Prior to puck drop at the final Philadelphia Flyers home game of the season, the club holds their annual Philadelphia Flyers Team Awards ceremony. The purpose of this significant occasion is to recognize players in a handful of different categories ranging from team MVP to the Flyer who demonstrated the most heart during that season. Each award is named after a former Philadelphia Flyer.
The 2019-20 season has not yet come to an official conclusion, leaving the winners of these various honors up in the air. With that being the case, individuals such as myself are given an opportunity to opine on who we believe would be the appropriate recipients of these awards, if the season were to end today.
For now, I am going to focus on the Barry Ashbee Trophy, which is the fancy hardware awarded to the Flyers’ Outstanding Defenseman.
There were several blueliners who made a very strong argument for the award, which made this decision an incredibly difficult one. Ultimately, it came down to Ivan Provorov and Matt Niskanen. Both defensemen were having potential career-best seasons when the NHL hit the pause button. Together, they made up one of the most dynamic defensive pairs in the league. In the end, I had to choose the Flyer who not only demonstrated superb play on the ice throughout 2019-20 but, in my opinion, was also a significant reason why the other Flyer logged one of his finest seasons, yet. I would award the Barry Ashbee Trophy to Matt Niskanen.
The Flyers acquired Matt Niskanen in June of 2019 from the Washington Capitals in exchange for defenseman Radko Gudas (last season’s Barry Ashbee Trophy winner). The goal was that Niskanen would provide the Flyers with an experienced, offensive-minded blueliner who could also lend a hand on the power play. On top of all of that, the solid right-handed shooting defender could be a strong veteran presence for the team, a mentor for Ivan Provorov and complement the young Russian on the first defensive pair nicely.
Not only did Niskanen accomplish these critical missions, he also, after concluding one of his least successful terms as a Capital in 2018-19, put together a stellar first season with the Philadelphia Flyers. As of the NHL’s suspension of play on March 12th, Nisky had recorded 33 points (8 goals, 25 assists); just three behind Ivan Provorov in leading all Flyers defensemen in points. The Minnesota-native led all defensemen in assists and had a plus-15 in the plus/minus column while averaging 21:54 of ice time.
Matt Niskanen also demonstrated an impressive defensive prowess all season long. He excelled at taking away time and space from opposing teams and was a thorn in the side of many of the league’s top offensive trios game after game.
Matt was not afraid to put his body on the line when it mattered most. He recorded 84 blocks (tied for 2nd on the team) and 124 hits (3rd on the team). As the 15 stitches he acquired back in November after taking a puck to the face and subsequently returning to the same game will indicate, Matt brought a toughness and leadership mentality that the Flyers needed.
After the All-Star break, the Flyers hit their stride and went 14-4-1 before the postponement of play. They propelled themselves straight up the Metropolitan Division ladder from sixth place (one point outside of the last Eastern Conference Wild Card spot) to second place (one point outside of first place). Several factors contributed to the brilliant play of the Flyers during that period. In those 19 games, Matt Niskanen recorded 14 points (3 goals, 11 assists), four power play points, a short-handed goal, 26 blocks, 36 hits and was a plus-19 while averaging 22:09 of ice time. There is a neat little correlation between Nisky’s exceptional play and the Flyers’ success in those last six weeks. Perhaps it was the result of an effective leader helping to raise his team’s level of play at a critical point in the season – playoff positioning time.
Choosing this season’s Outstanding Defenseman was about more than just statistics. Matt Niskanen earned it, not just with impressive numbers, but with leadership, hard work and fortitude. He proved to be an outstanding defenseman and a tremendous asset to the Philadelphia Flyers.
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