Matt Niskanen was one of the most thoughtful and analytical athletes I’ve ever come across. When asked a question, he would take several seconds to compose his thoughts before responding. Kevin Hayes gave him the nickname “Steady Eddie” because of how calm he always seemed to be.
With any luck, that temperament will have rubbed off on his now ex-teammates.
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The sudden retirement of Niskanen two weeks ago leaves no doubt that the leader of the Flyers defense next year will be Ivan Provorov.
Provorov had a terrific season skating alongside Niskanen on the Flyers' top defensive pair, but now Alain Vigneault and the Flyers coaches figure to rely even more heavily on Provorov on the ice and in the dressing room.
Sounds good to him.
“Honestly, ever since I started playing, I’ve been the leader on every team I’ve played on,” said Provorov, who will turn 24 in January. (Yes, he’s still that young.) “I like that. I like leading by example and doing everything I can to help the team to win. We’ve got a great D-corps and I’m looking forward to the season.”
Training camp, whenever that starts, will determine whom Provorov gets as a partner in 2020-21. It will not be the rugged, yet cerebral Niskanen, whose distinction as the only guy in the Flyers clubhouse to win a Stanley Cup gave him instant cache among a defensive group that included other youngsters such as Travis Sanheim, Phil Myers and Robert Hagg.
“With Nisky retiring, some other guys will have to take on a bigger role. But I think we should be OK moving forward,” Provorov said. “It’s going to be another year. Some guys got some experience in the playoffs and are going to get better.”
Free-agent signee Erik Gustafsson is strong offensively, but not as solid defensively as Niskanen. He can move the puck and will help a power play that disappeared in the playoffs after improving from 23rd in the 2018-19 regular season to 14th last season.
Provorov said Niskanen, 33, gave no indication he was considering retirement while the team was together for six weeks in the Toronto playoff bubble. The Flyers won a playoff series for the first time in eight seasons before losing to the Islanders in seven games in the second round.
“I had no idea. I found out when he texted us in a group chat,” he said. “I was definitely shocked a bit, and a little sad. But if he’s happy with his decision, then I’m very happy for him.”
Provorov’s plus/minus rating improved from -16 two years ago to +11 in 2019-20. He led all defensemen in power-play goals with seven (in 69 games) and even finished in the top 20 in Norris Trophy voting for the first time.
As he goes, so too will the Flyers.
“Nisky won a Cup [with Washington in 2018]. He had a presence about him,” Provorov said. “Throughout the year, he never got too high. Never got too low. Overall as a D-corps, that should be our biggest [lesson] from him. No matter what happens, stay poised and play your game.”
Social media was filled with tributes to play-by-play man Doc Emrick following his decision to retire Monday after 50 years in the sport.
NBC colleague and former Flyers goalie Brian Boucher’s sentiments were typical. He called Emrick the gold standard of his craft, and “the kindest man you will ever meet.” His broadcast partner, Eddie Olczyk, cried during a conference call with Emrick. That’s the effect this man had on those closest to him.
The story of Emrick skipping the Winter Olympics in 2002 when a family member was gravely ill came up during the call.
“I would have not been of use to NBC as a preoccupied announcer, and it wouldn’t have been fair to the sport or people watching the greatest competition in the world at that time, either,” Emrick explained.
The gravely ill member was his and wife Joyce’s 4-year-old terrier, Katie. She had kidney disease, and Emrick could not simply leave his wife to care for the ailing pup by herself.
“Kenny Albert marched in and did a wonderful job at the last minute, as you would expect he would, so I could fully concentrate with Joyce on potentially saving Katie’s life, although it didn’t work out that way,” Emrick said.
Emrick is donating the proceeds of his new book to animal welfare, and he and Joyce will continue to raise their pups, ponies and anything else they wish on their Indiana farm.
“Whether [missing the Olympics] strengthened anyone to do something similar in any circumstances that they might face, I don’t know,” he said. “But it was something that you do for people that you love or creatures that you love.”
Jan. 1: Start of 2020-21 NHL season (but don’t hold thy breath)
Jo Ann Burke, who describes herself as the “best Flyers fan on Earth” and who would stop by practice in Voorhees occasionally, shared a Doc Emrick story with us on Twitter.
“He is a treasure,” she wrote. “My husband and I met him in Boston and he never, ever forgot your name when he saw you again no matter how much time passed. When Mike died he reached out ... he called! We were all so lucky to have heard him [and] met him. Kudos to [simply] the BEST!” — @JPBFlyers201