When the 2018-19 season arrived, everyone looked at Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov as the Flyers' top pair defensemen.
Much was going to be placed on their shoulders and understandably so. Gostisbehere was coming off a career year in which he scored 65 points (13 goals, 52 assists), fourth most among all NHL blueliners, while Provorov scored as many goals as any defenseman in the league with 17, ate up minutes and was a plus-17.
The two were expected to spearhead a growing youthfulness within the Flyers' D corps. They were so good that it was easy to forget how young they still were themselves. Gostisbehere entered the season at 25 years old and Provorov at 21. There was little wiggle room for if things didn't go as planned.
Who could Gostisbehere or Provorov turn to if they struggled? In fact, what would the Flyers do if their young pillars stumbled? The Flyers lacked alternatives and experience to answer those questions when reality hit and the team was allowing goals at an alarming clip.
"The experience the young guys got this year is critical," Chuck Fletcher said in April, "but I think that's a fair question: do we have enough experience in our back end?"
In his first offseason as Flyers general manager, Fletcher made it clear he wanted to add a veteran defenseman. Not just a guy that is older, but a player with a winning pedigree and qualities that can supplement the Flyers' young defense.
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It's not a knock on Andrew MacDonald or Radko Gudas, but those two are not Matt Niskanen.
Fletcher acquired the 32-year-old defenseman Friday in exchange for Gudas. Niskanen won the 2018 Stanley Cup with the Capitals and has played in 125 career postseason games. Over the past six seasons, his plus-91 is fifth best among all NHL defensemen, behind only Ryan McDonagh (plus-126), Zdeno Chara (plus-99), Victor Hedman (plus-97) and Ryan Ellis (plus-94). He plays big minutes and is a skilled and smart puck mover. As a result, his teams have prevented goals.
In 2018-19, the Flyers surrendered the NHL's third-most goals per game at 3.41.
Fletcher did not have ties to Gudas, who was acquired by former general manager Ron Hextall and signed a four-year, $13.4 million extension in June 2016. Fletcher was so keen on adding Niskanen that the Flyers are reportedly retaining some of Gudas' $3.35 million cap hit in 2019-20 on top of paying Niskanen's $5.75 million, which he's owed annually over the next two seasons (see story).
"[Fletcher] said I was a player they were looking at for a while now and he was excited to have me," Niskanen said Friday in a conference call.
The move makes the Flyers better immediately, which is Fletcher's goal. He has the resources to do so and is utilizing them. Good timing after Gostisbehere and Provorov went through mentally draining seasons.
"There have been times where I've tried a little too much from a personal standpoint, from the team standpoint, and trying to do everything I can to help the team win," Provorov said in April. "We're not perfect, none of us are perfect."
Niskanen will help them feel like they don't have to be perfect. He can influence the entire group of defensemen, which features plenty of youth outside of Gostisbehere and Provorov. Robert Hagg is 24, Travis Sanheim and Samuel Morin are 23, and Philippe Myers is 22.
"I think they have two or three young studs that are offensively talented, gifted, they have good instincts, they move the puck well, assist in the offense," Niskanen said.
"I envision myself being a really good partner for one of these young studs. Trying to give them confidence to do the things that they do well, and I'll be right beside them. I think I can help one of these guys or maybe a couple of them at different points in the year, to keep getting better, do the things they do well, play a more rounded game, play some hard minutes. I think I can fit in well with these young kids that can skate and move the puck. It'll be good for our team. I think I'll fit in well."
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