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On the 'D'-fence: Niskanen still thriving in Pittsburgh

Wednesday, 01.22.2014 / 12:00 PM / Fantasy Hockey Draft Rankings, Advice and Analysis

By Brian Metzer - NHL.com Correspondent

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On the 'D'-fence: Niskanen still thriving in Pittsburgh
Forward James Neal was seen as the prize return when the Pittsburgh Penguins traded defenseman Alex Goligoski to the Dallas Stars, but throw-in Matt Niskanen has become a stalwart of his own right on the blue line.

Every Wednesday during the season, NHL.com Correspondent Brian Metzer will provide you with an in-depth analysis of fantasy defensemen in our weekly segment: "On the 'D'-fence." From updated defensemen rankings to guys you should keep a close eye on and much more, Metzer will be your fantasy D-man insider all season long.


When general managers make trades, they tend to ask for extraneous parts to be thrown in to balance their rosters, which is exactly what happened when the Pittsburgh Penguins sent defenseman Alex Goligoski to the Dallas Stars in exchange for forward James Neal.

Penguins GM Ray Shero insisted defenseman Matt Niskanen be included in the package to plug the hole in his lineup caused by losing Goligoski and it was a no-brainer for then Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk, who flipped Niskanen to the Penguins to finalize the deal.

TOP 60 FANTASY DEFENSEMEN

These rankings are based on expectations of the season going forward. The plus or minus for each player is movement based on our most recent rankings -- NR means not ranked in previous rankings. They are based on a standard fantasy league with these offensive categories: G, A, plus/minus, PIMs, PPP, SOG.
  • 1. Erik Karlsson, Senators (+1)
  • 2. Duncan Keith, Blackhawks (-1)
  • 3. Alex Pietrangelo, Blues (same)
  • 4. P.K. Subban, Canadiens (+1)
  • 5. Shea Weber, Predators (+2)
  • 6. Ryan Suter, Wild (-2)
  • 7. Dustin Byfuglien, Jets (-1)
  • 8. Keith Yandle, Coyotes (+1)
  • 9. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Coyotes (-1)
  • 10. Kevin Shattenkirk, Blues (same)
  • 11. Brent Seabrook, Blackhawks (same)
  • 12. Drew Doughty, Kings (same)
  • 13. Niklas Kronwall, Red Wings (same)
  • 14. Mike Green, Capitals (+1)
  • 15. Jay Bouwmeester, Blues (+1)
  • 16. Kris Letang, Penguins (-2)
  • 17. Zdeno Chara, Bruins (same)
  • 18. James Wisniewski, Blue Jackets (+1)
  • 19. Jason Garrison, Canucks (-1)
  • 20. Cody Franson, Maple Leafs (same)
  • 21. Ryan McDonagh, Rangers (same)
  • 22. Andrei Markov, Canadiens (+1)
  • 23. Dan Boyle, Sharks (-1)
  • 24. Brian Campbell, Panthers (same)
  • 25. Matt Carle, Lightning (same)
  • 26. Justin Schultz, Oilers (same)
  • 27. John Carlson, Capitals (same)
  • 28. Slava Voynov, Kings (+2)
  • 29. Cam Fowler, Ducks (+2)
  • 30. Matt Niskanen, Penguins (+2)
  • 31. Andrew MacDonald, Islanders (-3)
  • 32. Andrej Sekera, Hurricanes (-3)
  • 33. Dion Phaneuf, Maple Leafs (same)
  • 34. Torey Krug, Bruins (+3)
  • 35. Mark Streit, Flyers (+3)
  • 36. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Sharks (-1)
  • 37. Marek Zidlicky, Devils (-1)
  • 38. Christian Ehrhoff, Sabres (+3)
  • 39. Alexander Edler, Canucks (NR)*
  • 40. Dennis Wideman, Flames (same)
  • 41. Tobias Enstrom, Jets (-7)
  • 42. Jacob Trouba, Jets (NR)*
  • 43. Jack Johnson, Blue Jackets (same)
  • 44. Mark Giordano, Flames (+2)
  • 45. Victory Hedman, Lightning (-6)
  • 46. Francois Beauchemin, Ducks (-2)
  • 47. Jason Demers, Sharks (-2)
  • 48. Fedor Tyutin, Blue Jackets (-6)
  • 49. Roman Josi, Predators (+7)
  • 50. Alex Goligoski, Stars (-1)
  • 51. Erik Johnson, Avalanche (-3)
  • 52. Jake Muzzin, Kings (-1)
  • 53. Andre Benoit, Avalanche (-2)
  • 54. Derek Morris, Coyotes (-7)
  • 55. Eric Gelinas, Devils (-3)
  • 56. Andy Greene, Devils (-2)
  • 57. Justin Faulk, Hurricanes (-4)
  • 58. Hampus Lindholm, Ducks (-1)
  • 59. Kimmo Timonen, Flyers (same)
  • 60. Niklas Hjalmarsson, Blackhawks (NR)
*Appeared on injured list last week

