In a stunner that has already had an effect on the Flyers' offseason moves, defenseman Matt Niskanen has decided to end a quality 13-year career.
General manager Chuck Fletcher confirmed the retirement on Monday afternoon. A short time later, he announced the Flyers had re-signed veteran defenseman Justin Braun to a two-year contract that carries an annual $1.8 million cap hit. Braun had a $3.8 million cap hit last season.
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Braun, 33, could have become an unrestricted free agent on Friday.
Niskanen, 33, was part of the Flyers' No. 1 pairing in 2019-20. He stabilized the game of his defensive partner, Ivan Provorov, and helped the Flyers' defense improve from 29th (3.41 goals-against per game) in 2018-19 to tied for seventh this season (2.77 goals-against per game).
Fletcher called Niskanen a “consummate professional” whose work ethic influenced the younger defensmen. He said Niskanen, who played in all situations, helped change the Flyers' culture with his veteran presence.
"He won’t be an easy player to replace,” Fletcher said. “... In my opinion, he did as much as anybody to change the mindset of our team.”
Fletcher said the day after the season ended with a 4-0 Game 7 playoff loss to the Islanders, Niskanen was driving back to his Minnesota home when he called Fletcher and informed him about his intentions to retire. Fletcher said he was caught “off guard” and asked him to spend some time with his family and think it over before finalizing his decision.
He did, but he didn’t change his mind.
Niskanen “felt it was time,” Fletcher said, adding that being away from his family for so long during the postseason in the Toronto bubble -- and the uncertainty that the pandemic has brought to next season -- impacted Niskanen’s decision.
It was not a health-related decision, Fletcher added.
Niskanen, nicknamed Steady Eddie," had one year left on a contract that had a $5.75 million cap hit. Like many of his veteran teammates, he struggled at times in this year’s postseason, notching two points and an “even” rating in 15 games.
With Niskanen’s contract off the books, will the Flyers make a run at a No. 1 defenseman like Alex Pietrangelo, 30, a pending free agent who had a $6.5 million cap hit last season with St. Louis?
Other potential free-agent defensemen include Boston’s Torey Krug, Toronto’s Tyson Barrie, Tampa Bay’s Kevin Shattenkirk, Pittsburgh’s Justin Schultz, and Washington’s Radko Gudas. All of the above, including Pietrangelo, are righthanded (like Niskanen) except Krug.
“There’s different ways to attack this,” Fletcher said about filling the void left by Niskanen’s departure, “and to his credit, he gave us early warning.”
Fletcher said there aren’t many defensemen who have Niskanen’s skill set and his “understated presence. He had a tremendous presence with his teammates. We have a very strong leadership core to begin with, but bringing in Matt Niskanen elevated everybody.”
The GM wasn’t sure if a young player on this year’s team, such as Phil Myers, who is also righthanded, could fill Niskanen’s role, or whether he will look to the outside in a trade or through free agency.
He said he was “comfortable” with his current group of defensemen, including up-and-coming righthander Mark Friedman, and was hopeful Samuel Morin, coming off knee surgery, would be healthy and back playing in the organization.
Fletcher also has to keep an eye on next year’s expansion draft for Seattle. The Flyers figure to pick the option where they can protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and a goalie. Provorov, Travis Sanheim, and Phil Myers would probably be the defensemen. That makes it tricky to add a big-name defenseman like Pietrangelo unless one of the other blue-liners is dealt.
“Everything we’ve done in the last year has been with Seattle in mind,” Fletcher said.
Niskanen, who won a Stanley Cup with Washington in 2018, had eight goals (tied for the second-highest total in his career), 33 points, and a plus-15 ranking in his first and only season with the Flyers. He played 13 seasons in a career that also had stops with Dallas, Pittsburgh, and Washington.