Apparently, Matt Niskanen was the most important player in Philadelphia Flyers history. If not, how else can you explain just how well his team played with him in 2019-20, and how absolutely atrocious they’ve become in his first season post-retirement.
*sigh* such is the life of a Philly fan; no team stays at the top forever.
So naturally, with the team’s one-time top right-handed defenseman off to the greener pastures of post-hockey life, the Flyers had to scramble to replace him with limited financial options and an underwhelming market for mid-level defensemen.
Their choice? Ex-Calgary Flames/Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Erik Gustafsson; a decision that maybe wasn’t the best, hindsight being what it is.
Philadelphia Flyers: It’s okay to admit the EG experiment was a failure.
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Two seasons ago, Erik Gustafsson was a darn good defenseman. He was fresh off a 60 point season – 17 goals, 43 assists – and had performed well enough to even get a few All-Star votes thrown his way for his efforts.
Though the Nynashamn, Sweden native was unable to keep up his otherworldly clip in the following season, he was still able to fetch the Chicago Blackhawks a third-round pick from the all-in Calgary Flames in the hopes that he could provide some pop to their power plays. Granted, that didn’t happen, as Gustafsson only appeared in seven games for the Flames and only generated three points without a goal but hey, that was the idea at the time.
Had the Philadelphia Flyers gotten that player, specifically the 2018-19 version or even a summation of his entire career with the Hawks, locking up Gustafsson on a one-year, $3 million deal would have been looked at as a solid signing – maybe even a minor steal – but unfortunately, that player doesn’t exist; not anymore, anyway.
No, what the Flyers actually paid a handsome sum to acquire was an offensive-minded defenseman who still showed out fairly well on power plays and when tasked with attacking the net, but struggled mightily on the defensive end of the ice, which, admittedly, is sort of a problem when “defense” is in your position name.
Gustafsson was slow to react, seldom put himself in the “correct” position on any given drive, and at times looked more interested in getting back on offense than actually keeping the puck away from Carter Hart and/or Brian Elliott, depending on the game. Had he been able to impact the game on the other end of the ice, giving Shayne Gostisbear a run for his PP money in the process, maybe he’d still be a part of the Flyers’ immediate future, but with the team’s playoff chances sitting right around 9.8 percent and soon-to-be free agent Michael Raffl shipped off to Washington for a future fifth, the idea of keeping a 29-year-old bottom-four defenseman around for a few more months of meaningless games felt borderline pointless; less pointless than the seventh round pick they netted from Montreal in the deal.
Now, does being sellers at the deadline all but confirm that this is a lost season for the Flyer? Sure. If you were one of those blindly optimistic homers who were hoping against hope that the Orange and Black would somehow squeak out a surprise playoff berth and go on some storied Cinderella run to the Finals, I really don’t know what to tell ya.
But just because the Flyers (probably) won’t be bubbling up with the rest of the Eastern Division’s haves doesn’t mean they can’t use these final few months of hockey in a productive manner.
Case and point, the surprise full circle emergence of 2013 first round pick Sam Morin. After attempting to switch positions to wing in a last-ditch effort to avoid being waived out of camp, Morin returned from the Taxi Squad when his team needed him most and actually help to give the team a spark.
Though Morin hasn’t scored a point in the team’s last five games, I’d certainly rather see him earn 10-plus minutes a game than Gustafsson labor along for 20-plus, especially considering neither is exactly on a hot streak.
So hey, the Montreal Canadiens, enjoy your gently used Erik Gustafsson. I hope he can help give you a bit more pop on your power plays and you have requisite defensive defenseman to cover up for his occasional lapses in judgment. And as for the Philadelphia Flyers? Well, it looks like we’re headed for a youth movement to close out the 2020-21 NHL season.