The Washington Capitals traded defenseman Matt Niskanen to the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday for defenseman Radko Gudas in a salary cap-clearing swap between Metropolitan Division foes. Niskanen had two years left on a contract carrying a $5.75 million cap hit, while Gudas has one season remaining with a $3.35 million cap hit. The Flyers will also retain 30 percent of Gudas’s salary.
Both are right-handed shots, but Gudas, 29, is three years younger — a physical, penalty-killing presence on the blue line who could play on the team’s third pairing. With Brooks Orpik not expected to return next season — he’s a pending unrestricted free agent — Gudas fits that hard-hitting, crease-clearing mold. And while he’s not expected to provide much in the way of point production, underlying analytics are kind to him. His goals-for percentage of 51 at five-on-five ranked first among Flyers defensemen this past season.
Nick Jensen, whom Washington acquired from the Detroit Red Wings in late February, is expected to take Niskanen’s spot in the top four beside Dmitry Orlov. Once the Capitals’ top shutdown pair, Niskanen and Orlov struggled for most of this past year, and Washington was believed to have explored the trade market for Niskanen during the season. He signed with the Capitals in 2014, and in five seasons he averaged nearly 23 minutes per game, playing on the penalty kill and the second power-play unit and typically being tasked with the most challenging defensive assignment.
Niskanen told reporters on a conference call that he was “a little surprised” but “not totally shocked” because he knew Washington was salary cap-strapped. Coming off a long Stanley Cup run in 2018, Niskanen acknowledged that he didn’t have quite the same “pop” in his legs at times this season, probably hampered by a truncated offseason for training. He praised the Flyers’ defense corps — “I think they have two or three young studs that are offensively talented, gifted,” Niskanen said — and he expects he’ll play a top-four role as a “really good partner for one of these young studs” in the same way he was for Orlov two seasons ago.
“Each year I was in Washington I was asked to do a bigger role, and I gradually took on more responsibility," Niskanen said. “Because of my play, because of my experience, I’ve been fortunate to be on real good teams. I’ve been around, and I know what a good hockey team looks like and what good culture looks like.”
Although Niskanen’s deteriorating play was a considerable factor in trading him, the move was also financially motivated. The Capitals now have more salary cap space to re-sign top restricted free agent Jakub Vrana, who is coming off a career season with 24 goals and 23 assists, as well as pending unrestricted free agent forwards Carl Hagelin and Brett Connolly. Because Gudas’s contract comes off the books after next season, Washington will also have more freedom to potentially extend top center Nicklas Backstrom and goaltender Braden Holtby, both of whom become unrestricted free agents in 2020.
“We would like to thank Matt for all of his contributions to our organization for the past five seasons,” Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan said in a statement. "Matt is a consummate professional and was a big part of our success. We wish him and his family all the best moving forward.
“We feel this move provides us with financial flexibility as we look for additional ways to strengthen our team. In addition, we are pleased to welcome Radko to our organization. Radko is a good defensive defenseman that plays a competitive, physical game.”
Read more from The Post: