The Philadelphia Flyers are in Hockey Hell. After getting shitkicked 9-0 by the New York Rangers, increasingly existential questions are starting to be raised. Why am I here? What is defense? Is hockey even real?
Unfortunately, hockey is real and the Flyers are currently pretty bad at it compared to some teams around the league. But that’s just currently; they have shown dominance in the not-so-distant past and were considered true Stanley Cup contenders at that time.
Hell, if they didn’t end up facing a defensively-elite New York Islanders team that just knew exactly what buttons to push against the Flyers’ offense in the second round of the playoffs last year, they could have gone farther and warranted a little more praise for how they are currently built.
All of that came crumbling down with the boot out of the playoffs and one member of the blue line deciding to hang up his skates. Matt Niskanen announced his retirement with one year left on his contract and GM Chuck Fletcher seemingly not really having a solid foundation of a plan for his replacement. Defensively-aloof Erik Gustafsson was brought in but he’s nothing more than a quasi-powerplay specialist and a frustrating bottom-pairing defenseman.
It was reported that Fletcher was initially caught “off guard” and asked Niskanen to think the decision over before finalizing it. Unfortunately, the veteran blueliner continued with his first instinct and retired. While it’s easy to sit here and point several fingers at management and wonder why they weren’t more prepared and immediately lined up a few plans depending on the outcome, it was expected that the young defensemen of Travis Sanheim and Phillippe Myers would excel in larger roles and collectively replace Niskanen’s contribution.
While both players have had down years compared to last season, it’s an underlying problem with the overall team. As Maddie Campbell so wonderfully put in her observations of the Rangers collapse:
When the whole team has seemingly decided to turn off their brains and throw all semblance of defense into the wind, that’s an issue larger than one player can fix. So then it becomes about making more than one addition, or changes to the system, or waiting for an act of god that allows the team to settle back into a stronger defensive game. Which is all to say that more than one thing has to give.
That was more in regards to adding a player of Mattias Ekholm’s ilk at the trade deadline, but it goes both ways. One absence should not greatly affect the team to this extent. It was an issue that previously existed and it has taken multiple downward trajectories to get highlighted. A team with average expected metrics last season that was muted by a top-5 shooting percentage has come crashing back to earth and all we have left is to look at what’s different.
With Niskanen’s name being brought up with every single goal against, it’s truly time to put that in the past and stop dreaming of what this Flyers team could have been if he remained on the blue line for the last year of his contract. It was an easy conversation to have at the beginning of this season and as the losses were slowly adding up, but now this is beyond any real point of blame.
I don’t think anything that the 34-year-old defender could have hypothetically done would prevent the league’s worst 5-on-5 save percentage currently from being a below-average one. Or a bang-average team in both for and against expected goal rates to be anything more than that. As stated before, not one player could make that much of a difference to the overall team’s success.
Sure, it would have been better with him on the top pairing. Some semblance of stable self-prevention could have prevented a couple losses, but even at the top of his game and heralded as a constant presence, he was eighth on the team in overall Goals Above Replacement and third among defensemen—and even only barely above Travis Sanheim. By all counts created by much smarter people than myself, Niskanen was surely a useful player, but is not the sole reason why this team is spiraling down into the depths of sports depression.
All I want is his name to stop popping up whenever the Flyers have a bad game. He would not have changed that much and he deserves some peace. There are grander on-ice problems at hand than an old dude deciding to not play during a pandemic.