In just one season, Matt Niskanen made himself indispensable on the Philadelphia Flyers’ blue line.
Then, he abruptly retired in October, with one season left on a contract that would have paid him $5.75 million (minus this season’s 20% escrow deduction and 10% salary deferral, of course).
“I don’t think he wanted to get ready for another season by Nov. 15 and then have to go into isolation and be away from his two kids and his wife,” Niskanen’s agent, Neil Sheehy, told Ken Campbell of The Hockey News about the reasoning behind his client’s decision.
“I think because of Covid and his experience of the bubble, he decided now is the time. He basically said, ‘With Covid, I just don’t want to do it. I don’t want to prepare anymore.’”
Niskanen’s Flyers Legacy
Chuck Fletcher swung a solid trade in June of 2019, when he acquired Niskanen from the Washington Capitals in exchange for Radko Gudas. He swapped a rugged blueliner for one who could be impactful at both ends of the ice.
Niskanen stepped directly onto Philadelphia’s top pairing. He teamed up with Ivan Provorov at even strength and on the penalty kill, and chipped in on the power play. His personal numbers were solid. He had eight goals and 33 points in the shortened season, for the third-best offensive total in his career. He also helped the Flyers improve their goals against from third-worst in 2018-19 to seventh-best in the league, and go from 26th to 11th-best when shorthanded.
Perhaps most importantly, Niskanen helped Provorov rebound from a sub-par third pro season, both offensively and defensively. With 13 goals and 36 points when the season was paused last March, the big Russian had been poised to hit career highs in both categories.
With the halfway point of the 2020-21 campaign now approaching, Ivan Provorov has tallied just four goals so far, but his 14 points are on pace with his best previous seasons. And while he’s still leading the Flyers in ice time, averaging more than 25 minutes a game, it’s Provorov’s defensive game that has taken a hit without Niskanen to back him up.
The Flyers have struggled in the month of March, especially on the back end. They’ve lost five of their eight games through Tuesday. They’re tied with Nashville for 27th in the league in goals against during that time, at 4.13. And their penalty kill is ranked 19th during that stretch, with a success rate of 77.8 percent.
Mix And Match Pairs
A week after Niskanen’s retirement, Fletcher inked defenseman Erik Gustafsson to a one-year contract on Day 3 of the NHL’s 2020 free-agency period. The 29-year-old Swede has had his moments offensively, particularly on the power play, but he and Shayne Gostisbehere play similar games.
Gostisbehere has had his defensive struggles lately, but has been putting up points. As a result, Gustafsson has been a healthy scratch in six of Philadelphia’s last nine games.
With the Flyers’ heavy schedule this month, Alain Vigneault has been trying to ease the workload for his defensemen by rotating them in and out of the lineup. But there isn’t much depth to pull from, especially since Mark Friedman was lost to Pittsburgh on waivers last month. After scoring in his Flyers debut against New Jersey back in January, Nate Prosser hasn’t fared nearly as well in his recent call-up from the taxi squad, taking the place of Robert Hagg.
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Making A Deadline Deal
We’re now less than four weeks out from the April 12 trade deadline. The Flyers are currently outside of a playoff position in the East Division. Blue-line help seems like the best way to improve their odds of getting to the dance, at least.
The top name on TSN’s Trade Bait Chart is Mattias Ekholm of the Nashville Predators. He’s a reliable, big-bodied blueliner who’s under contract for one more season at a very reasonable $3.75 million. The only drawback is that he’s a left shot, so he wouldn’t be a natural fit with Provorov.
What about No. 2 — David Savard of Columbus? He’s 30, the same as Ekholm, and he’s a righty. He’s also a pure rental, heading toward unrestricted free agency on the final year of a deal with a cap hit of $4.25 million.
The Buffalo Sabres are back in ‘sell’ mode. Right-handed blueliners Brandon Montour and Colin Miller are among the players on the TSN list. Though Kevyn Adams is said to be open for business, he may not want to deal with a division rival like the Flyers, even a temporary one.
Then, there’s the talented but troublesome former New York Ranger Tony DeAngelo. He has been sitting on the sidelines since the end of January, after getting into an altercation with his teammate Alexandar Georgiev. DeAngelo is more of an offensive defenseman in the mold of Gostisbehere or Gustafsson. He may not be the fit that Philadelphia is looking for.
Of course, the Flyers aren’t the only team looking to shore up its defense. But one area where they hold an advantage in their salary-cap management. According to CapFriendly, as of Mar. 16, 16 of 31 teams are operating in long-term injury reserve, which could make player acquisition very tricky. The Flyers have not been in LTIR this year and are showing $1.8 million in current cap space. It’s not much, but it could be of help when the bidding starts in earnest for this year’s prime trade-deadline targets.