One year after he helped the Washington Capitals win their first Stanley Cup, veteran defenseman Matt Niskanen suffered through a subpar season in 2018-19 and was dealt to the Flyers for Radko Gudas in June.
Niskanen, 32, the only player on the Flyers with a Stanley Cup ring, thinks a change of scenery will revitalize his solid career.
“It’s something new, something fresh,” said Niskanen, a Minnesota native who has also played with Dallas and Pittsburgh during a 12-year career in which he has averaged nearly 21 minutes per game, including 22:46 in his five seasons with the Capitals.
“I loved being in Washington. We had good teams there, good guys. I enjoyed my time there, but maybe now this will be a little snap back into a new challenge. I think it’ll invigorate me. I’m trying to come in with a fresh attitude and help out the best I can.”
The Flyers struggled defensively last season, finishing 29th out of the 31 NHL teams by allowing 3.41 goals per game.
“We added some really good key veterans that I think we needed,” forward Scott Laughton said.
“If you look at it, there was only one team that finished in the bottom third of the league defensively and made the playoffs, and that was San Jose,” general manager Chuck Fletcher said. “Usually, you need to be in the top half of the league defensively to make the playoffs.”
Having goalie Carter Hart from the start of the season should also help the Flyers reduce their goals allowed.
“Hopefully he got a good taste of things last year and kind of figured things out,” Niskanen said.
Niskanen will try to rebound from a season in which he had a minus-3 rating after being plus-24 in the Capitals’ Cup run the previous year.
He said he was baffled that the Flyers missed the playoffs last season.
“I’ve always thought from the outside that they have high-end players here,” said Niskanen, who reported to the team’s Voorhees practice facility well ahead of the veterans’ first day of camp on Sept. 13.
“They have youth and energy and some really talented guys on the back end, so with the additions, maybe we can jell and become a better team. That’s going to be part of our role with Braun and I – trying to mesh well with some of the young talented guys and be good players along with them.”
It wouldn’t be surprising if the pairings went like this when the season starts: Niskanen (6-foot-1, 203 pounds) and Ivan Provorov (6-1, 201); Braun (6-2, 205) and Travis Sanheim (6-3, 200); and Shayne Gostisbehere (5-11, 180) and Phil Myers (6-5, 210).
Samuel Morin (6-6, 227) and Robert Hagg (6-2, 204) also hope to be part of the mix. The Flyers might end up carrying eight defensemen and not risk losing Morin or Hagg to waivers if they tried to send them to the AHL’s Phantoms.
Niskanen said it would be an honor if he was paired with Provorov, who had a great season in 2017-18 but slumped last year. Provorov, a restricted free agent, still has not signed a contract.
“He has high-end skill. I like the way he moves the puck, and he’s a strong player and a strong skater,” Niskanen said. “He has a big shot and good instincts, and those kind of guys are fun to play with.”
There’s a good chance one of Niskanen’s roles will be trying to get the best out of the promising Provorov, 22, who is coming off a turnover-plagued season in which he managed just seven goals, 10 fewer than the previous year, and was minus-16.