What is the Plan for the Defense?

The NHL entry draft and free agency have come and gone and the Flyers remained mostly silent through the entire week. While there may not be any glaring needs at forward, the Flyers still have not addressed the retirement of Matt Niskanen yet.

Chuck Fletcher delivered two press conferences where he seemed rather nonchalant about the hole left by Niskanen in the lineup. Noting it’s a big loss, he went forward with the current players on the roster, putting verbal faith in Shayne Gostisbehere rebounding to his 2017-18 form as well as talking up Mark Friedman, who has seven NHL games under his belt, and the newly acquired Erik Gustafsson, whom he made sure to note the differences from Gostisbehere.

When free agency opened, Alex Pietrangelo, Torey Krug, Kevin Shattenkirk, TJ Brodie, and Tyson Barrie headlined the free agent class. They now all have new homes and the Flyers didn’t get in on any of them, or the subsequent trades made by their new teams to clear a roster spot, most notably Nate Schmidt in Las Vegas.

Fletcher did add a defenseman to the roster when he signed 28-year-old Erik Gustafsson to a one-year, $3 million deal. He scored six goals and 29 points last season split between the Blackhawks and Flames. He previously had a 17-goal, 60-point campaign during the 2018-19 season. Gustafsson’s biggest weakness is the defensive side of his game, which makes his addition a bit of a head scratcher, as Niskanen played a key role in the foundation of the team’s defense, and they already have a reclamation project offensive-defenseman in Shayne Gostisbehere.

Fletcher made reference to the trade market, hoping to play the role of a vulture and pick up a player from a team who is struggling with the salary cap space. It’s not impossible that they find a player on the outs at some point from now until the beginning of next season, but there’s also no guarantee that happens either.

If there were an educated opinion to be made, it would be the Flyers don’t make any further additions to the blue line, but rather have an internal battle for the spot next to Provorov with some of their young stars. Travis Sanheim and Phil Myers (the latter of which hasn’t re-signed yet as of the time of this writing) could both be given a fair shake on the top unit. The big question is if either are ready for that workload.

Fletcher has expressed interest in Ghost getting more ice time as well, and while that seems less-than-ideal at face value, his best season came when he was partnered with Provorov during the 2017-18 season. And quite frankly, the best way to get the most out of a player like Ghost is the give him favorable minutes both at even strength and on the powerplay. That being said, his lackluster play over the past two seasons has put a sizable question mark on the player Gostisbehere really is.

With Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, Phil Myers, Shayne Gostisbehere, Justin Braun, Robert Hagg, Erik Gustafsson, Mark Friedman, Samuel Morin, and even Yegor Zamula all battling for a roster spot next season, it’s not the end of the world if they choose to ignore the hole Matt Niskanen left. However, if Sanheim or Myers can’t handle the 2-D role and Friedman and Zamula don’t pack the punch that they had hoped, or Ghost can’t regain his previous form, all of a sudden they’re stuck with one stud defeseman and nine plug-ins.

Time will tell if Fletcher’s moves, or lack thereof, were the right way to approach Niskanen’s retirement, but for right now, it’s safe to ask- what exactly is the plan for the defense?

By: Dan Esche (@DanTheFlyeraFan)

photo credit: mcall.com/nbcsports.com

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