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Alain Vigneault has a good feeling about new Flyers defenseman Erik Gustafsson | On the Fly

Gustafsson, the puck-moving defenseman the Flyers signed in the offseason, figures to be a regular in the lineup and a power-play contributor.

Erik Gustafsson (middle) and the Flyers' James van Riemsdyk (right) battle for the puck.
Erik Gustafsson (middle) and the Flyers' James van Riemsdyk (right) battle for the puck.Read moreONDREJ DEML / AP

Coach Alain Vigneault sounded excited Monday when he talked about a key addition to the lineup this season, defenseman Erik Gustafsson.

Gustafsson, a 28-year-old Sweden native, was signed as a free agent in October, inking a one-year deal for $3 million. He will be among a handful of players to get a chance on the top pairing, alongside Ivan Provorov. More likely: He will be on the second pairing with Travis Sanheim.

The Flyers added Gustafsson after top-pairing defender Matt Niskanen surprisingly retired after last season.

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Could ‘Gus’ be on the top-line bus?

In a conference call with reporters Monday, Vigneault said he watched lots of video on Gustafsson in the offseason, and he likes the potential the offensive-minded defenseman brings to the lineup.

“We’re getting, in today’s game, a very important defenseman in the sense that he’s a puck mover who can jump into the play and has good ability to make that first good pass out of our [defensive] zone,” Vigneault said. “He’s very motivated. I saw him when I came to Philly a few weeks back. He was excited to be with our group, excited to help us win. We’re looking forward to get to know him a lot more and helping him help our team.”

Gustafsson, who has averaged nearly 20 minutes of ice time in his career (19 minutes, 58 seconds), had his best season two years ago, collecting 17 goals and 60 points in 79 games with Chicago. The Flyers plan to use him as part of their defensive rotation and on the power play.

Niskanen, who turned 34 earlier this month, caught the Flyers brass by surprise with his retirement decision. Shortly after the playoffs ended, Niskanen told Flyers officials of his decision, but they asked him to take a month before finalizing it.

“I wanted him to have time to think about his decision without the emotions of us having been eliminated” in the second round by the New York Islanders, Vigneault said.

Vigneault called Niskanen the “ultimate professional with his preparation, the way he looks at the game, the way he thinks it, his team-first attitude.”

He said Niskanen’s professionalism will rub off on the current Flyers, “especially the young defensemen who were with him on a daily basis.” Vigneault said Niskanen “wanted to move to another area in his life, and we have to respect that.”

Things to know

  1. As camp gets closer, Vigneault is excited about the Flyers’ taking “another step.”

  2. Goalie Carter Hart talks about his “awesome mentor” and the ‘insane” Flyers fans.

  3. The NHL and the players’ association finalize a 56-game season that will start Jan. 13.

  4. The Flyers and their division rivals will be seeing a lot of each other this season. Let the animosity begin. My column.

Like ‘playoff hockey’

As far as Flyers opponents are concerned, Vigneault said that it will be “a challenge” in the East Division, and that the top of the division got stronger with the addition of Boston. He also pointed out that last year’s Metropolitan Division included Columbus and Carolina, two teams now in the Central that made the playoffs in 2019-20.

He said Buffalo, another new division opponent for the Flyers, is “a good young team who made some big changes to their lineup.” Taylor Hall and Eric Staal were their top offseason additions.

When you play division teams eight times, “it becomes a lot like playoff hockey,” Vigneault said. “You’re going to play back-to-backs against the same team. … It’s going to be exciting.”

Patrick update

Center Nolan Patrick, who has been skating in Voorhees, is hoping to return after missing last season because of a migraine disorder.

“What I have been hearing for a long time is that he is in a good place and feeling better,” Vigneault said. “But just put yourself in his shoes; the anxiety and stress of all this in coming back [can be difficult]. I want this to be as smooth and easy for him. It’s not something that’s been easy for him to go through, and there’s no doubt in my mind he wants to be with this team.”

Wells Fargo Center and fans

The Flyers aren’t expected to have fans allowed into the Wells Fargo Center when the season starts. The schedule will probably be released this week.

City and state officials determine whether fans may attend games and, as of now, spectators are not permitted.

“We are hopeful as the season progresses that we are able to safely welcome some number of fans back into the arena,” said Valerie Camillo, president of business operations for the Flyers and the Wells Fargo Center. “While we are eager to welcome fans back, the health and safety of the community comes first.”

Camillo said she was “optimistic” some fans will be in the stands at some point. “And when that time comes, Philadelphia will remind our opponents why it’s so tough to play here.”

The Flyers had more home wins than any other NHL team last season. They were 25-6-4 at the Wells Fargo Center.

Important dates

Jan. 3: Flyers have medical and fitness testing at their Voorhees practice facility.

Jan. 4: First day of on-ice training camp in Voorhees.

Jan. 13: Season starts.

Feb. 11: Restricted Free Agent signing deadline.

April 12: Trade deadline.

May 8: Last day of regular season.

May 11: Start of Stanley Cup playoffs.

July 15: Last possible day of Stanley Cup Final.

July 21: Expansion draft for Seattle Kraken.

July 23-24: NHL draft.

July 28: First day of free agency.

From the mailbag

Is playing all games in the division an advantage for the goalies or the forwards? — from @Flyer883 on Twitter

Answer: I asked Hall of Fame goaltender Bernie Parent this question last week, and he said the goalies have an advantage because it’s easier for the defensemen, not the forwards, to play a style that is successful against the same opponents. He based that on playing rivals 14 times each season when he was with Boston.

I’ll defer to Bernie.

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