An interesting and difficult twist has been thrown into the Flyers' offseason plans.
Matt Niskanen, the team's steady, veteran, all-situation defenseman who was instrumental in the club's 2019-20 turnaround season, has retired.
The 33-year-old Niskanen, who was acquired in a trade last offseason, was set to be on the final year of his seven-year, $40.25 million deal in which he would have held a cap hit of $5.75 million in 2020-21.
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"Thank you to the Flyers organization for the opportunity to play in Philly last season," Niskanen said, via Flyers senior director of public relations and communications Zack Hill. "I'd also like to thank the fans for their support and, lastly, I wish my teammates the best of luck."
General manager Chuck Fletcher said Niskanen called him the day after the Flyers' second-round Game 7 loss to the Islanders on Sept. 5 as the defenseman was driving home to Minnesota. Niskanen told Fletcher he was going to retire.
"It caught me off-guard, absolutely," Fletcher said Monday in a video interview. "I didn’t anticipate that. I know it’s been a difficult year with the pandemic and coming back to play in a bubble and there’s a lot of uncertainty about next year. It’s difficult I think for some players, so we talked about it ... there’s a lot of emotion, there’s always a lot of emotion at the end of a season, we lost a tough Game 7 the night before. I just told him to get home, see your family, spend some time and let’s talk again in a few weeks. We’ve had a couple conversations since then and he’s resolute in his desire to retire. I completely respect that, he’s earned that right and we’ll just move forward from here. We wish him nothing but the best."
Fletcher said Niskanen "did as much as anybody to change the mindset" of the Flyers, who became a top-six club this past season after a disastrous 2018-19 campaign, prior to the arrival of the accomplished blueliner.
"He’s the consummate professional and teammate," the Flyers' GM said. "He certainly won’t be an easy player to replace, but today should be about thanking Matt for what he did, for what he contributed to our group and we’re very grateful for the time that we had with him. After all, he’s put a lot of time into his career. This was his decision."
It is not yet determined when exactly the 2020-21 season will begin. With that, there's also uncertainty of how the season could unfold and when it could end. Following 2020-21, Niskanen would have been a free agent in his mid-30s. He has achieved a lot.
"I think being away from your family, a couple months in the bubble, impacted a lot of veteran players — not just ours but around the league," Fletcher said. "I think it’s tough when you have a young family, to be away and different circumstances, the game became a little bit different than what it was. I’m sure the uncertainty of next season and some of the changes that have been brought on by the pandemic and how it has forced us to play has certainly had an impact. Matt just said to me that he wanted to go when it was time, he wanted to make that decision. I think he felt this was the time to do so. He loved the team, really believes in the group."
The news is significant to the Flyers' offseason decisions and 2020-21 chances.
In 2019-20, after the Flyers acquired the Stanley Cup champion from the Capitals, Niskanen helped make up the Flyers' do-it-all, minutes-eating first defensive pair alongside Ivan Provorov. Niskanen, a smart, puck-moving blueliner with 140 games of playoff experience, improved the Flyers at 5-on-5, on the power play and the penalty kill. Just as importantly, he also did wonders for the rebound of Provorov, a 23-year-old who had far too much on his shoulders last season.
Among the Flyers, Niskanen was second on the team in minutes per game (21:54) and shorthanded minutes per game (2:38), third in plus-minus (plus-15), seventh in power play minutes (139:26) and finished with 33 points (eight goals, 25 assists) over 68 regular-season games. His winning pedigree rubbed off on teammates and Fletcher lauded Niskanen's "tremendous presence."
"He’s invaluable," Scott Laughton said in November. "He’s a quiet leader for us and when he speaks, people listen."
Not long after the Niskanen news surfaced, the Flyers re-signed defenseman Justin Braun to a two-year, $3.6 million deal. The desire and need to bring back the 33-year-old Braun certainly spiked once the Flyers found out Niskanen's decision to retire.
With Niskanen's decision, his $5.75 million cap hit comes off the Flyers' books, giving the club some unexpected flexibility going into NHL free agency, which opens Friday at noon ET. The Flyers could be less open to listening on trade offers for Shayne Gostisbehere. However, they could also try the trade route to add to their blue line. The club has assets but also likes its youth and depth at the position, so it won't panic. But replacing a player the caliber of Niskanen is not a simple, quick-decision task and could require a tough decision.
"Good luck with that," Fletcher said with a laugh when asked about finding a Niskanen replacement outside of the organization. "There are different ways to attack this.
"We have some young defensemen that continue to grow and will continue to assume bigger roles as they develop.
"Obviously been working the phones for weeks, I’ve spoken to every team in the league and some several times. I think I’m pretty aware of what’s available and we’ll just have to make some decisions from here. I’m certainly comfortable with our group, with our group of seven [defensemen] that we have right now, that’s returning from last year. We have some other players pushing.
"We have the ability to start the season as we are and wait for opportunities or obviously we can pursue opportunities now. It will depend on the player, the fit, the price and the opportunity."