Matt Niskanen: Throwaway to Mainstay
Matt Niskanen wasn’t considered to be a premium piece in the February 2011 trade that featured the Dallas Stars and Pittsburgh Penguins swapping two young talents in Alex Goligoski and James Neal.
In fact, at the time, it almost seemed burdensome to take Matt Niskanen on after a stretch of bad play, low morale, and some time in the press box for the Dallas Stars.
Stars general manager Joe Nieuwendyk said it himself after the deal was made, ““As far as Matt is concerned, it’s been a little bit of trying times for Matt the last couple years. He hasn’t been able to regain the form he broke into the league with and this is a good opportunity for him to get a new look with another team and hopefully get his career going.”
For many fans, the move to unload Niskanen was addition by subtraction. Not only were the Stars clearing cap space in dumping the maligned Niskanen, they were replacing him with a player who many assumed would be able to pick up the potential that Niskanen was leaving on the table.
NBC sports commented at the time that “Pittsburgh getting Matt Niskanen in the deal as well is more of a boost for the Stars as they’re able to lose his contract off the books while bringing in a better defenseman in Goligoski.”
We hear the “change of scenery” argument that often accompanies moving a slumping young player to a new locale. In many cases, that’s wishful thinking. In Pittsburgh’s case, it was a reality.
Niskanen’s route to the NHL was a fast one. He played two seasons at Minnesota-Duluth before a 13 game run in the AHL that saw him go straight to the NHL the following season. His first year was about as good as it gets for a young, inexperienced defenseman. Niskanen posted 7 goals and was a +22 playing alongside some true veterans of the position. Niskanen spent a decent amount of time with players like Zergei Zubov and the late Karlis Skrastins. Once those players began to phase out of the lineup, Niskanen’s play began to drop.
By the time the deal that sent him to Pittsburgh was made, Niskanen had slumped his way into the press box in Dallas. Battling injuries and only managing to register 6 assists on the year, Dallas fans appeared to be happy to see him go.
Fast forward to present day; the Penguins find themselves leading the eastern conference in the midst of a 9 game winning streak.
Niskanen might not be lighting the world on fire on the scoreboard, but his steady presence in the defensive zone has become a staple of Pittsburgh’s makeup.
Niskanen isn’t a guy that generates a lot of talk across the landscape of Pittsburgh hockey. But for a defenseman, that’s not always a bad thing.
In the Penguins current culture of getting the puck north as quickly as possible, Matt Niskanen looks right at home, to say the least.
In the run of victories the Penguins have had, one consistency we’ve pointed out on Twitter is that of Niskanen being stellar in one on one situations, whether that be a nice stick on puck move at the defensive blue line to break up a rush, or taking a hit to make a tape to tape outlet pass along the wall.
If nothing else, it looks like Niskanen has bought into what this team is doing. And getting out of the heart of Texas appears to have turned his game around.
Like the addition of Pascal Dupuis before him, Matt Niskanen is another one of those afterthought pick-ups that shows up to thrive under the Penguins system.
But for this defensive unit as a whole, Niskanen is just one of a group of guys that most people counted out before the season even started. And while they’ve certainly had their rough patches, I found myself today thinking of what this defensive unit might look like with recent talk of a Chris Stewart trade scenario that might see the 26 year old Penguins blueliner go to St. Louis for the young power-forward in Stewart, and I found myself against the idea.
For the 2.1 million dollar price tag, the age, and the upside, it’s tough to get rid of a guy like Niskanen. His steady play and jack of all trades approach to the game fits right in with what this team needs right now. Offensively, the Penguins are firing on all cylinders even without superstar Evgeni Malkin in the lineup. And while the Penguins have the fortunate problem of having too many competent defensemen on the roster, is Matt Niskanen a guy you’re willing to sacrifice?
There weren’t a lot of positives to take away from last year’s playoff failure against the Philadelphia Flyers, but Niskanen somehow managed to end that series a +2 and lead the Penguins in nearly every major statistical category in terms of goals against, shots against, and Corsi.
If this spring brings another deep playoff run for the Penguins, my money is on Matt Niskanen being a pretty big part of that. If nothing else, Ray Shero was once again able to secure a once supplemental piece into a key component of his first place hockey club.