Niskanen’s retirement creates a big hole but also gives flexibility

Defenseman Matt Niskanen has retired before the final year of his contract, leaving the Flyers with a big hole to fill on their blue line. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

It didn’t appear that many changes were coming this offseason for the Philadelphia Flyers.

They re-signed a couple of restricted free agents in Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Robert Hagg, and were able to bring back backup goaltender Brian Elliott before he hit the free agent open market.

There was just enough cap space left to extend pending RFA Philippe Myers and figure out how to proceed with Nolan Patrick.

Then Matt Niskanen dropped a bomb on the organization.

With one year left on his deal, the 33-year-old defenseman informed the Flyers that he would rather retire than return for the final season of his contract, as reported by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman and The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun, forgoing $5.75 million.

This wasn’t one of those front-loaded contracts in which the player makes pennies on the dollar in real money in the final year of the deal. Niskanen’s contract was straight forward, equally spread out over seven years with no signing bonuses, originally signed with the Washington Capitals in 2014.

According to Friedman, Niskanen informed the Flyers he would retire. The team asked Niskanen to take time to reconsider but was unsuccessful in getting him to change his mind. This leaves the Flyers with an enormous hole in their defensive corps, as Niskanen played top-line minutes alongside Ivan Provorov and has been credited with lifting Provorov’s game to a new level.

In his first and only year with the Flyers after arriving via trade in exchange for Radko Gudas, Niskanen played all 68 games this season, racking up eight goals and 25 assists and was a plus-15. He will retire just 51 career games shy of 1,000 after winning a Stanley Cup with the Caps in 2018.

The Flyers will lose their veteran presence on the blue line and a top penalty killer, but on the other side of the coin, were given $5.75 million in unexpected cap space to fill that hole or possibly upgrade in other areas. Big names that once seemed unattainable due to the lack of cap space could now be an option if the Flyers can manage to unload a little extra money.

St. Louis Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo leads a class of unrestricted free agents who are due to hit the open market on Friday. He’s joined by Boston’s Torey Krug and Toronto’s Tyson Barrie as a couple of key attractions. Further down the list, there are other available bodies in T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic of Calgary, Sami Vatanen (Carolina), Justin Schultz (Pittsburgh) or even Gudas.

Almost immediately after the news of Niskanen broke, the Flyers re-signed UFA Justin Braun to a two-year, $3.6 million contract that holds an annual cap hit of $1.8 million. It does come at a steep discount from the $3.8 million cap hit Braun had this year.

Before Niskanen’s retirement, the Flyers had about $4.7 million in space and a large chunk of that is appropriated to re-sign Myers and Nolan Patrick.

Once they sign Myers, the Flyers’ top-six defensemen in terms of depth are Provorov, Myers, Travis Sanheim, Hagg, Shayne Gostisbehere and Braun. They also have options with Mark Friedman, who has just seven NHL games under his belt. Undrafted prospect Yegor Zamula has impressed in camp and has looked wise beyond his years at only 20 and could be another option. Last year’s first-round pick, Cam York, is still probably a year away from the big club.

The Flyers re-signed backup goaltender Brian Elliott to a one-year, $1.5 million deal. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

Moose no longer loose

President and general manager Chuck Fletcher could have been tempted to try to upgrade the backup goaltending position with a number of other possibly cheap goalie options floating the market, including New York Rangers’ royalty Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist will hit free agency after the Rangers bought out the final year of his contract, ending a decade and a half of brilliance by the Swedish netminder in the Big Apple.

In the West, the Vegas Golden Knights extended goalie Robin Lehner for five years, meaning future hall of famer Marc-Andre Fleury will also likely be available soon.

The Flyers chose to go the more safe route with Elliott, agreeing to a one-year, $1.5 million deal, in which the 35-year-old goalie took a half-million-dollar discount for the second straight year.

Fletcher was wise to not rock the boat, as Elliott has proven a solid backup who has a great relationship with starter Carter Hart. Combined, the two goalies account for a little more than $2.23 million per this year, which might be the best bargain in the league among goaltending tandems.

It would have been a sexier expedition to go after Lundqvist or possibly wait to see what big name was left in the bargain bin once free agency begins on Oct. 9, but Elliott has proven to be the safe option in a position that has given the franchise so many headaches for so long. Remember using eight goalies in one season just a couple of years ago? The Flyers would like to forget it. ••