Chuck Fletcher and the Philadelphia Flyers entered last offseason with defense on their mind. The Flyers allowed a whopping 280 goals against in the 2018-19 season. Something needed to change.
Fletcher made it his mission to improve the team defense all around. After trading for the rights to two-way center Kevin Hayes, Fletcher turned his attention to the blue line. That resulted in two trades for veteran defensemen.
The Flyers had – and have – a young defense corps, so Fletcher upgraded the defense in terms of ability and experience with two trades in mid-June. The Flyers started it off by trading Radko Gudas to the Washington Capitals for fellow right-handed defenseman Matt Niskanen. (We’ll get to Justin Braun, don’t worry).
At the time it looked like a risky trade for the Flyers. Gudas was a known commodity with a lesser cap hit than Niskanen, who was coming off a down year. On top of that, the Flyers retained a portion of Gudas’ salary that pushed them closer to the cap.
However, Niskanen has proved his worth in the first half of the season as a steady presence on the top pair for the Flyers. He has only missed one game this season (due to the flu) and is playing a lot of minutes in all situations.
Alain Vigneault mixed and matched with his defensive pairings early in the season to find what works and once he found the pairing of Niskanen and Ivan Provorov up top, it stuck. Niskanen has been by Provorov’s side as the young defenseman continues to grow this season.
Niskanen has played 699 of his 851 minutes at 5v5 with Provorov so far this season. That pair has been solid for the Flyers against almost any competition. The Provorov-Niskanen pairing has a 52.11% Corsi-For (CF) and 51.71% Expected Goals-For (xGF) in 43.61% offensive zone starts this season while playing tough minutes.
Those numbers aren’t going to jump off the page at you, but they’re solid and right in the middle of the pack among the top-used pairs in the league. Of the 68 pairs that have played 300 or more minutes together, Provorov and Niskanen rank 26th in CF% and 24th in xGF% per MoneyPuck.
Niskanen’s biggest asset to the Flyers might be the steadying presence that he is for Provorov.
Prior to Niskanen’s arrival, Provorov primarily played with a rookie Travis Sanheim, Robert Hagg and Shayne Gostisbehere in 2018-19, a year in which Provorov didn’t exactly have his best season. In those pairings Provorov was relied upon as the “veteran” of the pair to control things and be the guy. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing – nor is it a role that Provorov can’t handle – but it put undue pressure on a young defenseman, especially during those times when he was already struggling himself.
With Niskanen, Provorov can be the guy on his pair when he’s feeling it and playing his A-game. Provorov can take a few more offensive risks because he knows that the veteran defenseman – who has played his whole career on the right side – will be there to cover for him. He can also allow Niskanen to take the reins during his rough patches, should they ever occur. Provorov has been able to thrive this season and that’s due in part to Niskanen.
The veteran defenseman has also helped out the Flyers on special teams. He has taken a role on both the second power-play unit and the penalty kill.
Niskanen has three power-play goals, which is somehow tied for fourth-most on the team. He has helped out the penalty kill’s results as well.
He’s been on the ice for 12 goals against in 130 shorthanded minutes. For reference, Sanheim has been on the ice for 16 goals against in 100 minutes and Braun has been on the ice for 12 goals against in 90 minutes. His goals against per 60 minutes of 5.53 is not only best among Flyers defensemen, but 15th-best among 74 NHL defensemen with 100+ PK minutes
The addition of Niskanen has helped the Flyers in every facet of the game as the veteran defenseman is in the midst of a resurgent season.
The worrying thing about the Niskanen-Gudas trade was primarily whether or not it was enough of an upgrade for what they were paying. The 32-year-old (now 33) Niskanen carries a $5.75 million cap hit for two seasons – plus the $1 millon retained of Gudas’ salary – while the 29-year-old Gudas has a $3.35 million cap hit for just this season. So far it’s safe to say it has been.
Ideally the Flyers wouldn’t have retained any salary, but the $2 million difference has been worth it to provide Provorov with a right-handed top-pairing partner. On top of that, Niskanen has outperformed Gudas this season.
Niskanen has seven goals and 24 points while playing 21:53 per game for the Flyers. Meanwhile, Gudas has two goals and 15 points in a lesser role (17:00 per game) for the Capitals. Niskanen’s underlying numbers are much better as well with a xGF% Rel of +5.48, while Gudas’ is -1.89%. In fact, Niskanen has the 17th-best xGF Rel among 168 defensemen with at least 500 minutes played.
Fletcher’s decision to bring in Niskanen has been a good one so far. Niskanen (and others) has helped the Flyers cut their goals against per game down by half a goal, from 3.41 in 2018-19 to 2.87 through 53 games this season. More importantly, he has given the Flyers a top-pair defenseman that has allowed the rest of the defensemen to slot into roles that are more well-suited for them. He can be relied upon in all situations that can act as a guide and mentor for their young, up-and-coming blueliners.
”He is a veteran right-shot defenseman who has a track record of success as a Stanley Cup champion. Having played heavy minutes in all situations throughout his career, Matt will be a steadying influence to our talented and young group of defensemen,” Fletcher said when acquiring Niskanen.
The success and playoffs are still to come, but Niskanen has been better than advertised so far for the Flyers.
Stats via NaturalStatTrick and MoneyPuck