The Flyers on Monday made a move in their effort to patch up the considerable hole left by the retirement of top-pair defenseman Matt Niskanen.
The club signed Erik Gustafsson to a one-year, $3 million contract.
In 2019-20, the 28-year-old blueliner had 29 points (six goals, 23 assists) over 66 games between the Blackhawks and Flames. In 2018-19, he had a career year with the Blackhawks, putting up 17 goals and 60 points.
The lefty-shot Gustafsson is regarded for his offensive skills and puck-moving ability.
With Niskanen's retirement, the Flyers lost an all-situation defenseman with a Stanley Cup pedigree, but they also gained $5.75 million in cap space during a flat-cap NHL offseason. Gustafsson is not a Niskanen replacement but he will help take on some of the responsibilities.
"I don’t know that we’re going to be able to replace Matt Niskanen in the sense of the role he played for our team," Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said last weekend. "But we continue to speak to teams around the league and speak to agents. If we can find the right player at the right fit and the right price, we’ll do that. But we certainly don’t feel that we’re under any pressure to do anything just to do something. If we can improve our team, we will.”
During 2019-20, Niskanen's only season with the Flyers, the 33-year-old ranked second on the club in minutes per game (21:54) and shorthanded minutes per game (2:38), was tied for second in blocked shots (84), third in hits (124) and plus-minus (plus-15), fifth in assists (25) and seventh in power play minutes (139:26).
Gustafsson does not have all of those areas in his arsenal. In 2018-19, he had 18 power play points (four goals, 14 assists), but he's not a penalty-killer (the Flyers will ask Justin Braun to do more in that area) and has a career 41.4 defensive zone start percentage at even strength. Last season, Niskanen had a 55.8 defensive zone start percentage at even strength. He was crucial to the club's goal-prevention improvements.
Gustafsson, though, can play minutes, transition the puck and has top-four ability. His contract had to be attractive for the Flyers. With just one year, they won't have to worry about protecting/exposing him come the expansion draft next offseason. The $3 million figure isn't a huge cap hit, either, as Gustafsson will be the team's fourth highest-paid defenseman in 2020-21.
The Flyers now have better competition and insurance on their blue line. Adding Gustafsson could give the Flyers more flexibility to possibly trade Shayne Gostisbehere. Gustafsson's addition, however, doesn't mean the Flyers don't value Gostisbehere or see him in the picture. With the loss of Niskanen, the Flyers desperately needed depth and now they have more certainty, pieces and wiggle room at the position.
"I think it was a frustrating season in that I don’t think physically he was at the level he wanted to be at until the end," Fletcher said last month about Gostisbehere and his 2019-20 campaign. "Look, Shayne’s 27 years old; there are not many 27-year-old defensemen in the league that have had 60-point seasons. Obviously he hasn’t been at that level for a couple of seasons, but I know physically he feels this is the best he has been in a couple of years. I know he’s looking forward to showing everybody that he can get back to being the player that he was a few seasons ago."