It wasn’t long ago that Matt Niskanen was a promising young defenseman tasked with skating alongside Sergei Zubov on the Dallas Stars’ first defensive unit.

So it should come as no surprise that he has emerged has a strong compliment to Kris Letang on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first defensive unit this season.

But the road that led from Zubov to Letang was a relatively bumpy one for Niskanen, who was a throw-in in the trade that brought highly-sought-after winger James Neal to Pittsburgh in exchange for offensive-minded blueliner Alex Goligoski.

Before departing Dallas, Niskanen had fallen from a top-pairing defender who put up 26 and 35 points in his first two seasons in the NHL, to a defender whose plus/minus dipped to minus-15. He wasn’t being utilized in the same ways he had been in the past, and quite frankly he was in the doghouse.

Needless to say, those in Dallas were overjoyed to see him traded to the Penguins, while those in Pittsburgh figured his inclusion in the trade was facilitated only out of requirement from Dallas’ general manager.

His start in Pittsburgh was shaky, with just four points and a minus-two rating in 18 games, but he handled himself well enough for coach Dan Bylsma and his staff to increase his role the following season.

In 75 games during 2011-12, Niskanen improved to 21 points and a plus-nine rating, but it wasn’t his stats that had people talking. He had a newfound confidence and swagger that hadn’t been present since his days with Zubov. He was a different player, one who no longer looked like a throw-in as part of the Goligoski for Neal trade.

Now, as we enter the second full week of a lockout-shortened season, Niskanen’s value to the Penguins is at its peak (at least to this point), reminding everyone why he was so highly touted during the first few years of his career.

Niskanen has emerged as a legitimate top-pairing complement to Letang so much so that an injury to his ankle Sunday night left Penguin fans to wonder what might happen if he is sidelined for any length of time.

Fortunately, Niskanen’s injury is being reported as a mild ankle issue that should keep him out for only a short period of time.

From castoff to crucial, it’s a story we’ve heard before, but one that often doesn’t get enough ink. Niskanen has rejuvenated his career, not just to a level of competence, but to prominence, and while his jersey may never be a top-seller, his name has become household in Pittsburgh.