Acquired prior to the NHL Trade Deadline last season, alongside winger James Neal, for Alex Goligoski, young defenseman Matt Niskanen has had a rather intriguing career in his few years in the NHL. Since his arrival in Pittsburgh at the end of last year, Niskanen has been the focus of Penguins fans and media criticism. In looking at his pedigree, his career so far, and other factors, this writer believes it is far too early to write off Niskanen’s potential.

Matt Niskanen was drafted 28th overall in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft by the Dallas Stars with their first pick in the draft that year (coincidentally, they would use their 2nd round pick on winger James Neal). A product of Minnesota and the USHS, Niskanen was drafted with the potential to become the true #1 defenseman that the Stars had been sorely lacking. Here’s a look at some of the other defenseman drafted in 2005:

Before Niskanen:

    – Jack Johnson
    – Brian Lee
    – Luc Bourdon
    – Marc Staal
    – Sasha Pokulok
    – Ryan Parent
    – Jakub Kindl
    – Matt Lashoff
    – Matt Pelech
    – Joe Finley

Notable Picks after Niskanen:

    – Kris Letang
    – Cody Franson
    – Keith Yandle
    – Niklas Hjalmarsson

What you see with this list is a pretty hit or miss group so far. Of course the name that stands out the most to Penguins fans is Kris Letang, who was drafted in the 3rd round by the Penguins and has become their premier defenseman. What doesn’t stand out, is that from those drafted above Niskanen, only Marc Staal has played more games than Niskanen (326 for Staal to 295 for Niskanen) and only Jack Johnson has more points than Niskanen (Johnson with 100, Niskanen with 86). Following Niskanen’s pick, the only defenseman with more games played is Kris Letang and the only defensemen with higher point totals since being drafted after Niskanen in 2005 are Letang, Marc-Edourd Vlasic, and Keith Yandle.

So what’s this have to do with his performance in a Penguins jersey? Niskanen has put up 86 points in roughly 5 full NHL seasons, primarily as the top defenseman for the Dallas Stars, but in that time has also accrued a career plus/minus rating of -7. The interesting thing to note, is that in roughly the same time span, Kris Letang has put up 129 points, with only a plus/minus of +5, playing on a significantly more talented and offensively-minded team.

Career PPG:
Kris Letang: .43
Matt Niskanen: .29

Additionally, until last year, Kris Letang was not tasked with playing the role of the Penguin’s top offensive defenseman, unlike Niskanen, who was seeing significant top-pairing and top-power-play unit time in Dallas.

Getting to his game in Pittsburgh

There are many differences between the cities of Dallas and Pittsburgh; the weather, the demographics, the industries, one has consistently good football team, while the other has Tony Romo, but the biggest difference Matt Niskanen will have to adjust to is the difference in systems. Adjusting to Bylsma’s system has seen players with success on other teams struggle, while those who have struggled on other teams excel. A 50 point scorer in Toronto, Alex Ponikarovsky, came to the Penguins to play wing alongside Evgeni Malkin, but was unable to find chemistry, resulting in an early exit from the playoffs and no hope for a contract renewal in Pittsburgh. On the other side of the coin, hard-working players like Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz have excelled under Bylsma. There’s two things to remember about Penguins and their defense; it wasn’t too long ago that Dick Tarnstrom was the leading scorer of the Penguins and it was even less long ago that Sergei Gonchar spent the first half of his first season with the Penguins receiving occasional booing from home fans due to his poor defensive play and turnovers.

With Matt Niskanen, the greatest benefit for his game is that he will no longer be expected to be the “it” guy for the defense. The Penguins are not looking for a #1 defenseman, or even a #2, #3,or #4 defenseman. What they are looking for is a defenseman who is responsible with the puck, but has the offensive capabilities to contribute secondary scoring on even strength and possibly provide some offensive relief to the power-play, if needed.

Another important caveat that could help improve Niskanen’s chances for success in Pittsburgh, is that as any player who has played for the Penguins prior to 2007, the Phoenix Coyotes currently, or the Buffalo Sabres last year can tell you that the distraction of ownership issues can actually affect the product on the ice. The Dallas Stars have had questions regarding their ownership for a few years now and the effect it has on players in displayed clearly through the departure of Brad Richards, who even cited the ownership issues as one of the reasons he didn’t stay in Dallas.

A Vision of Things to Come?

Matt Niskanen has played in 3 of the 4 preseason games for the Penguins so far and has 1 goal, 6 shots, and is a -1, but also scored the game-winning shootout goal in Kansas City against the Los Angeles Kings. Niskanen has by no means looked spectacular this preseason, but what we are starting to see is a player who is not afraid to contribute offensively, while learning greater defensive responsibility. So far we have seen a player who makes considerably less mistakes in his own end and with the puck and who could be a solid fit for the bottom-pairing on one of the league’s top defensive squads.

I think there’s a misperception that goes along with Matt Niskanen’s arrival in Pittsburgh and that is that he needs to be a true offensive-defenseman and capable of filling a bigger role with the team, even though the team doesn’t currently have a need for it. Matt Niskanen doesn’t need to be a #1 guy anymore, he just needs to be more responsible with the puck and contribute offensively when possible. That’s all.

I’m willing to give him a chance to succeed with the Penguins as a bottom-pairing defenseman. I’m willing to give him more than a couple of months to do it, as long as he’s not consistently doing anything that costs the Penguins valuable points. In my opinion, Matt Niskanen is more than capable, more than ready to be a bottom-pairing defenseman for the Penguins.

Let’s Go Pens!