It was well-documented that, to take the leap to true contender status, the Philadelphia Flyers’ blue line was going to need a face-lift. General manager Chuck Fletcher has taken the first – and perhaps only – step toward rearranging the blue line. Defenseman Radko Gudas was traded to the Washington Capitals for 32-year-old veteran defenseman Matt Niskanen.
On the surface, the trade looks like a win-win for both sides that fits the needs of both clubs. Whether it was actually a win-win is up for debate.
Why the Flyers Made the Move
The Flyers, led by a young core of defenseman, needed a stabilizing veteran presence who can slot into the top-four and play tough minutes every night. Before the acquisition of Niskanen, they were mostly using the recently bought out Andrew MacDonald to fill that role, unsuccessfully albeit. Despite strong underlying numbers in bottom-pairing minutes, Gudas was never entrusted with the role, presumably because of his lack of puck-moving chops.
Niskanen, on the other hand, has averaged over 22 minutes of ice time per game on a perennially contending Capitals team, while posting strong numbers and winning a Stanley Cup. So, what’s the catch?
Niskanen played rather poorly this season posting his lowest point total (25 points) in the past six seasons. He also posted a lackluster 47.47 Corsi For Percentage (CF%) which was minus-2.62% relative to his teammates (RelCF%). When looking at the underlying numbers and the age of both players, it’s fair to wonder that at this point in their careers if Gudas (49.38 CF%, 1.72 RelCF% this season) is actually the superior player.
In other words, the Flyers are betting heavily on a bounce-back season from Niskanen, who comes with a hefty price tag of $5.75 million over the next two years. They also retained 30% of Gudas’ $3.35 million cap hit in the deal, making the trade even more expensive.
That’s a lot of money locked up into a guy who you’re hoping for a bounce-back from. Niskanen acknowledged his poor performance this season, and contributed it to the long grind and short summer that accompanied the Capitals Stanley Cup run the previous season.
I had never gone that far, so I wasn’t sure what to expect heading into the next season. At times I felt fine and had a lot of juice, but there were times during the year where, holy crap, am I tired, whether it be mentally fatigued or that I didn’t seem to have the same pop in my legs. That’s a lot of hockey and a short recovery period.Matt Niskanen from ‘Nisky Business’, NHL.com – 6/16/19)
The Flyers must have the same thought process as Niskanen, that with a full offseason and less wear and tear he can come out of the gate strong. They may also feel like his style of play will fit in better with the young guns on defense.
Gudas thrives on his physical play and willingness to shoot the puck, separating players from the puck in the defensive zone and using a “shoot everything that touches my stick” mentality in the offensive zone. Niskanen, on the other hand, is a more patient, mobile, puck-moving defenseman, adept at using his stick to break up zone entries and turning them into crisp transitions up the ice.
Why the Capitals Made the Move
Make no mistake, the Capitals front office and locker room are huge fans of Niskanen the person, just as much as the player. The decision to ship him out was not an easy one for them to make, but money talks in a salary cap league.
Sure, the Capitals must like Gudas enough to bring him into the fold but cap space is what they were truly trading for. By unloading Niskanen and replacing him with Gudas the Capitals save nearly $4 million in cap space after accounting for Philly’s salary retention.
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With franchise players Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby in line for hefty extensions next offseason, as well as contracts needed this summer for RFA’s Jakub Vrana, Andre Burakovsky, and Christian Djoos; the Capitals are going to have to save every penny that they can.
Acquiring Gudas on a cheaper, shorter-term deal compared to Niskanen’s was a move that needed to be done in order to retain the core pieces that brought the team its first Stanley Cup championship.
Only Time Will Tell for the Flyers
No matter what happens, the Capitals got what they needed out of this deal, extra cap space needed to re-sign their stars. Anything that Gudas contributes on or off the ice can be considered gravy. He is a rugged, passionate player who brings something to the game that old-school fans and new-school statisticians can both enjoy.
For the Flyers, only time can tell whether this was the right move. If Niskanen’s poor season was actually the start of an age-related decline they’ve essentially replaced MacDonald’s bloated contract with Niskanen’s and they’ll be back in the same place they’ve been for years.
If last season was simply a fatigue-related aberration, and he bounces back to career norms, the Flyers are receiving a veteran, top-four caliber, all situations defender that can serve as a mentor for their young defensemen and turn the backend into a legit strength.