At one time, Paul Holmgren was a celebrated executive in these parts. This was in 2010, after he first traded for 34-year-old defenseman Chris Pronger, then signed him to a seven-year deal – moves that triggered a team previously dubbed fragile to the brink of its third Stanley Cup, derailed only by an impossible angled shot that found its way past a goaltender, Michael Leighton, who had spent much of his career and a chunk of that season playing minor-league hockey.
This was before Holmgren, then the Flyers’ general manager, failed to fix that goaltending problem with a series of equally gutsy moves, signing Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year deal worth $51 million, then trading eventual Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky the following year.
You live by the sword …
Chuck Fletcher had his own legacy of hits and misses in nine seasons as the general manager of the Minnesota Wild. (He actually traded a fourth-round pick for Bryz three seasons later!) On Friday, he made his first signature move as the Flyers’ GM when he traded right-handed defenseman Radko Gudas to Washington for right-handed defenseman Matt Niskanen.
Niskanen is a physical player, but he’s no Pronger. Then again, the added money of his contract and a chunk of Radko Gudas’s expiring one – part of the terms of Friday’s swap -- will not hogtie Fletcher the way Pronger’s and later Bryzgalov’s did Holmgren. Fletcher has been down that road in Minnesota, and judging by his first few months in office here, he appears to have extracted lessons from it.
There is still risk, of course. Niskanen at 32 last season was not the same player he was at 31, and Niskanen at 31 was not the player he was at 30. But there are some extenuating circumstances – hand injuries and a long run to the Stanley Cup championship in 2018 – that provide hope he can bounce back from this season the way Gudas bounced back from his 2017-18 campaign.
"I had never gone that far, so I wasn’t sure what to expect heading into the next season,’’ Niskanen was saying Friday. He had nine points in 24 games and was a plus-6 as Washington won its first-ever Stanley Cup in 2018. "At times I felt fine and had a lot of juice. But there were times during the year where, `Holy crap, am I tired.’ Whether it be mentally fatigued, or I didn’t seem to have the same pop in my legs. That’s a lot of hockey and a short recovery period. And I think it affected us at times during the year.’’
Niskanen was plus-24 in 68 games of the 2017-18 regular season.
He finished minus-3 over 80 games last season.
Gudas and Travis Sanheim were probably the Flyers’ most consistent defensemen last season. But there was a tradeoff. The fierce, on-the-edge-of-dirty approach that forced him to sit out a 10-game suspension the previous season also forced Gudas to dull that edge, and he was not nearly as feared as a result.
And while honest to a fault in discussing himself and his team, the Czech who turned 29 last week was rarely if ever included in any list of leaders in a Flyers dressing room that could use a few more, especially with the departure of Wayne Simmonds.
By all accounts, Niskanen provides that. And he does so amid a promising but extremely young defense group. Andrew MacDonald, the lone defenseman older than 26, played in just 47 of the team’s 82 games last season and has one more season remaining on his $5 million-a-year contract. And he, like the rest of his teammates, has never been far into the playoffs.
"He just adds so much in terms of being able to help young players develop,’’ first-year Capitals head coach Todd Reirden said of Niskanen in November. "I’ve seen it here and in my prior location, the role that he’s had in the development of some really good young defensemen. He has a calming influence with how he plays the game. He plays it right and is able to add both offensively and defensively.’’
As long-term Flyers fans know, the team has reaped rewards injecting a little blue-line leadership into the group in the past. Derian Hatcher, Kimmo Timonen and of course, the most obvious, Pronger, were as important off the ice as they were on.
That’s what Fletcher hopes he’s found here. A guy whose professional approach can set a standard for a promising but uneven defensive core.