proved himself with the Stanley Cup-winning Tampa Bay Lightning after being bought out last offseason. Now he’ll hit the open market and could be willing to sign another short-term deal. The downside is that Shattenkirk wants to stay in Tampa Bay and could take a discount to make that happen.
Vatanen is a solid defenseman who has had success with both the Anaheim Ducks and New Jersey Devils in his career, and he played in seven playoff games with the Carolina Hurricanes this year after being acquired at the trade deadline. The 29-year-old defenseman hasn’t played in more than 72 games in a single season, but could add another option to give the Flyers that flexibility on the blue line.
Justin Schultz and Radko Gudas are two other guys that the Flyers should be less likely to sign, but a reunion could be possible.
Adding a depth defenseman in free agency is a strong possibility for the Flyers. There are several options, including players that the Flyers are familiar with, and adding some insurance will go a long way on defense.
Option 3: Trade for a defenseman
The Flyers may not have their eye on any of the free agents, however. Players typically get overpaid in free agency, and if the Flyers want to add a top-four defenseman to replace Niskanen, a trade could be in the cards.
One of the best right-handed defensemen that is rumored to be available is one that Fletcher knows very well. Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba is at No. 8 on TSN Hockey’s Trade Bait List and could fit perfectly in the Flyers’ plans. The 26-year-old defenseman has a $6 million AAV for the next three years, which might just line up for when Myers’ next contract is set to expire. The Flyers will also likely have a few other young defensemen coming up in two or three years.
Another right-defenseman that is reportedly available is Nate Schmidt. Schmidt is a left-handed shot, but plays on the right side. He would be a solid replacement for Niskanen, but his contract may be a tad too long (and expensive) with him being owed $5.95 million for the next four seasons.
It was reported just last night that David Savard is being shopped by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Not only would he be a good fit for the Flyers on the ice, his contract could slide right in for Niskanen. Niskanen had one year left on his contract at $5.75 million and Savard has one year left at $4.25 million. Savard is a bit cheaper than Niskanen, but can still rack up over 20 minutes a night. He averaged 21:14 per game over the past six seasons for the Blue Jackets.
Dumba would be a pretty big splash and Schmidt a bit less so, while Savard would be a savvy pickup to replace Niskanen for a season.
Chuck Fletcher made quick work of the offseason in 2019 and he could do the same this year. Free agency opens up on Friday at 12 p.m. ET. Hopefully, it’ll be an exciting – and more importantly productive – weekend.