The NHL offseason officially began less than 48 hours ago and it didn’t take long for Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher to go to work. He acquired defenseman Matt Niskanen from the Washington Capitals for defenseman Radko Gudas.
Technically, this was the second trade of the offseason for Fletcher, who acquired the rights to free-agent forward Kevin Hayes on June 3. A deal still needs to get done before June 23 for Hayes, or he can begin to speak and negotiate with other teams ahead of free agency opening on July 1.
Unlike that deal, which doesn’t guarantee Hayes suits up for the Orange and Black, Niskanen is going to definitely be a part of the Flyers in 2019-20. He has two years remaining on his contract with a cap hit of $5.75 million. The Flyers also retained 30 percent of Gudas’ $3.35 million cap hit next season.
On the surface, the deal made little sense for the Flyers, who are gambling on Niskanen returning to his 2013-17 form -- he was a valuable piece and leader on the Capitals Stanley Cup team in 2017-18 -- after a down season in 2018-19. Perhaps playing for a new team after five seasons in Washington will be able to bring the 32-year-old defenseman back to his form.
What intrigues the Flyers in regards to Niskanen is that he is a right-handed shot that has played 20-plus minutes per game on average in his entire time in Washington. If the Flyers were looking for a Top-4 upgrade, in their eyes, they got it. Gudas, who looked like a perfect fit on the Flyers third pairing next season after a very consistent 2018-19 season -- which won him the Barry Ashbee Award as best defenseman on the team -- performed similarly, if not better than, Niskanen did.
Injuries have also gotten in the way for Niskanen, though he played 80 games last season.
So why make this deal? The Flyers are holding out hope that Niskanen’s on-ice performance improves to form while his off-ice intangibles serve as the immediate value. Niskanen has gone the distance with a team before. He’s been the veteran in a group of young defensemen. He’s had to be a leader, saying on Friday that he “grew into” the role.
Veteran presence is going to be important to the Flyers next season. It’s why adding Kevin Hayes made a lot of sense for 20-year-old Nolan Patrick. It could help take the pressure off. Niskanen’s presence could help take some pressure off of Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim and Phil Myers. Niskanen knows the wealth of potential that the Flyers have on the blue line and wants to be a guide.
“They have two or three young studs that are offensively talented, gifted, they have good instincts, they move the puck well, assist in the offense,” Niskanen said. “I envision myself being a really good partner for one of these young studs, trying to give them confidence to do the things that they do well, and I’ll be right beside them. I think I can help one of these guys, or maybe a couple of them at different points in the year, to keep getting better, do the things they do well, play a more rounded game, play some good minutes. I’m excited about the challenge and the opportunity.”
That’s why this trade was made. Gudas had a role with the Flyers, but was ultimately an expendable player because the focus lies on the rest of the young core. It rides on Shayne Gostisbehere, assuming he’s not part of the offseason changes as well, returning to his offensive form next season. It rides on Provorov being the high-end defenseman he was in his rookie season and his second season. It rides on the continued growth of Sanheim and Myers.
Those are the pieces that really matter. Niskanen is not here to be the answer. He’s here to be the guide, to be the complement piece to the “young studs” the Flyers are trying to build around. Fletcher told Niskanen as much. He told him that the team is “ready to pop.”
That will serve as the measure of success for this trade. Niskanen’s individual performance certainly factors in, but if the play of Provorov, Gostisbehere, Sanheim and Myers is all significantly improved from what it was last season, that’s a victory for the Flyers. So while on the surface it may seem like the Flyers didn’t make an upgrade, understand that the addition isn’t necessarily for an immediate upgrade on paper, but a leader in the room who can help the young defensemen. If their performance improves, they become the upgrade, not Niskanen.
Niskanen, from afar, has always had a pulse on the Flyers. Prior to his five seasons in Washington, he spent four in Pittsburgh, locked into a heated rivalry with the Flyers. Last season, as the Flyers struggled throughout November, December and into mid-January, Niskanen remembered an exchange he had with a teammate.
“I know they missed the playoffs last year, but I remember saying to a teammate, they should be doing better than they are,” Niskanen said. “They have good people, dangerous players, talented forwards, a young group of D that can really play, they’re just young, I think. They’re on the upswing I think. It was hard to play against the Flyers. Good organization, they play the game hard, they play to win. Lot of promise there.”
Now Niskanen joins that young team as a veteran presence on a group that feels like they are just a few moves away from a significant improvement.
A summer of change is certainly upon us, and again, it was only the beginning of a lot of things to come.