Matt Niskanen, the Gift That Keeps on Giving

NHL: DEC 07 Senators at Flyers
PHILADELPHIA, PA – DECEMBER 07: Philadelphia Flyers Defenceman Matt Niskanen (15) is cheered on by fans before the game between the Ottawa Senators and the Philadelphia Flyers on December 7, 2019 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Nicole Fridling/Icon Sportswire)

Chuck Fletcher quite possibly made his best move as Flyers general manager last summer, bringing in Matt Niskanen from the Washington Capitals. The goal was to bolster a subpar defensive unit from the 2018/19 campaign. What the Flyers got was much more than that. Niskanen brought a Stanley Cup pedigree, having won it in 2017/18 with the Washington Capitals. He brought that coveted veteran presence we heard way too much about from Dave Hakstol. He also brought a wealth of knowledge to a young, up-and-coming blue line.

All of that translated into a big bounce-back season for Ivan Provorov. In 2018/19, Provorov had his worst season to date. In a full slate of games, Provorov posted seven goals and 19 assists. He averaged 25:07 per night, his highest ATOI of his career by almost a full minute. Provorov had career lows in blocks (149,) hits (123,) and takeaways (16.) He tied his career high (92) in giveaways. Needless to say, 2018/19 was not Provy’s year.

One year, and a more defensively responsible partner later, and Provorov was on pace to put up his highest point total yet. He posted 13 goals and 23 assists in 69 games, still not missing a game in his young career. Provorov still logged big minutes, averaging 24:51 on ice per night, while Niskanen logged just under 22 minutes per night. Provorov assumed PP1 minutes as well, leading all NHL defensemen with seven powerplay goals. With that being said, it seems appropriate to briefly revisit this gem from our buddy Micah.

Thanks again, Micah!

Anyways, back to the point of this article. Provorov was due for a rebound year. Matt Niskanen fast-tracked that rebound in a big way. His soundness on the defensive end allowed Provorov to explore more of his offensive game. While he posted the highest point-per-game in his career, his defensive game didn’t lack. It’s safe to say that Matt Niskanen was the biggest catalyst to Provorov’s big bounce-back. While his work is done with Provorov, does Niskanen have some more magic up his sleeve for another ailing blue liner with the Flyers?

Rehabbing Ghost

Shayne Gostisbehere is no stranger to struggles. Having dealt with knee issues and healthy scratches just this past season, Ghost finds himself as the odd-man out on the Flyers blue line. With Justin Braun likely hitting the free agent market, the Flyers are in need of a defenseman to fill the hole left in the lineup.

Enter Ghost.

It’s easy to dismiss Gostisbehere due to his $4.5 million cap hit and that fact that he’s been sitting in the press box. It’s hard to dismiss that, if put into the right position, Ghost can thrive and contribute to this Flyers team.

Enter Niskanen.

For all the good Niskanen did for Provorov, it’s fair to think he might be able to do something similar with Gostisbehere. For all the career highs Provorov experienced in 2019/20, Niskanen might be able to replicate his reclamation project with Provy, with Gostisbehere.

Ripple Effects

This move means separating Provorov and Niskanen. It isn’t the end of the world, however. However unpopular this may be, it might be time for a guy like Myers or Sanheim to taste top-pairing minutes. For how well they played together, pairing them with a player the caliber of Provorov could jettison their careers. While Sanheim has already had a taste, Myers may be the right guy for the job, no pun intended. His right hand shot would be a great compliment to Ivan, and his long strides make it easy for him to make up ground in case of a breakaway going the other way.

If Provorov is paired with Myers, and Niskanen with Gostisbehere, that (likely) leaves Robert Hagg and Travis Sanheim. Two big questions arise when discussing this type of lineup. Is Robert Hagg ready for second-pairing minutes, and is Matt Niskanen too good for third-pairing minutes? Both questions can be easily solved by treating it as a 2A/2B type defense. Both could be capable as full fledged second pairs, but if the minutes are spread evenly, you can maximize what Niskanen has left in the tank.

While separating the Sanheim/Myers pair isn’t exactly appealing, it might bode well for the future of the Flyers blue line. Gostisbehere is signed through the 2022/23 season, so maximizing what the Flyers have now should be priority.

All in all, this could be a risk worth taking if you’re the Flyers. Matt Niskanen has done wonders for Provorov finding his feet again. It’s fair to assume that he might have the same type of impact on Shayne Gostisbehere at this point in his career.

Mandatory Credit – Nicole Fridling/Icon Sportswire