The Evolution of Matt Niskanen
Things haven’t always been this good for Matt Niskanen.
After a two year stint with the University of Minnesota-Duluth and a 13 game cup of tea in the American Hockey League, Niskanen found himself playing alongside NHL great Sergei Zubov for the Dallas Stars of the National Hockey League.
Steven Spielberg himself couldn’t have written a better “feel-good” story about Niskanen’s first year in the NHL. Registering 26 points and a +22 rating, the young defenseman was an integral part of the Dallas Stars 16 game playoff run.
As time wore on, the narrative began to change. Sergei Zubov moved on. Niskanen began to struggle. Things culminated when the Stars front office decided to package Niskanen in a deal to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a move that many pundits referred to as “addition by subtraction” for the Stars.
Sometimes a change of scenery can go a long way.
Niskanen is still a young guy by NHL standards. Having just celebrated his 27th birthday on December 6, his 446 career NHL games have him right in the cusp of what many would consider to be “veteran” status in this league.
If there was any question of whether or not that title is appropriate, the last week of NHL games ought to quell that concern.
Heading into Monday night’s game against the Maple Leafs, there were 578 career NHL games played between all six starting defensemen for the Penguins.
Niskanen himself accounted for 444 of those games.
Now, the Pittsburgh Penguins are reaping the benefits of Niskanen’s dominance on the ice this year. As are his young counterparts on defense.
With 589 minutes of even-strength ice time logged thus far this season, a number that’s been rapidly increasing given Niskanen’s recent workload (29 minutes last night against the New York Rangers), he’s only been on the ice for 12 goals against in that frame.
That’s good for 1.35 goals against per 60 minutes of even strength ice time. Good for first on the team among defensemen. It’s also good for 8th in the NHL among defensemen that have played 20+ games this year.
But it’s not just the yeoman-like work defensively that has the Penguins benefiting from Niskanen’s zenith-like year. Niskanen has also been present on the ice for 29 goals for thus far this season, good for a team-best 2.91 goals for per 60 minutes of even strength ice time among defensemen.
You could literally comb through every statistical category for the Penguins and find number two among the team leaders; blocked shots, hits, ice time, points, you name it.
All this is more than impressive when you consider, outside of Brooks Orpik, that Matt Niskanen has faced the toughest competition opponents have to offer this season.
Even Dan Bylsma has referred to Niskanen as having an “under the radar” style year. There’s no flash or flair to what Niskanen is doing, it’s just simply hard work and smart play.
It’s an approach that Brian Dumoulin has certainly appreciated.
“The thing about Matt is that he is really calm and he is out there logging big minutes. If you are a young guy, he is someone you want to be like.”
And if these young defenseman want to follow in the footsteps of someone doing things the right way, they need to look no further than to what Matt Niskanen has done this season.