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Something doesn’t make sense about the Flyers' risky (but exciting) defensive group | Sam Carchidi

Will adding puck-moving defenseman Erik Gustafsson help the Flyers replace the retired Matt Niskanen, or is another move in the works?

Flyers defenseman Matt Niskanen celebrates after scoring in a playoff game last month against the Islanders. He retired after the season, and the team will miss his solid two-way play.
Flyers defenseman Matt Niskanen celebrates after scoring in a playoff game last month against the Islanders. He retired after the season, and the team will miss his solid two-way play.Read moreFrank Gunn / The Canadian Press via AP

Another shoe has to drop, right?

Surely, Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher has another move up his sleeve that will bring more clarity to signing defenseman Erik Gustafsson, right?

Nothing against Gustafsson — the guy has played alongside Duncan Keith and he is just two years removed from an eye-opening 17-goal, 60-point season with Chicago — but he seems redundant.

He’s Shayne Gostisbehere, 2.0.

Oh, he plays with more of an edge than “Ghost” and probably is a better passer and has a more accurate shot. Gostisbehere’s speed and blazing shot are his best attributes. Clearly, both players are known more for their offense than blocking shots or shutting down a big scorer.

That defensive tenacity took a hit when Matt Niskanen stunningly retired.

Fletcher said he could “absolutely” see Gostisbehere, who seems on the verge of being traded, and Gustafsson in the Flyers' defensive rotation.

» READ MORE: Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher is ‘still actively talking to teams,’ but a flat cap makes it challenging to add players

“They’re both real good players. I’m not sure stylistically they are as similar as you make it seem,” Fletcher said to a question raised by a reporter in a conference call Friday. “Gustafsson’s just got tremendous deception and vision. I think he generates offense a little bit differently than Ghost. Ghost has probably got the best shot of anybody on our team. Phil Myers has the velocity maybe. but right now I’d say Gostisbehere is an elite shooter.”

Fletcher conceded that the defensemen are “both better offensively than defensively probably, but I think both of them actually defend pretty well.”

Other options

Instead of signing Gustafsson, the Flyers could have put Gostisbehere in the defensive rotation, saved the $3 million, and put it toward someone who is a better fit to replace Niskanen — or even toward a sniper winger like Mike Hoffman. The Flyers generated just 2.1 goals per game in their 13 playoff games, and their power play was awful.

Surprisingly, Fletcher said next year’s expansion draft with Seattle wasn’t a big factor in signing a defenseman to a one-year deal – the term Gustafsson received for $3 million. If the Flyers had signed a better all-around defenseman to a long-term deal, they probably would have protected him in the expansion draft. That would have left open the possibility they couldn’t protect someone like Oskar Lindblom or Nolan Patrick unless they made a deal to entice Seattle not to take them.

“I don’t think that has a big impact at all,” Fletcher said of the expansion draft, seemingly contradicting his strong hints from the previous week. “The important thing is to improve your team for this season, and maybe as important, making sure you maintain salary-cap flexibility for the offseason to 2021-22.”

From a defensive standpoint, the Flyers would have had a better replacement for Niskanen if they had signed a a player like T.J. Brodie (four years, $20 million with Toronto) or Chris Tanev (four years, $18 million with Calgary), or traded for defenseman Nate Schmidt, who was dealt to Vancouver for a third-round draft pick and has five years left on a deal that has a $5.95 million cap hit.

But it could have muddled their expansion-protection plans, no matter how Fletcher spins it.

And, it should be pointed out in respect to free agents Brodie and Tanev, perhaps they didn’t want to come to Philadelphia.

Huge step

Defense wins championships, and the Flyers took a huge step in that direction last season despite their disappointing showing in a seven-game loss to the Islanders in the conference semifinals.

Having Carter Hart for a full season, and not going through the eight-goalie shuffle of 2018-19, was a big reason the Flyers improved dramatically on the defensive side. They were tied for seventh in goals-against per game last season (2.77) after finishing 29th (3.41) the previous year.

Niskanen, who was good at both ends of the ice in the regular season, played a major role.

» READ MORE: Erik Gustafsson says the Flyers are on the rise, and it’s a big reason he wanted to play in Philly

But instead of replacing him with someone capable of playing shutdown defense, the Flyers added a good puck-mover who is regarded as a so-so defender. That means the 23-year Myers, who struggled against the Isles in the playoffs and hasn’t played a full NHL season, will probably get a chance to play on the top pairing with Ivan Provorov.



As mentioned, the offseason is far from over, and maybe Fletcher has more moves that will strengthen the defense.

If not, he is gambling that his blueliners make up for their defensive shortcomings with their offense.

Yes, it would be exciting to watch, but would it be effective?

“Why not?” Fletcher said when asked if Gostisbehere and Gustafsson could both be regulars. “I think Provorov’s elite defensively. [Travis] Sanheim and Myers, in my opinion, will become elite shutdown defensemen in this league. Justin Braun is an elite defender. [Robert] Hägg is a good defender. So why not have a couple guys that can spring your offense? If we can defend less, that would be a great thing.”

Under Fletcher’s direction, the Flyers made major strides last season, so maybe his out-of-the-box offseason will pay dividends.

But I still think something else is in the works.