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Niskanen retirement will leave Flyers with big hole to fill

Wayne Fish
flyingfishhockey.com
Flyers defenseman Matt Niskanen celebrates scoring a third-period goal in the playoff series against the Islanders.

It was one of those Mondays for the Flyers — first with some good news and then some unusually bad.

Seemingly moments after signing veteran defenseman Justin Braun to a new two-year contract extension worth $1.8 million annually, one of his backline brethren decided to call it a career.

That would be Matt Niskanen, who still had one season remaining on a two-year deal which pays him $5.75 million per campaign.

Niskanen, 33, had a major impact on the Flyers in his one season in Philadelphia — most notably for the influence he had on his young partner, Ivan Provorov.

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“Thank you to the Flyers organization for the opportunity to play in Philly last season,’’ Niskanen said via a statement made to the Flyers’ public relations department.

 “I’d also like to thank the fans for their support and lastly, I wish my teammates the best of luck.’’

It’s a major hit for the Flyers and their hopes of improving on their top seed in the round-robin tournament and their first playoff series win (vs. Montreal) since 2012.

Niskanen and Provorov formed the Flyers’ top defense pair used against superstars such as Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Connor MacDavid.

In a media conference call late Monday afternoon, general manager Chuck Fletcher said he was aware of Niskanen’s decision the day after the Flyers were eliminated by the New York Islanders in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. 

Fletcher said Niskanen has no health or injury issues. The GM noted a number of veteran players were affected by the “bubble quarantine’’ during the playoffs and lengthy time away from their families. That may have played into Niskanen’s decision.

“As an organization and a team, I think we made great strides this year — not only in terms of our record but in terms of how we played the game, our culture, our commitment to playing the right way," Fletcher said. “I do want to single out Matt Niskanen. In my opinion, he did as much as anybody to change the mindset of our team.’’

Fletcher will be hard pressed to find a defenseman, particularly a right-handed shooting one with vast experience, to replace “Nisky.’’

“He’s the consummate professional and teammate,’’ Fletcher said. “Besides his on-ice contributions, he contributed so much to our group – from the way he prepared to the way he practiced. He did everything the right way in drills. That was a great blessing for our young defensemen to watch day-in, day-out.

“For us, he was a top-pairing defenseman; played on the second power play, the first PK (penalty kill). Was used in every situation. He certainly won’t be an easy player to replace. He’s put a lot of time into his career. This was his decision and certainly he earned the right to make this decision and to decide on what terms he wanted to end his career.’’

The Flyers signed Niskanen as a free agent in July, 2019 mainly because of his vast experience, including a Stanley Cup win with the Washington Capitals in 2018.

Niskanen, a native of Virginia, Minn., was selected by Dallas at No. 28 overall in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. He played three-plus seasons with the Stars, three-plus seasons with Pittsburgh and five seasons with Washington before joining the Flyers.

This past season he played in 68 games, with eight goals and a total of 33 points with a plus-15.

He finishes with 949 NHL games – 72 goals, 284 assists for 356 points. In his last seven season, he was a plus-106. He played 125 in the games in the postseason with 35 points.

Fletcher apparently did not try to talk Niskanen out of his decision out of respect to his illustrious career.

“He called me the day after our last game,’’ Fletcher said. “He was on his way back to Minnesota, driving back home. He told me he was going to retire.

"It caught me off-guard. I didn’t anticipate that. I know it’s been a difficult year with the pandemic and coming back to play in a bubble. There’s a lot of uncertainty about next year. It’s difficult for some players. We talked about it and I advised him – there’s always a lot of emotion at the end of a season. I told him to go home, spend some time and we’ll talk again in a few weeks ... he’s resolute in his desire to retire.’’

Fletcher is leaving his options open. He might try to cover the loss of Niskanen from within, perhaps promoting right-handed shooting D-man Phil Myers up to play with Provorov. Or he could go the trade/free agent route.

“Good luck with that,’’ Fletcher said with a chuckle. “There’s different ways to attack this. To his credit, he gave us early warning of his desire. He’s a tough guy to replace. Not many guys have his skill set (and) he had a tremendous presence with his teammates. We’ll see what opportunities there are.’’

Fletcher already has been making calls to every team in the league to gauge the market.

“It will depend on the fit, the price and the opportunity,’’ Fletcher said.