Flyers Notes: Fletcher Discusses Niskanen Retirement, Offseason Plans
For most of the offseason, Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher has executed as expected. He’s given out new contracts to pending free agents, locking down a veteran backup goalie and committing part of the team’s future to some of the team’s growing talent.
But Fletcher was always operating with the possibility that one of his defensemen under contract was not going to return. On Monday, reports circulated that Matt Niskanen was announcing his retirement. The defenseman confirmed in a statement through Flyers PR and Fletcher offered his thoughts on a conference call.
“Thank you to the Flyers organization for the opportunity to play in Philly last season. I’d also like to thank the fans for their support and lastly, I wish my teammates the best of luck,” Niskanen said.
“I just want to start off by thanking Matt Niskanen for his contributions to our team this season. As an organization and team, we made great strides this year, not only in terms of our record, but in terms of how we played the game, in terms of our culture, our commitment to playing the right way, our commitment to the details necessary to play the game well,” Fletcher said. “Obviously our coaching staff deserves a lot of credit for that and our players deserve a lot of credit for that. I do want to single out Matt Niskanen, who in my opinion at least did as much as anybody to change the mindset of our team. He’s the consummate professional and teammate.”
The Flyers season came to an end with a Game 7 loss to the New York Islanders in the second round of the playoffs on Sept. 5. The next day, after the team had started to return to their families, Niskanen contacted Fletcher while driving home to Minnesota and expressed his intentions to retire. Fletcher told Niskanen to go home with his family and think things over in case the veteran defenseman decided to reconsider. There was no reconsidering. Niskanen felt it was time.
“It caught me off-guard absolutely. I didn’t anticipate that,” Fletcher said. “I know it’s been a difficult year with the pandemic, coming back to play in the bubble and there’s a lot of uncertainty about next year. It’s difficult I think for some players. We talked about it. There’s a lot of emotion. There’s always a lot of emotion at the end of a season. We lost a tough Game 7 the night before. I just told him to get home and see your family, spend some time and let’s talk again in a few weeks. We’ve had a couple conversations since then. He’s resolute in his desire to retire. Again, I completely respect that. He’s earned that right. We’ll just move forward from here. We wish him nothing but the best.
“Nothing to do with his health. He loved the team. He really enjoyed the season. I think being away from your family, a couple months in the bubble impacted a lot of players, not just ours but around the league. I think it’s tough when you have a young family and different circumstances. The game became a little different than what it was. I’m sure the uncertainty of next season and some of the changes that have been brought on by the pandemic certainly had an impact. Matt just said to me that he wanted to go when it was time. He wanted to make that decision. I think he felt this was the time to do so. He loved the team. Really believes in the group. I think he was thankful for the opportunity to come to Philadelphia. As thankful we were that he came to Philadelphia. There’s no health issues or anything like that.”
With Niskanen now no longer a member of the Flyers roster, it opens up $5.75 million of cap space that was dedicated to the final year of his contract. The Flyers used some of that to lock up veteran defenseman Justin Braun, but it could just be the beginning of what could transform the Flyers offseason.
“There’s different ways to attack this. Obviously, to his credit, he gave us early warning of his desire. We’ve been aware. Certainly I’ve been aware of this,” Fletcher said. “I’ve kept it quiet for a while just to let things settle down and let Matt have his time and space. He’s a tough guy to replace.
“There’s not many players that have that skill set, the right-shot defenseman, the high-end competitor, the ability to contribute offensively and shut down guys defensively, just the understated presence. He had a tremendous presence with his teammates. We have a very strong leadership corps to begin with, but bringing in Matt Niskanen, I think elevated everybody. Just the respect from his teammates, and the coaches and all of us towards Matt is high level. We’ll do the best we can. We were able to re-sign Justin Braun today. We have some young defensemen that continue to grow and will continue to assume bigger roles as they develop. Whether we chose to go with the group we have, have players play different roles and grow into those roles or we look to fill from the outside, we’ll see what opportunities there are.”
By keeping Braun in the fold, the Flyers already have five defensemen under contract for the 2020-21 season, with Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, Robert Hagg and Shayne Gostisbehere. Phil Myers is a restricted free agent that will likely have a new contract in a matter of days. The team also has prospects Mark Friedman and Egor Zamula waiting in the wings. Fletcher said that Friedman has been the most improved player since he arrived in Philadelphia and Zamula would likely need more time before becoming an NHL regular.
There could always be options available through trade and free agency and the next few days are sure to be wild with activity as the draft takes place and free agency opens. Fletcher is prepared to be a part of that activity if the right deal comes along.
“We had some trades early. I thought there might be a few more. Certainly I expect some tomorrow. I do think there will be teams even after Oct. 9, after the start of free agency, teams that want to get involved, sign a player and then have to clean up the mess after they go over the cap after the start of free agency,” Fletcher said. “I could still see trades happening into the fall here and even into the beginning of the season as teams try to become cap compliant and fill that last hole. Don’t forget, you are allowed to go ten percent over the cap until the end of training camp, until the season starts. You will see teams that are over the cap and having to work backwards. That may present opportunities even after the draft and the start of free agency. I expect some. There’s been an unbelievable amount of chatter. There’s not a lot of money in the system. It’s a little bit harder to find the right dance partner.”
Only time will tell how the Flyers decide to construct their roster for the 2020-21 season, but this week will prove to be an important one, not only in keeping their future strong in the draft, but finding ways to put a competitive team on the ice next season.
Kevin Durso is Flyers insider for 97.3 ESPN and Flyers editor for SportsTalkPhilly.com. Follow him on Twitter @Kevin_Durso.