Analyzing the Flyers’ defense after Chuck Fletcher’s trades for Niskanen and Braun

 

Chuck Fletcher has given the Philadelphia Flyers’ blue line a makeover in the past week.

On Friday morning, he traded Radko Gudas to the Washington Capitals for Matt Niskanen.

This move alone upgraded the Flyers’ defense a bit, while only having to give up some cap space to do so.

Then, on Saturday as the NHL’s buyout period opened, the Flyers placed Andrew MacDonald on unconditional waivers for the purpose of terminating his contract.

This opened up a spot on the blue line, or at least as the team’s seventh defenseman. That spot was filled on Tuesday when Fletcher made another trade. He acquired Justin Braun from the San Jose Sharks for a 2019 second-round pick and 2020 third-round pick.

In just a few days, the Flyers’ defense changed drastically. They lost their two most-experienced blueliners in Gudas and MacDonald, but got back two better veterans in Niskanen and Braun.

Niskanen had a down year last season, in part due to a short summer with last year’s Stanley Cup run, and the Flyers are counting on him to bounce back. If he doesn’t, he may end up being an overpaid Gudas. However, he has the winning track record and ability to play in the top four and on the top pair if he plays to his fullest. That’s something they didn’t think they could get out of Gudas.

Braun is a definite upgrade over MacDonald.  He had an expected goals for of 52.19%, per Natural Stat Trick, with the Sharks while playing tough minutes. In the past three years his expected goals for is at 49.93% in 43.34% offensive zone starts, which is better than MacDonald’s (47.61 xGF% in 45.17% OZS). He will also help a penalty kill that has been dreadful in recent years.

Let’s summarize the crazy few days.

In: Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun
Out: Radko Gudas, Andrew MacDonald, 2019 second-rounder, 2010 third-rounder

There is no doubt that the Flyers are objectively a better team than they were a week ago. Niskanen is an improvement from Gudas, and Braun is a better defenseman than MacDonald. However, the two draft picks complicate things a bit.

The Flyers are trying to win now. As in right now. Ownership is pushing Fletcher to make moves to get the Orange and Black back in the playoffs — and back among the creme of the crop in the Eastern Conference. To upgrade their blue line, where the Flyers struggled mightily in 2018-19, they gave up two high-mid round picks. A second-round pick in a deep draft may be costly, but Fletcher traded future value, as a draft pick this year won’t make an NHL impact for a few seasons, for current value: an improved blue line.

It wasn’t a completely fair trade, as the Sharks likely got a second pick that was a round or two too high, but it’s what Fletcher needed to do to improve the team right now. Ron Hextall did the opposite, trading some current value for future value, and now Fletcher and the Flyers are reversing course as they are in win-now mode.

Let’s take a look at the Flyers’ projected defensive pairs before and after Fletcher’s moves.

BEFORE:

Ivan Provorov (RFA) Shayne Gostisbehere ($4.5)
Travis Sanheim (RFA) Radko Gudas ($3.35)
Robert Hagg ($1.15) Philippe Myers ($0.678)
Sam Morin ($0.7) Andrew MacDonald ($5)


TOTAL: $14.678 million, two RFAs

 

AFTER:

Ivan Provorov (RFA) Matt Niskanen ($5.75)
Travis Sanheim (RFA) Justin Braun ($3.8)
Shayne Gostisbehere ($4.5) Philippe Myers ($0.678)
Robert Hagg ($1.15) Sam Morin ($0.7)
Retaining Gudas: ($1.005) MacDonald buyout: ($1.166)


TOTAL: $18.049 million, two RFAs

 

Fletcher spent $3.371 million to upgrade the Flyers’ blue line and give them three solid pairs. Let’s break it down a bit.

Provorov, Sanheim and Myers stayed in their top-pair LD, second-pair LD, and third-pair RD positions. Gostisbehere shifted from top-pair RD to third-pair LD, while Niskanen and Braun filled in the top-four RDs.

The top pair is arguably as good as it was before the moves. Gostisbehere’s level of play is a bit up in the air, so letting him slide down to the third pair while having Niskanen be able to fill that gap is a plus for the Flyers. If anything, it’s a downgrade right now and Gostisbehere can always play himself back up into the top four, or even top pair.

Braun is an improvement on the second pair for the Flyers instead of Gudas. The former Shark has played against most team’s top lines and has been a great defender in his own zone. He won’t light up the scoresheet often — and he can let his partner do that now in Sanheim — but he will be a stabilizing presence in the Flyers’ bottom four in front of Carter Hart.

Gostisbehere replacing Hagg on the third pair, and moving the Swede to the seventh-defenseman, is a major improvement for the Flyers. Ghost and Myers will be able to grow together and they have all the makings of a great pair.

If Gostisbehere bottoms out as nothing more than a third-pairing, power-play specialist, then so be it — that’s where he’ll be in the lineup. But if he bounces back, the Flyers will have three defensive pairs that can play in nearly all situations.

Another plus to the moves made by Fletcher is the confidence shown — and stated — in Myers as the team’s bottom-four right defenseman. The Flyers are “bullish” on his upside and given his usage at the World Championship by Alain Vigneault with Team Canada. No longer might he be on the outside looking in, or fighting for a roster spot. He is now the team’s third-pairing defenseman with a chance to move up in the lineup.

With the moves, Sam Morin is the odd-man out. He’d need to pass through waivers to reach the AHL, so he may be the seventh (or eighth) defenseman if the Flyers make no more moves on the blue line.

The only qualm with the moves Fletcher made surrounds the salary cap. While it was just over $3 million to improve the team this season, they now have Niskanen at $5.75 million for next season as well — which would be a hefty price if he declines and becomes a third-pairing defenseman — and will also have $1.916 million against the cap due to MacDonald’s buyout.

However, with Gostisbehere on a team-friendly deal and the rest of the defense still on their first or second contracts, Niskanen’s cap hit next season shouldn’t be a big deal. That’ll be easier to say after Provorov and Sanheim are signed, but it’s a fair assumption.

After years of being patient and stockpiling assets, Hextall’s pile of prospects and picks are being turned into win-now moves by Fletcher. Niskanen and Braun aren’t the flashiest of names, but after kicking the tires on Jacob Trouba and Erik Karlsson signing a record contract to stay in San Jose, the moves look pretty good.

The Flyers now have three great defensive pairs in front of an up-and-coming goalie. If the forwards can come together, of which Kevin Hayes will be a big part, this team — on paper — is significantly improved from last season and will be a tough competitor in the Eastern Conference.

What do you think?