The Flyers hope Matt Niskanen, acquired Friday from Washington, can stabilize their young defense and provide some needed veteran leadership.
In a deal of right-handed defensemen, the Flyers traded feisty Radko Gudas for Niskanen, a 12-year veteran who is the only player on his new team’s roster with a Stanley Cup ring.
Niskanen, 32, said the Flyers had a team that was “hard to play against" last year and he was puzzled why they missed the playoffs.
“They’re on the upswing. ... I’m excited about that,” said Niskanen, the Dallas Stars’ first-round selection (28th overall) in 2005.
He thinks the Flyers’ defense is about to turn the corner.
“They have two or three young studs that are offensively talented and have good instincts,” he said of the defensemen. “I think at this point in my career, in talking with GM Chuck Fletcher, my job is going to be as a good partner. I envision myself being a really good partner for one of these young studs and try to give them confidence to do the things they do well. I’ll be right beside them, and I think I can help one of these guys at different points of the year to get better."
Niskanen, a key member of the Capitals’ Stanley Cup-championship team in 2018, had eight goals, 25 points and a minus-3 rating this past season. He was plus-24 the previous season, when the Caps won the Cup.
Fletcher said Niskanen had a “track record of success as a Stanley Cup champion. Having played heavy minutes in all situations throughout his career, Matt will be a steadying influence to our talented and young group of defensemen.”
There is a chance he will be paired with Ivan Provorov on the top defensive unit, and it is not known if the Flyers will pursue another defenseman (P.K. Subban?) in the trade market.
“Am I a No. 1 guy right now? Probably not,” Niskanen said in a conference call with reporters. “But I think I could be a part of a really good pair that could play top-four or top-two minutes if I had to.
"We’ll see how I do and how the coaches see me and where I fit in. I see myself as a real good support piece for one of these young guys that is really talented, and maybe together we can be a real formidable pair with some good balance of puck-moving and defending well.”
In 2014, Niskanen signed a seven-year, $40.25 million free-agent deal with Washington. He has two years left with an annual $5.75 million cap hit.
Gudas, 29, has one year remaining on a contract that has a $3.35 million cap hit. The Flyers are reportedly retaining 30 percent of the contract, which expires after the 2019-20 season.
Last season, Gudas played with much more discipline — though he was suspended late in the campaign — and was the Flyers’ most consistent defenseman. Gudas was fifth in the NHL with 255 hits, and he won the Barry Ashbee Trophy as their best defenseman.
Niskanen, a onetime shutdown defender who is known as a vocal player in the locker room, was used primarily on the Caps’ second pairing this year, and he had a so-so defensive season.
A Minnesota native, Niskanen also has played with Dallas and Pittsburgh in his career, during which he has averaged nearly 21 minutes per game, including 22:46 in his five seasons in Washington.
“I’ve been around, and I know what a good hockey team looks like and what good culture looks like,” Niskanen said.
Niskanen said Fletcher told him he thought the Flyers were “ready to pop” and become a factor after missing the playoffs last season. “He kind of feels the same way I do about their group there," Niskanen said. "There’s young talent. They’re close. Just need to add some more pieces along the way, and it sounds like he’s trying to put together a real good team.”
Washington general manager Brian MacLellan called Niskanen a “consummate professional who was a big part of our success.”
Gudas, arguably the Flyers’ most physical player and one of their top penalty killers, had four goals, 20 points, and a plus-6 rating this past season, the last of his four years with the club. He was suspended in February for two games after high-sticking Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov. It was his fourth suspension as a Flyer.
A native of the Czech Republic, Gudas had been looking forward to the Flyers’ opening the season in Prague against Chicago.
In the fourth trade made by then-Flyers GM Ron Hextall, Gudas was acquired from Tampa Bay on March 2, 2015, along with first- and third-round picks that year, for defenseman Braydon Coburn.