Flyers

Flyers had been eyeing Matt Niskanen trade and it's clear why

Flyers had been eyeing Matt Niskanen trade and it's clear why

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.

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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Flyers roster cuts: Notable hopefuls remain in busy competition

Flyers roster cuts: Notable hopefuls remain in busy competition

VOORHEES, N.J. — The Flyers made a hefty round of cuts a little earlier than anticipated.

They changed their preseason plan Friday morning as head coach Alain Vigneault and the front office decided this was the best course of action in preparation for the Oct. 4 season opener (see story).

The Flyers trimmed the roster by 18 players.

Tyler Wotherspoon, Nate Prosser, T.J. Brennan, Kyle Criscuolo and Reece Willcox will be placed on waivers Saturday. If they clear, they'll report to AHL affiliate Lehigh Valley.

Felix Sandstrom, Cal O'Reilly, Greg Carey, Maksim Sushko, Kirill Ustimenko, Gerry Fitzgerald, David Drake, David Kase, Pascal Laberge, Isaac Ratcliffe, Matthew Strome, Rob Michel and Josh Couturier were assigned to Lehigh Valley.

None of the cuts are surprising. Sushko performed well in camp and is entering his first season with the Phantoms. Ratcliffe had an outside shot at winning a roster spot with the Flyers but it became clear throughout camp and the preseason that the 6-foot-6 winger needed development in the AHL. Felix Sandstrom is a promising goalie prospect. David Kase and Pascal Laberge will be forwards to watch, as well.

O'Reilly, 32, was a point-per-game player last season in the AHL and will be one of Lehigh Valley's best players, along with Greg Carey.

The competition for the Flyers' bottom six and defensive pairings heats up Saturday with the team's fourth preseason game out of seven. Nobody has knocked the door down (see story).

The Flyers' roster is at 36 players.

Forwards

Andy Andreoff
Nicolas Aube-Kubel
Connor Bunnaman
Sean Couturier
Joel Farabee
Morgan Frost
Kurtis Gabriel (injured)
Claude Giroux
Kevin Hayes
Travis Konecny
Scott Laughton
Oskar Lindblom
Nolan Patrick (injured)
Tyler Pitlick (injured)
Michael Raffl
German Rubtsov
Chris Stewart
Carsen Twarynski
James van Riemsdyk
Jakub Voracek
Mikhail Vorobyev

Defense

Chris Bigras
Justin Braun
Mark Friedman
Shayne Gostisbehere
Robert Hagg
Samuel Morin
Philippe Myers
Matt Niskanen
Ivan Provorov
Travis Sanheim
Andy Welinski (injured)

Goalies

Jean-Francois Berube
Brian Elliott
Carter Hart
Alex Lyon

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Change in plan shows Alain Vigneault isn't messing around with Flyers

Change in plan shows Alain Vigneault isn't messing around with Flyers

VOORHEES, N.J. — Alain Vigneault knows how to massage a message. He coached in Montreal, Vancouver and New York; this is not his first rodeo.

When he spoke Friday about suddenly changing the Flyers' preseason plan to ramp up the preparation and concepts for the veteran players, he chose his words wisely.

But make no mistake: Vigneault can't be thrilled with the progress.

"It has nothing to do with the outcomes, it has everything to do with the process," the Flyers' head coach said. "For me, the process needs to accelerate at this time — and that's what I intend to do."

The Flyers were ready to play a mixed group of NHLers — about nine players that would likely make the team — and prospects to compete in Saturday's exhibition game against the Rangers at the Wells Fargo Center. Instead, following a lackluster 3-1 preseason loss to the Bruins' B-squad Thursday, Vigneault met with general manager Chuck Fletcher and assistant general manager Brent Flahr Friday morning about adjusting the approach. With four exhibition games remaining, the Flyers will expedite cuts to focus on whittling down the roster and increasing the reps for the main players ahead of the season opener.

"Between the 25 and the 30 players that I feel right now have the best chance of maybe making this team," Vigneault said. "Instead of waiting until Monday, Tuesday's practice, we're going to be at that number [Saturday]."

Is it a startling change? If anything, it's proactive. The Flyers have missed the playoffs in four of the last seven seasons and haven't won a series since 2012. They've notoriously started slow in recent history. Last season, the team was in last place of the Metropolitan Division at Thanksgiving for the second straight year.

It cost people jobs and, ultimately, it's why Vigneault is in place.

After looking at the last couple of days, I feel that this is a different situation than I've been used to in the past. I've been used to coming to camp in the past and my teams have been in the playoffs. Usually I give the veteran players three of the six or seven games that we play. I feel at this time, our veteran players need more games that I originally planned. I'm going from the three that I planned to four and some might even get five out of the seven. 

I'm going on the amount of teaching that we're doing, there's a lot there, there's a lot to be assimilated by the players. I'm going by what I'm seeing about the players' performance, how they're executing, and I just feel at this time we need to make a change and that's what we're doing.

- Vigneault

In 16 NHL seasons as a head coach, Vigneault has 11 playoff berths. Eight of those teams advanced past the first round, three won the Presidents' Trophy and two went to the Stanley Cup Final. He has impressive results in Year 1 on the job (see story).

"When you're in the playoffs and you go for a round, two rounds, three rounds, four rounds, that's intense hockey, that's a longer season," Vigneault said. "This group has been off for a while and, in my mind, it just needs a little bit more preparation. There's nothing better than game situation, where games are on the line.

"With a new staff coming in and everything that we need to touch on, I need to get these guys into more games. So what we've decided to do is just accelerate the process."

Does Vigneault's track record allow him to make this change and have it stick with the players?

"They don't have a choice," Vigneault said. "That's just the way it is."

Oct. 4 is nearing and a new system from a new staff is expected to spearhead a jump back into contention for the Flyers.

"Once you get down to one group, the internal competition gets a little bit better also," Vigneault said. "That's what we need to do here, we need to get down to one group to have everybody in the same room, at the same time, and make sure that they're grasping the concepts that we're trying to apply. 

"I'm very confident that this will be better for the group."

How the Flyers start the season will provide the true answer.

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