I have a confession to make: at the beginning of this season, I was firmly on Team Trade Matt Niskanen.
Boy, how wrong was I?
In my defense, it seemed like the Penguins’ most sensible move! Niskanen was a guy that did nothing exceptionally but did everything well; his cap hit would’ve given the Penguins breathing room while not making him unattractive to potential trade partners by being too much of a burden. With Letang, Scuderi, Orpik, and Martin as their top 4, surely the Penguins could afford to use Niskanen as a trade chip without sinking their blue line. And the return he could bring!
It’s like even thinking it was tempting fate.
I hate saying this, because it makes me feel like a tool, but Vokoun getting injured and being put on long-term injured reserve might’ve been the best thing to happen to the Penguins this season. The removal of his cap hit gave Shero time to reconsider moving Niskanen, and gave him the option of keeping Olli Maatta up – and, well, we all know how that turned out.
(His name, by the way, has since been changed to Olli “Untouchable – no really, put down the phone, Shero will just laugh at you” Maatta.)
Niskanen, though. Wasn’t that a pleasant surprise?
Like bowling pins, Letang, Scuderi, Martin, and Orpik all went down. The Penguins’ record could’ve gone right along with them. A team with their top 4 defensemen on IR couldn’t possibly be expected to continue their domination of the Eastern Conference. And yet that’s exactly what happened, thanks to Matt Niskanen and Olli Maatta stepping up to take on the role of the Penguins’ shutdown pair and to lead a group of defensemen made up of mainly rookies and AHLers. Niskanen, at 27, became the veteran of the defensive group, and more than lived up to the role.
“I don’t have to wonder how to prepare,” Brian Dumoulin, one of the many callups and one of Pittsburgh’s top defensive prospects, said during his time up with the club. “I just watch Matt Niskanen do it and take it from there.”
I’m not going to rehash the entire season. Niskanen’s numbers speak for themselves. Through 48 games, he has 25 points and is leading the league in plus-minus with a +26. Niskanen and the Blues’ Kevin Shattenkirk are the only defensemen in the league who have been on the ice for 60+ team goals while being on for less than 30 goals against. Niskanen has consistently taken on more and more minutes, stepping up on the penalty kill, on the power play, and anywhere he is asked.
If the Penguins re-sign Niskanen rather than Brooks Orpik, he’ll likely take on more of a shutdown role in the future. Conveniently, Niskanen improves the puck possession of Brandon Sutter, the team’s third line center, by nearly 20% when the two are on the ice together as opposed to when Sutter is on without Niskanen.
Matt Niskanen has proven in the first half of this season that, if the Penguins need him to be their go-to guy, they can rely on him without question. I would be completely comfortable with the Penguins re-signing Niskanen and letting Orpik go to free agency – and if you’d told me at the beginning of the season that I was going to say that, I’d have laughed in your face.
So kudos, Frisky Nisky. Keep it up, from someone who hopes to see you in the black and vegas gold for a nice long while.