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How will the Flyers fill the hole left by Matt Niskanen on the top pair?

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The Flyers have a Matt Niskanen-sized hole on their blue line after his unexpected retirement this offseason.

Buffalo Sabres v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

The Philadelphia Flyers were caught off guard when Matt Niskanen decided to retire at the beginning of the offseason. The veteran defenseman was penciled in as the team’s top right defenseman after helping form a strong top pair with Ivan Provorov last season. However, Niskanen rode off into the sunset and the Flyers are hoping that it won’t be too big of an issue for them this season.

Niskanen played nearly 22 minutes a night, including on the power play and penalty kill. He was a steady presence on the top pair that could be relied on in all situations. There were some thoughts that the Flyers could replace him via free agency or trade, but that didn’t really happen. So here we are, just days before the season opener, and the Flyers have largely the same defensive group that they did last season.

Did the Flyers do enough to replace Matt Niskanen?

When it comes to the question of “Did the Flyers do enough to replace Matt Niskanen?”, the answer is pretty simple: they did not.

How did the Flyers attempt to replace their top-pairing defenseman that played in all situations? They extended the contract of Justin Braun, another aging veteran who may not have been returning, and added two defensemen in free agency: Derrick Pouliot and Erik Gustafsson.

Pouliot is a career AHL/NHL tweener with slightly more games in the NHL (202) than AHL (172) over his six-year career. Last year he played in 58 AHL games and just two NHL games with the St. Louis Blues. He is certainly not going to replace Niskanen and probably won’t be seeing any NHL action unless the Flyers have a few injuries on the blue line.

Gustafsson is an interesting addition, however. While he isn’t the all-situation defenseman that Niskanen was, he’s a solid depth defenseman that could have a bounce-back season.

The Swedish defenseman did just have a 17-goal, 60-point season in 2017-18, so it’s not too farfetched to think he could return to form under a coach that plays a similar system to the one he played in during that season.

Even with that, it’s pretty easy to argue that the Flyers did not do enough during the offseason to replace Niskanen.

But maybe they didn’t need to.

Will the Flyers be able to make up for Matt Niskanen’s absence?

The bigger question is if the Flyers have enough defensive depth with in-house options to replace Niskanen. That includes the growth of young defensemen, overall team defense from an improved forward corps, and the team already knowing the system they’re playing heading into the second year under Alain Vigneault.

If you look at the Niskanen situation in that light, it’s a lot easier to argue that the Flyers will be able to fill the hole left by Niskanen on the top pair.

We still aren’t sure who exactly will fill that Niskanen role on the top pair with Ivan Provorov, but the Flyers have a few options. Right out of the gate it looks like it will be Braun joining Provorov on the top pair. That duo has played together in training camp and was the top pair for Team Orange during Sunday night’s intrasquad scrimmage.

Provorov and Braun have some familiarity. They started the season together last year before Niskanen was moved up to the top pair. In 104 minutes together at 5-on-5 play, the Provorov-Braun pairing was able to control play to the tune of a 55.45 Corsi-For Percentage and 58.48 Expected Goals-For Percentage, but they were outscored 5-2. I’m not too worried about that 5-2 number, however, due to the Flyers shooting just 4.08 percent with that pair on the ice and Flyers goalies posting a .884 save percentage for a 0.925 PDO. Those are bound to come up with the pair driving play.

The worry with a Provorov-Braun top pair is if the two can continue to play at a high level. Provorov is still young and it’s possible that he could regress a bit after a great season. However, last season may have just been the beginning for Provorov. We’ll have to wait and see.

Braun, on the other hand, is now 33 years old (34 in March) and showed some signs of decline in the playoffs. Was that due to being paired with Robert Hagg or could he see a steep decline this year? There is also the point that Niskanen brought a steady veteran presence – in a good way – to the top pair with Provorov. Braun likely won’t play to the same level that Niskanen did with Provorov, but he’s in a position to hold his own and he shouldn’t hurt the top pair.

The step down from Niskanen to Braun may be something to worry about, but it’s the defensive depth that should be able to make up for it.

Philippe Myers is another candidate that many thought would move up to the top pair with Provorov. However, it looks like Vigneault and Co. are going to keep the strong pair of Travis Sanheim and Myers together; at least for now.

Sanheim and Myers are a young pair that played well together last season. They were the Flyers’ most reliable pair at times when the two were on their game. In 542 minutes together at 5-on-5 play, the pair posted a 51.56 Corsi-For Percentage and 50.15 Expected Goals-For Percentage. Those aren’t great numbers, even if the Flyers were able to outscore the opposition 26-21 with the pair on the ice.

The possession numbers around 50 percent aren’t great, but the duo got better as the season moved along. Up until January 8th, the pair had a 46.39 CF% and 43.74 xGF% in 182 minutes. From January 8th onward, when the Flyers really turned it on, the pair had a 53.99 CF% and 53.05 xGF% in 360 minutes together.

The hope with the Sanheim-Myers pair is that the duo can be a 1B pair to Provorov-Braun’s 1A, with either pair being able to take over a game and shutdown the opposition. And hey, if they don’t, the Flyers always have the option of trying a Provorov-Myers top pair and Sanheim-Braun second pair. Those don’t look too bad on paper either.

Not only do the Flyers potentially have two strong pairs at the top, they have plenty of options to fill out the lineup on the third pair. At the moment it looks like Robert Hagg and Gustafsson will be the third pair, but Shayne Gostisbehere (whose status is up in the air after missing the scrimmage) and even guys like Mark Friedman and Egor Zamula have a chance to help out the Flyers later in the year.

Hell, they even tried a Provorov-Gostisbehere top pairing in camp. The Flyers have enough pieces to move around and be a strong unit on the back end. It’s all about figuring out how the pieces fit.

On top of the defensive depth, the Flyers have an even deeper group of forwards than last season. Nolan Patrick should be good to go for the season opener and he looked pretty damn good in the scrimmage. Oskar Lindblom is back in action as well. The trickle-down effect of adding two forwards like that leaves a fourth line of Michael Raffl, Scott Laughton, and Nicolas Aube-Kubel. The Flyers shouldn’t have any problems rolling four lines and deploying them to help out the defense if necessary.

So, getting back to the main question of the article: How will the Flyers fill the hole left by Matt Niskanen on the top pair?

They’ll rely on the growth of their young players, their depth with seven or eight quality defensemen, and a full-team effort.

Stats via Natural Stat Trick