With the 2019-20 NHL regular season likely over, we can fully evaluate individual players from the Philadelphia Flyers.
Some believed that the Flyers had made a needless lateral move by trading for another right-handed defenseman who was older and more expensive, while others saw potential value in what the seasoned Niskanen could bring to the Flyers, even at the cost of Gudas, their “best defenseman” during the disappointing 2018-19 season.
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Score one for the latter group.
You can look at my recent article about Niskanen for an even deeper dive into how he’s helped the Flyers this year, but essentially it boils down to three things:
- Niskanen’s offensive numbers and overall usefulness in that area have risen this year after two seasons of decline. It would have been easy to go the “this is who he is now” route after he posted seasons of just 29 and 25 points for the Caps the past two years, but the Flyers believed there was still gas left in the tank. Niskanen, to his credit, has capitalized on the opportunity. He was on pace to produce the second-highest point total of his 13-year career had the league not gone into its current pause.
- Niskanen has munched minutes and provided the Flyers with the kind of ice time that even “peak Radko Gudas” never could. During his four years in town, Gudas averaged 18:32 of ice time per game. It wasn’t chump change, but those kind of semi-sheltered minutes (for a blueliner) allowed the Flyers to wring all that they could out of Gudas. Meanwhile, Niskanen has played 21:54 per game for the Flyers this season, a much bigger piece of the pie than the career-low 16:44 that the Capitals have given to Gudas. Those minutes add up; Niskanen has essentially been on the ice for six more full games’ worth of time than Gudas has this season.
- Point production and ice time, in and of themselves, don’t indicate success or the fact that a player is making a noticeable impact on his team. But in this case, any look at the rest of the club will confirm how vital Niskanen has been this year. For starters, Ivan Provorov enjoyed a fantastic bounceback campaign after we had all begun to doubt him. It’s no coincidence that his improvement this season came largely with Niskanen as his partner in crime on the ice. This is a prime example of how good players can max out on their abilities when they’re not asked to do everything themselves, as Provorov was last year and for most of his career up until this season. The rest of his teammates have spoken highly of Niskanen as well. Whether or not you buy into the concepts of “good in the room” and “being a glue guy”, it’s hard to argue that Niskanen’s calming presence and battle-hardened experience haven’t had a positive bearing on the club as a whole.
Finally, Niskanen’s feat of taking a puck to the schnoz, coming back to finish that game, and then playing again less than 24 hours later will go down in Flyers lore. If that didn’t say “hockey player”, what did?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Niskanen looked every bit of his 33 years of age this season on a few occasions, worn out by a tough stretch of games or just high usage on a given night. But those times have been largely a blip on the radar of an otherwise fine season.