When the Flyers signed Erik Gustafsson on Monday to a one-year, $3 million contract, an obvious and unavoidable question surfaced: What does the move mean for Shayne Gostisbehere?
In one way or the other, the addition of Gustafsson impacts Gostisbehere. Another defenseman in the club's blue-line picture intensifies the competition for roles and playing time, especially with Matt Niskanen's responsibilities going up for grabs when the all-situation defenseman retired.
Gustafsson and Gostisbehere happen to share attributes: Both are under 30 years old, can quarterback a power play, have a 60-point season on their résumé, are mobile and skillfully transition the puck. The similarities do not translate into Gostisbehere suddenly becoming a slam dunk to be traded. Does it increase the chances just a tad? Sure, more pieces mean more assets, but teams always value depth and offense on their blue line. The Flyers desperately needed some more depth and a guy with offensive abilities doesn't hurt.
Gustafsson and Gostisbehere have not been touted or heavily used for their defensive abilities. They are clearly offense-first blueliners. Gustafsson has a 41.4 defensive zone start percentage at even strength, while Gostisbehere is at 39.4.
Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher will have no qualms if the players with similar games are in the same lineup.
"They’re both real good players," Fletcher said Friday in a video interview. "I’m not sure stylistically they are as similar as maybe you make it seem. Gustafsson’s got just tremendous deception and vision, I think he generates offense a little bit differently than Ghost. Ghost has got probably the best shot of anybody on our team. [Philippe] Myers has the velocity maybe but right now I’d say Gostisbehere is an elite shooter, so I think [Gustafsson and Gostisbehere are] a little bit different. They both are better offensively than defensively probably, but I think both of them actually defend pretty well.
"Why not? I think [Ivan] Provorov’s elite defensively, [Travis] Sanheim and Myers, in my opinion, will become elite shutdown defensemen in this league. Justin Braun is an elite defender. [Robert] Hagg is a good defender. So why not have a couple guys that can spring your offense? If we can defend less, that would be a great thing."
With the re-signing of Braun to a two-year deal, the Flyers will rely on the 33-year-old veteran to grab some of Niskanen's 5-on-5 and shorthanded minutes. They will rely on Gustafsson to eat up some of Niskanen's offensive duties. Last season, Niskanen was second on the Flyers in minutes per game (21:54) and shorthanded minutes per game (2:38), fifth in assists (25) and seventh in power play minutes (139:26).
"There wasn’t a defenseman, in our opinion, in the marketplace that was anywhere near as complete the player as Matt Niskanen with the obvious exception of [Alex] Pietrangelo," Fletcher said. "Whoever we were going to bring in was not going to fill the same role or have the same stylistic fit that Matt did.
"Justin, in our opinion, is an elite penalty killer and has that ability to defend and help shut down in certain situations. Erik is a player that, at least the last three seasons, has had a high-end impact on offense at 5-on-5. Of all the defensemen in the game, I think he’s 10th at even strength points per 60 [minutes] over the last three seasons, which is a remarkable number (1.23, 10th among defensemen with 150 or more games played).
"He has tremendous deception with the puck, tremendous poise; we don’t have a defenseman that sees the ice like he does. He can play on the power play, obviously. It’s a different type of skill set than Matt certainly, but as I mentioned a few weeks ago, there wasn’t going to be that ability to replace Matt per se with the same style."
Fletcher on Friday said the Flyers are "still actively talking to teams and agents to see what may be out there." Something to remember: last offseason, Fletcher did a lot of his heavy lifting in a less active time. He acquired Niskanen, Braun, Kevin Hayes and Tyler Pitlick in June trades (he traded for Hayes' contractual rights, then signed him in that same month). So you never know, things could still be cooking and developing in this Flyers offseason.
"I haven’t closed the door on anything," Fletcher said. "Maybe I like our forward group more than you do or some other people. I think we’re really deep on the wing, I think we’re as deep as any team on the wing. Anybody you bring in has to be an upgrade on what you have, there has to be a fit in the roster.
"I think we have pretty good depth on defense now and we have good depth in goal. We have a good team, we could always make it better. We’ll continue to find ways to make it better, but we have a pretty strong group of forwards in my opinion."