Flyers Sign Defenseman Erik Gustaffson to 1-Year Contract
Well, that is a defenseman. Not the one I expected, or necessarily wanted, but it is a defenseman.
The Philadelphia Flyers announced the signing of 28-year old defenseman Erik Gustafsson to a 1-year, $3 million contract, the latest move in their efforts to restock the blue-line after Matt Niskanen's retirement last week.
If you're an OG Flyers fan that has been following this team hardcore for at least a decade, you're probably wondering, "Didn't the Flyers use to have Erik Gustafsson?" The answer is no. But also yes. The Flyers did have a left-handed defenseman named Erik Gustafsson who played for the team from 2011-2014. But that's a completely different player than the Erik Gustafsson the Flyers signed Monday, whose NHL career didn't begin until 2015.
Erik Gustafsson (the current) Flyer was drafted 93rd overall (round 4, pick 2) in the 2013 NHL Draft by the Edmonton Oilers. Edmonton never signed the young defenseman, who inked his ELC with the Blackhawks as an unrestricted free agent on May 16, 2015. Before the year was up, Gustafsson made his NHL debut with the Hawks. His first two seasons were solid, with Gustafsson scoring 30 points in 76 combined games. But his breakthrough came in 2018-19, when Gustafsson played most of the year on Chicago's top-pair with Duncan Keith, scoring a career-high 60 points (17 goals, 43 assists).
However, 2019-20 proved to be a trying year for Gustafsson, who wasn't quite able to replicate his previous success. Gustafsson had 20 points in 59 games for the Blackhawks before being shipped off to the Flames at the deadline for a 3rd round pick. Between the regular season and the playoffs, Gustafsson's Flames career ended after 17 games with 0 goals and 7 assists.
Just like with the Niskanen and Braun trades last summer, Fletcher is opting to buy low on a once very respected defenseman coming off a disappointing season. However, Gustafsson is far from a straight-up Niskanen substitution. Though Gustafsson can certainly replicate, if not exceed Niskanen's point production, he almost certainly can't match Niskanen's minutes and responsible play at 5-on-5 and the penalty kill. Gustafsson's biggest weakness is by far his defensive play; he's a straight up liability in his own-zone, a very high-risk, high-reward player. Look at these two charts from The Athletic's Dom Luszczyszyn comparing Gustafsson and Alex Pietrangelo, who just signed a 8-year deal at an $8.8 million AAV with the Golden Knights with a full no-move clause.
Gustafsson and Pietrangelo are absolutely pretty similarly across the board. Pietrangelo plays more, and against harder competition, and he's more disciplined. But in terms of offensive production and play-driving, Gustafsson and Pietrangelo grade out very similarly, and Gustafsson is even two years younger. And then you look at defense. Gustafsson is literally in the 2nd percentile among NHL defenseman in terms of defensive play-driving, which in simple terms means he gets shelled on the reg. After being a good play-driver in his first two years in the NHL, playing in a sheltered role, Gustafsson was caved in from a shot quality standpoint (45.97% xGF) and was slightly below average in terms of quantity (49.61% Corsi) at 5-on-5 in the last two regular seasons.
Most of Flyers Twitter didn't seem very thrilled with this acquisition, and I tend to agree with them. It's not that Gustafsson is a bad player, but he doesn't seem to be a great fit. His skillset is very redundant with Shayne Gostisbehere's, and while a Ghost trade is still possible, it doesn't seem imminent, and it doesn't seem likely that's a deal the Flyers would win. I wouldn't have a problem if losing a Ghost trade was necessary to acquire a legitimate Niskanen replacement. But the Flyers just let one fly by right under their noses in Nate Schmidt, a quality blue-liner for Vegas who was shipped off for pennies on the dollar (a 3rd round pick) to Vancouver, one of their divisional rivals. For reference, this is how Dom's model rates Schmidt.
While Schmidt may be slightly overpaid (as you can see in the top right corner, he makes about $200K more than he should for what he provides, but that's nitpicking), he's certainly a more well-rounded defender than Gustafsson, and he's put up those numbers in much tougher minutes than Gustafsson (usage difficulty is their second biggest discrepancy, just behind defensive play-driving, of course). Schmidt also has a partial no-trade clause, but I don't believe that guarantees protection from the Seattle expansion draft, so the Flyers could still protect Provorov, Myers, and Sanheim, and if they lose Schmidt, it's just for a third-round pick - far from a backbreaker for an organization stacked with picks and prospects. It's still possible the Flyers go out and find a great righty to replace Niskanen - David Savard and Matt Dumba are two intriguing options who have reportedly been on the block - but that's far from a guarantee.
If the Flyers don't make another move, it will be very interesting to see how they arrange their blue-line to start this season. It would be very surprising to see Gustafsson get the first crack at playing with Provorov. Travis Sanheim and Shayne Gostisbehere have both played about half a season's worth of games with Provy; Sanheim in 18-19, Ghost in 17-18. The former had more success with Provorov, but after a nightmare 2019-20 season, would the Flyers be willing to throw him into the fire from day one? To be honest, this is what I see as the most likely Flyers d-pairings, barring future moves.
Ivan Provorov-Travis Sanheim
Shayne Gostisbehere-Phil Myers
Erik Gustafsson-Justin Braun
Provorov-Sanheim was the only Flyers d-pair that wasn't murdered from a play-driving standpoint under Scott Gordon, posting just sub-50% Corsi and xGF at 5-on-5. Gostisbehere and Myers also played together some under Gordo, and while their analytical numbers were far from good, at least they have some chemistry, and Myers is a much better player today than he was during his first NHL cup of coffee in early 2019. He's the best righty the Flyers have, but considering he's played just 87 NHL games (and also still needs a new contract), I would also be surprised if he starts the year on the top pair. One reason for acquiring Braun last year was he would be the perfect complement to the offensively-minded Gostisbehere. Those two didn't work together, but the logic behind the move was solid, and maybe it works with Gustafsson, who plays a similar style.
Lastly, the Gustafsson signing leaves the Flyers with about $5.7 million in cap space with a roster of 11 forwards, 7 defensemen, and 2 goaltenders, with a $2,516,667 buyout penalty combined between Andrew MacDonald and David Schlemko, which ends after this year. The club still has two restricted free agents to sign - Myers and Nolan Patrick, who Fletcher said is progressing and his chances of playing in 2020-21 are "promising." The Flyers have also re-upped Brian Elliott (1-year, $1.5 AAV) and Robert Hagg (2-years, $1.6 AAV); two deals I haven't written about yet, so here you ago. Both are low-risk depth moves to sure up some roster spots. Those two will probably combine for about $3 million against the cap (assuming Patrick isn't on LTIR, which isn't a guarantee), leaving the Flyers with about $2.7 million in space. What they with that, and their most talked about assets, remains to be seen.