Flyers Signing Gustafsson Doesn’t Solve Problems On Defense

As expected, the Philadelphia Flyers have been fairly quiet throughout the first week of free agency.

They went into the offseason with no elaborate plan to pursue any of the major unrestricted free agents (UFAs) on the board, and thus far, they’ve kept most of their available cap space within the organization.

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General manager Chuck Fletcher had to make one move, however. After the surprise retirement of defenseman Matt Niskanen, the Flyers had a pretty significant gap to fill in their top four on the blue line.

To add some support to their defensive core, Fletcher turned to 28-year-old veteran Erik Gustafsson.

The addition of the former Chicago Blackhawks and Calgary Flames’ blueliner has left some fans scratching their heads as to whether the Flyers have more free agent moves in the works or not.

Erik Gustafsson #56 of the Chicago Blackhawks
Former Chicago Blackhawk Erik Gustafsson (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

There’s no telling if Fletcher has another move up his sleeve, but for the time being, adding Gustafsson doesn’t feel like the proper answer to the Niskanen vacancy.

Why Erik Gustafsson?

With the Flyers in desperate need of a new top-four defenseman and so many high-profile players at that position available in free agency, this move leaves you wondering how Fletcher landed on Gustafsson.

Well, the short answer is budget constraints. The Flyers went into the offseason with very little cap space flexibility and some important restricted free agents to lock up.

Grabbing Gustafsson on a one-year deal also allows them to fill a spot on their defense without having to worry about protecting him in next year’s expansion draft.

Before news broke about Niskanen’s retirement, the Flyers had extended the deals of Nic Aube-Kubel, Brian Elliott, Alex Lyon, and Robert Hagg. Shortly afterward, they re-signed fellow veteran defenseman Justin Braun and presented Philippe Myers and Nolan Patrick with qualifying offers.

Although at one point it seemed like the $5.75 million in cap space they gained from Niskanen’s departure would allow them to compete for some of the big available names, they were still pretty far off from what guys like Alex Pietrangelo or Torey Krug were looking for.

What He Brings to the Flyers

Gustafsson’s strengths come primarily in the offensive zone and on the power play, but he’s had some pretty consistent struggles in the defensive end.

Chicago Blackhawks' Erik Gustafsson Dominik Kahun Duncan Keith
Former Chicago Blackhawk Erik Gustafsson (middle) (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)

The past two seasons have mainly been about production for Gustafsson. After a breakout 2018-19 season in which he posted 60 points (17 goals, 43 assists) in 79 games with the Blackhawks, he tallied 29 points last season between the Hawks and the Flames.

For the Flyers, Gustafsson will likely slot into a third defensive pair alongside either Braun or Hagg. He’s drawn a fair amount of comparisons to his new teammate Shayne Gostisbehere, so it’s hard to imagine Alain Vigneault would play the two together.

He could also easily earn a spot on the Flyers’ second powerplay unit, as some of the most notable positives of his game are his ability to quarterback a play, move the puck, and occasionally find the back of the net. Even as a left-handed shot, he’s made his living mainly playing on the right side with the ability to shift to the left whenever the situation requires it.

With all that in mind, and if the Flyers don’t make any additional signings on defense between now and the proposed Jan. 1 start to next season, the downgrade on the defensive end is painfully apparent.

What’s Next In Free Agency

There’s not a lot left for Fletcher and the Flyers in free agency. Most of the appealing defensemen that could’ve filled Niskanen’s role have come and gone. And, at this point, it’s slim pickings for above-average talent at the position.

With most, if not all, of their remaining cap space likely tied up in the deals for Myers and Patrick, they don’t really have the freedom to pursue any other free agent anyway.

In terms of trades, Chuck Fletcher has made it pretty clear what his mindset is towards dealing players during the off-season.

Even if they were to try and make any trades throughout the rest of the off-season, it’d likely mean losing one of their high-potential young defensemen to get anyone significant.

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At the end of the day, Gustafsson is a good value signing for the Flyers that helps add some depth to their blueline. Unfortunately, he won’t come close to fulfilling the duties that Niskanen handled for the Flyers.

Only time will tell what’s left for the Flyers in free agency and whether or not Fletcher has any additional plans to change up the lineup over the next couple of months.

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