Sunday, October 9, 2011

Sunday Morning Thoughts: Matt Niskanen

Rough on arrival...

Matt came to the Pens last season from the Dallas Stars along with James Neal for Alex Goligoski. Niskanen, a first-round draft pick, was on the outs in Dallas after putting up some very respectable numbers in his rookie and sophomore seasons. To most observers, Niskanen was just a sweetener in the deal; the real prize was scoring winger James Neal. GM Ray Shero knew better...

Matt struggled mightily upon arrival. Recent reports point out that Matt was in a state of shock from the trade, the first of his NHL career. I am sure there is a lot of truth to that and, of course, learning a new system is always a challenge for a young defender. Niskanen looked lost. Defensively, his zone coverage was abysmal as he tried to grasp the core of the Pens approach. It stands to reason that if your that uncomfortable in your own end, your probably not going to venture too far from it. True to form, his offensive output was meager at best. Ice time is all about confidence as a defenseman, and neither Niskanen nor Bylsma had developed much confidence in the short time before the playoffs. As a result, Niskanen didn't see much action in the post-season. 

The sleeper has awaken...

The Penguins had depth for days coming into this year's camp with all of last year's players returning, a number of prospects looking for an outside shot to make the team, and the Pens first-round draft pick Joe Morrow looking to impress. The recipe was there for Niskanen to fade into the background. 

It's funny what a difference an offseason makes. Matt Niskanen came into camp with renewed focus and was determined to make an impact. The preseason brought a number of surprises, and one of those was the confidence and composure from Matt Niskanen. The change was nothing short of shocking. With all the promising young defensemen in the Pens system, I expected Niskanen to get passed by like a marker in a downhill ski race. Instead, Niskanen emerged with strong defensive play, a physical edge, and a renewed spark offensively. Niskanen now flaunted a hard, low, and accurate slapshot that he was able to release from the point on command... and on short notice. For a Pens team looking for answers on the PP, Matt Niskanen made a compelling answer. Had it not been for the play of recently drafted Joe Morrow, Niskanen would surely have received more press in the preseason. However, Matt Niskanen was surely happy with the result all the same: he had made the opening night lineup with authority.


The Penguins have only two games in the books (both wins!), but Matt Niskanen already has two points. He trails Kris Letang in points scored by one, but Matt's great PP goal last night in Calgary proved just how far the defenseman has come. Jordan Staal broke in the Calgary zone on the right wing and held up along the half-boards, allowing two other Pens to drive to the net. Staal found a late trailing Niskanen for the cross-ice feed. Niskanen skated in and put a shot on net, which Kiprusoff stacked the pads and kept out. But the Flames goalie left a juicy rebound in the slot and Niskanen, following up his shot, collected and put by the helpless netminder. That marked the first goal by a Pens defender this season, power play or otherwise. Not too shabby for a guy supposed to be buried on the depth chart...

Niskanen's play has carried over from his strong preseason. He's playing well defensively, taking the body, reading the plays well, and jumping in and contributing timely offense. In the game against the Flames, his confidence was soaring and his ice time increased with it. He played a terrific game, garnering the attention of many dismayed Pens fans at his omission from the Three Stars awarding for the evening. It's going to be a tough road for Matt if he wants to progress up the Pens depth chart defensively, but he's clearly on a mission to do just that. Tonight's game in Edmonton should offer Niskanen more opportunities to impress. He may have already moved up to the number 5 spot, but let's hope that's just the beginning. 

Keep up the great work, Matt. 

Skate hard,
Relentless Forecheck

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