Off the heels of a second-round exit courtesy of the New York Islanders, the Flyers entered the 2020 offseason with a question mark here and there. Carter Hart needs a backup, the forwards need more scoring punch, and where is the toughness going to come from? The one thing that wasn’t in question as much as the rest was the situation on the blue line. Ivan Provorov had a resurgence of sorts while paired with Matt Niskanen. Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers proved to be a dynamic second pair. Robert Hagg and Justin Braun were solid shut-down defenders on the third pairing. With one announcement, that situation was flipped on its head.
Matt Niskanen announced his retirement at the beginning of October, about one month after the Flyers playoff exit. Niskanen had one year remaining on a $5.75mil deal that he signed with the Washington Capitals. Flyers brass knew before they made it public. Shortly after, the re-signing of Justin Braun was announced. Days before Niskanen’s retirement, the Flyers re-upped with Robert Hagg. Both two year deals worth less than two million dollars apiece. The Flyers went out and signed defenseman Erik Gustafsson to a one year, three million dollar contract during the off season as well.
Including potential NHL-er Mark Friedman, the Flyers now have eight defensemen at their disposal. With the 2020/21 season being shortened to 56 games, using all eight is a very real possibility. However, where do they fit into the lineup? Ivan Provorov is a shoo-in for the top pair, and Sanheim is likely going to stay on the second defensive unit. That leaves four spots up for grabs between all three pairs. With Gustafsson, Hagg, Braun, Friedman, and Shayne Gostisbehere all on the roster, who is going to slot into the remaining spots?
Ivan Provorov & Philippe Myers
Ivan Provorov’s spot on the top pair is locked in. The man averages nearly 24 minutes per night and led the league in powerplay goals last season. There’s no question that Provorov is the number one defenseman for the Flyers.
His partner is up for debate. There’s a case to be made for a few of the defensemen, but Phil Myers makes the most sense. He’s a right-handed defenseman, and Alain Vigneault has an affinity for pairing right-handers with left-handers. He’s young and the least experienced of the bunch, but arguably has the most promise out of them all. He can contribute on the scoresheet, but can also prevent the other team from doing so. He may make mistakes, but his long strides make it easier for him to get back and defend the rush.
Myers will likely be given the opportunity right off the bat to be Provorov’s partner on the top pairing. Without the Flyers addressing that need during the offseason, Myers is the most realistic option outside of Sanheim. You could argue that Shayne Gostisbehere had a modicum of success when paired with Provorov, but he isn’t the same player he was a few years ago. Sanheim and Provorov were partners for a majority of the 2018/19 season, and Provorov had his worst statistical year to date. Erik Gustafsson was paired with Duncan Keith in Chicago, but it’s unlikely he will be able to replicate that type of success with the Flyers. Myers is the safe choice, but also the right choice.
Travis Sanheim & Erik Gustafsson
Travis Sanheim is in the same boat as Ivan Provorov. His spot is solidified, just one pairing down from Ivan. His partner is anything but certain. The one thing that is certain is the fact that Sanheim’s partner will be offensive-minded. More than likely one of Shayne Gostisbehere or Erik Gustafsson is going to be Sanheim’s partner. Gustafsson will likely be the guy. The reason? There’s no way Chuck Fletcher signed him for three million this year to be a healthy scratch. Pair that with Ghost being placed on the trade block early in the offseason and the writing is on the wall.
Gustafsson and Gostisbehere surely have their similarities. They’re both offensively gifted, but both liabilities in the defensive end. While Sanheim isn’t the most defensively sound defenseman either, he can hold his own on most nights. He will be tasked with masking the deficiencies of Gustafsson on that end, but the second pairing should be more than formidable when it comes to adding offense.
Justin Braun & Robert Hagg
As the old saying goes: If if ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Braun and Hagg formed a decent bottom pairing last season. They were the shutdown pair, and were tasked with some tough minutes in their own zone. They’re the two best suited for that role, and will continue to ply their trade as such, on the third pair.
While they come with their faults, Braun and Hagg are the best bet at this position. They aren’t flashy, they won’t put up a ton of points. They aren’t going to give you highlight after highlight to gush over like your Quinn Hughes and Victor Hedman’s of the world. That’s not what’s asked of them. They’re meant to be your pillars, the guys that hold steady being the physical, defensive-minded defensemen you can lean on to protect your own end. On the current Flyers roster, these two are your best option.
Odd Men Out
Shayne Gostisbehere & Mark Friedman
It should come as no surprise that Gostisbehere finds himself on the outside looking in. It’s apparent that ever since his name was thrown around the trade rumor mill, he’s fallen out of favor in Philadelphia. While he gave us some very fond memories, it appears as though those days have come and gone, and Ghost just isn’t that type of player anymore. His $4.5mil cap hit sitting up in the press box isn’t the most appealing thing in the world, but it’s worth it considering his gaffs on the defensive side of things.
Mark Friedman is still awaiting a legitimate chance to crack the NHL roster. In his limited time playing for the Flyers, he’s shown that he can potentially hold his own if given the opportunity. With more ice time, Friedman could win the fanbase over and claim his spot in the lineup. Until then, he might end up back in Lehigh Valley or on the taxi squad, waiting for an opening to arise.
The departure of Matt Niskanen has had it’s ripple effect on the rest of the blue line. While Provorov will stay put, the rest of the defensive core is in flux. While you absolutely cannot fault Niskanen for making the decision he made, it definitely presents a challenge for the rest of the defense to make up for his absence.
Photo Credit – Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire