Each day from now until July 1, the day free agency begins, Sarah Baicker and Tim Riday will profile some of the NHL's top impending free agents and project their likelihood of signing with the Flyers.
Matt Niskanen, defenseman
Last team: Pittsburgh Penguins
2013-14 cap hit: $2.3 million
Niskanen is the most coveted free-agent defenseman on the market this summer. With Kris Letang sidelined for more than half of last season, Niskanen turned his career around with the Penguins in the 2013-14 campaign, finishing with 10 goals, 46 points and a plus-33 rating in 81 games played. He's blossomed into a solid two-way defenseman, but his strongest assets are his shot from the point and his skating ability.
In parts of four seasons with Dallas, Niskanen, a former first-round pick, showed flashes of his offensive ability but never lived up to the Stars' expectations. He was shipped to Pittsburgh in 2011 along with James Neal in exchange for Alex Goligoski. Since then, Niskanen has shown he is capable of playing in all game situations, but still needs to be more consistent in his own zone.
There's going to be some big-time competition this offseason for Niskanen, the top free agent defenseman available. That's the big reason I'm not convinced the Flyers will be able to land him. That, and the fact that I'm not sure the Flyers will be able to clear enough cap space to compete for him in the first place. Simply put: The Flyers do not have much room to spend at all, and it's going to be a challenge for new GM Ron Hextall to either make some or sign inexpensive players hoping they can get the job done.
Niskanen isn't Shea Weber or Chris Pronger, but he would represent a sizable improvement -- and there's no one who thinks the Flyers' defense is good enough as is. But all that said, I'd put my money on one of the team's younger prospects getting an early promotion instead of seeing Niskanen inked in Philly.
Even after re-signing Kimmo Timonen, the Flyers' defense remains an area of concern. Would Niskanen be an upgrade? Absolutely. But he is coming off his best season as a professional and will likely command a massive long-term deal. For teams looking for a young and gifted defenseman in free agency, Niskanen is pretty much the only option. There's no denying he's an incredible athlete, but he is still somewhat of a liability defensively. I don't expect Hextall to get into a bidding war for Niskanen. The last thing the Flyers need is to overpay for a player in a thin market.