Matt Niskanen Stunningly Retires; Flyers Re-Sign Justin Braun
Updated: Apr 8, 2021
More like Steadzo Gonesky, am I right?
*Cries in Kevin Hayes-esque Boston accent*
In what has to be the most shocking move of what should be a wild offseason, The Athletic's Pierre LeBrun reported early Monday afternoon that Flyers defenseman Matt Niskanen is retiring from the National Hockey League. Talk about the most Monday thing in the history of Mondays.
Matt Niskanen was taken near the end of the first round in the 2005 NHL Draft, 28th overall by the Dallas Stars. Two years later, Niskanen broke into the league with Dallas, playing 78 games as a rookie. After four years with the Stars, Niskanen was traded in a blockbuster deal along with James Neal to Pittsburgh for Alex Goligoski. Niskanen quickly became a key member of Pittsburgh's blue-line, playing behind Kris Letang on the right side. Niskanen played four years for the Penguins as well, registering a career-high 46 points in the 2013-14 season.
Niskanen used that career year to cash in during free agency, signing a seven-year, $40.25 million deal with the Washington Capitals. That 2013-14 performance marked the beginning of a four straight seasons where Niskanen scored 30+ points. Like he did in Pittsburgh, Niskanen was a strong #2 on the right side for the Capitals, playing behind John Carlson. In 2018, Niskanen was a key member of the Capitals blue-line when Washington brought home their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. And after the 2018-19 season, Niskanen was dealt to the Flyers in exchange for Radko Gudas.
The Niskanen trade was met by a bit of controversy when it was made. Gudas was both an analytics darling and a physical force, making him appealing to new and old school fans alike. 2018-19 was a trying season for Niskanen, as he put up just 25 points, his lowest total since 2011-12. His analytics fell off hard, too, posting a sub-47% Corsi and Expected Goals For at 5-on-5. And at 32 with plenty of NHL mileage, there was no guarantee Niskanen would bounce back.
However, not only did Niskanen return to form, he elevated Ivan Provorov to levels not seen he was playing with Norris finalist Shayne Gostisbehere in 2017-18. Nisky proved to be the ying to Provy's yang all season long. Niskanen was great on his own, scoring 33 points and grading out very well in analytics (52%+ Corsi and Expected Goals For, again at 5-on-5). Niskanen also played the entire season on the Flyers second power-play unit (scoring 13 PP points, his third-best mark ever) and was a key penalty-killer. He was slated to be under contract through the 2020-21 season at a $5.75 million cap hit.
It is impossible to understate how devastating this loss is for the Flyers. Like I mentioned, Niskanen was not only a solid player in his own right, but he was directly responsible for Ivan Provorov's outstanding bounce-back 2019-20 campaign. With Niskanen out of the fold, the Flyers have to scramble to figure out who will play with him. He and Travis Sanheim were outshot and out chanced when they were the top-pair in the second half of the 2018-19 season. Shayne Gostisbehere started that season with him, but the two lost all of their momentum from the previous year and were separated, and it doesn't seem like the current regime has a ton of faith in Ghost. Phil Myers has only played 71 NHL games. And Justin Braun doesn't have the puck-moving skills to be an effective top-pair defenseman, something that you really can't find with just $5.75 million.
Oh, speaking of Justin Braun, Niskanen's departure turned him from likely cap casualty into an obvious re-sign candidate. Sure enough, just hours after Niskanen's retirement became public, TSN's Frank Seravalli reported that Braun is coming back to Philly on a 2-year contract with a $1.8 AAV (average annual value). Braun was acquired just a few weeks after Niskanen last summer, coming over from San Jose in exchange for a 2nd and 3rd round pick. The career Shark came with some of the same concerns as Niskanen, but he too delivered a solid 2019-20 season, scoring a respectable 19 points in 62 games (a 25-point pace in a full year, which would've been his second highest point total ever) and finishing over 50% in Corsi and xGF at 5-on-5. Braun was also a strong penalty killer for the Flyers, but like Niskanen, he struggled a bit during the playoffs.
With Niskanen's $5.75 million cap hit completely wiped away, the Flyers have about $8.685 million in cap space, per CapFriendly. That roster accounts for 11 forwards, 5 defensemen, and 2 goalies, however; the Flyers will likely carry 13-14 forwards and 7 defensemen this season. Phil Myers and Nolan Patrick remain as restricted free agents; the two will probably eat up a little less than half of the Flyers' remaining cap space, although Patrick's status for the season is still unknown as he continues to battle migraine disorder.
Losing Niskanen could make the Flyers players for some of the unrestricted free agent defensemen like Tyson Barrie, TJ Brodie, Justin Schultz, Chris Tanev, and Sami Vatanen. Barrie, Schultz, and Vatanen are all righties that can move the puck, but aren't trusted very much in their own zone. Brodie is a lefty who plays the right side and is also a great puck-mover. Tanev (and Travis Hamonic) are righties, but are much more defensive minded. There's not someone in this group who sticks out to be as a clear stylistic replacement for Niskanen.
The Flyers would need to clear a little more cap space before they could seriously contend for the upper echelon blue-liners - Boston's Torey Krug (an outstanding puck-mover, but a lefty and not great defensively) and St. Louis' Alex Pietrangelo (his play style is Niskanen's on steroids, but unfortunately that also applies to his cap hit). And with Niskanen leaving Philly, Shayne Gostisbehere suddenly becomes much more likely to remain a Flyer, perhaps being given a chance to reclaim a top-four role.
In conclusion, here's the best to Matt Niskanen in retirement. The Flyers would not have been nearly as good as they were this year without him. Niskanen's contributions were felt in all three zones and all three manpower situations. This move really came out of nowhere; maybe I could have seen Niskanen retiring after 2020-21 when his contract was up, but even that would have been a surprise unless he dropped off dramatically.
During his career, Matt Niskanen played 949 games, scoring 72 goals and 284 assists for 356 points. In the playoffs, Niskanen played 140 games, scoring 6 goals and 36 assists for 42 points, and of course, he won the Stanley Cup with the Capitals in 2018. In fact, Niskanen was the only member of the 2019-20 Flyers who had won the Stanley Cup.
Niskanen certainly felt the wrath of Philly fans when he was a member of the Penguins, especially during the wild Battle of Pennsylvania in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, but definitely felt their love this year as he delivered a strong campaign. Flyers writer Bill Meltzer called him a "zero maintenance player." Matt and his wife Katie have two young children, and I can't fault the guy if he wants to spend more time with them. Whatever the reason for his retirement, congrats on a great career Nisky, and thanks for an amazing year in Philadelphia. We'll miss you here, Steadzo.