The Flyers are counting on veteran defensemen Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun having bounce-back seasons with their new team.
If they don’t, the Flyers probably won’t make the playoffs.
If they do, well, the Flyers have a decent chance to make it for just the fourth time in the last eight seasons.
“They’re exactly what we thought when we made the trades,” said Flyers coach Alain Vigneault. His team plays an exhibition game Monday in Switzerland against Lausanne HC, the Swiss National League team (2 p.m.; NBC Sports Philadelphia+, NHL Network), then opens the season Friday against Chicago in Prague (2 p.m.; NBC Sports Philadelphia, NHL Network).
The Flyers sent Radko Gudas to Washington to acquire Niskanen on June 14. Four days later, they dealt second- and third-round draft picks to San Jose for Braun. Both are minutes-eaters on a relatively young defensive unit.
Braun played in 84 playoff games with San Jose, which qualified in eight of his nine seasons with the Sharks. Niskanen has played in 125 playoff games in his career -- his teams qualified for the post-season the last nine seasons -- and his Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2018.
“Braun is not flashy, but he’s dependable,” Vigneault said. “You always see his stick breaking up plays and he gets his body in front of shots. And Niskanen is obviously a proven winner and, in my estimation, is going to be very good for our dressing room.
"He does all the things the right way – in practice, in games. He’s not overly vocal but has that quiet confidence, [that] leadership and voice that’s good for a locker room, and his experience enables him to play with the puck and without the puck.”
In the preseason, Braun, 32, was mostly paired with Shayne Gostisbehere, while Niskanen, 32, was usually with Ivan Provorov, the Flyers’ top defenseman.
By the last preseason game against NHL competition, Niskanen said he was feeling more comfortable with a new system and a new defensive partner, but “it’s going to be a process for a while to reach maximum potential. We’re heading in the right direction, though."
“The breakouts have different timings and the forwards are in different spots,” Niskanen said when asked to compare the Flyers’ system with Washington’s. “There’s different turning points for pressure.”
Niskanen’s analysis of Provorov, who is coming off a subpar season: “Smart player, good instincts, moves the puck well, and he’s strong on his skates. Those guys are fun to play with because they tend to have the puck a lot. … If I am with him, I’ll try to be real solid in my positioning. I’ll always be there for him in dependable spots so he’s comfortable to do the things he does well.”
The hope is that Niskanen can stabilize Provorov’s game, and that Braun can do the same thing for his likely defensive partner, Gostisbehere.
Braun is facing the same learning challenges as Niskanen.
“After five years with the same system in San Jose, there’s going to be an adjustment period for a little while,” he said. “I’m starting to get used to guys’ habits out there and where they like to go. Every day you get a little more comfortable, a little better.”
If he starts the season with the offensive-minded Gostisbehere, as expected, Braun will be the stay-at-home defender.
“I’m happy going back for pucks, getting them to him, and letting him use his legs,” Braun said. “He’s got the ability to shake guys one-on-one in the neutral zone. But at the same time, I’ve got to be ready to do the same thing” when the opportunity arises. “It can’t just be four guys jumping in when I’m out there, but I think he’ll have more of the freedom to go.”