Players that dropped out of previous rankings:
Kevin Bieksa, Sergei Gonchar, Brendan Smith

Injured: Lubomir Visnovsky, Joni Pitkanen, Sheldon Souray

Niskanen, who combined for 61 points over his first two seasons in the NHL, including a career high 35 in 2008-09, had seen his offensive production dry up and fallen out of favor with the coaching staff leading up to the trade.

He arrived in Pittsburgh a wide-eyed 24-year-old, a bit overwhelmed by coach Dan Bylsma's system. Teammates and coaches helped get him up to speed and he went on to average 18:33 of ice time per night over the final 18 games of the 2010-11 season.

At the time no one could have foreseen what Niskanen would become upon regaining his confidence and spending large chucks of time skating as the Penguins' No. 1 defenseman while multiple teammates spent time on the shelf due to injury this season.

"He's a guy who's been way under the radar in terms of what he's brought to our team, both from puck-moving, defensively and from the different situations he's been able to play in," Bylsma said following a December game. "He's going to be the leader back there now and you've kind of seen that develop from him the last two months in different situations. He's become more vocal, he's become more of a leader back there."

That leadership has come in the form of big minutes, a plus-25 that is tied for the League lead and some big-time offensive numbers.

He is averaging .53 points per game, which is the highest per game total of his career. He is currently riding a four game scoring streak that has seen him put up two goals and three assists. He also has 13 points in his last 14 games.

Niskanen, who has seven goals on the season, has scored six of them since Dec. 19, which ties him with Ryan Suter and Jacob Trouba for most goals by a defenseman over that period of time. He has put up 26 points in 49 games, which is just nine off of his aforementioned career high, a mark now likely to fall.

There was a time earlier in the season when we spoke about Niskanen as a sell-high candidate during a NHL Fantasy Google Hangout, but those days are in the past. He has quickly become a must-own defenseman, who even when surrounded with a healthy Paul Martin (who returned to the Penguins lineup Monday night) and Kris Letang has value.

Niskanen is offering category coverage that falls in right behind the top dogs at the position and though 71 percent of Yahoo leagues have taken notice, his 26 points, seven power-play points, five game-winning goals, 88 shots on goal, 79 hits, 49 blocked shots and plus-25 rating are still under-owned, so grab him while you still can.

TRENDING UPWARD

Shea Weber, Nashville Predators -- Don't look now, but it is that time of year where we all sort of think Weber might not keep pace with the leaders at his position, only to see him emerge right where he always is among the top scorers. He has put up four goals and eight assists over his past 11 games, which has pushed his season totals to 13 goals, 21 assists and 34 points. He has 18 points on the power play and 114 shots on goal. The only drawback is a minus-9 rating, but he is turning that around too, registering a plus-6 over his past three games. He is a must-own as always.

Christian Ehrhoff, Buffalo Sabres -- The Sabres are having a rough season, which has hurt the fantasy value of many of their players, but that doesn't mean there aren't a few that can help your team. Ehrhoff has had an up-and-down season, but he has been productive of late. He's picked up four assists over his past five games and five over his past seven, including four on the power play. He also has 19 shots on goal over his past eight games.

Jack Johnson, Columbus Blue Jackets -- We haven't moved Johnson up our rankings just yet, but that could be changing. Johnson wasn't happy to have been left off of the U.S. roster for the 2014 Sochi Olympics and has been trying to prove that decision wrong over his past five games, logging six assists over that span. He's pushed his season totals to 16 points, 32 penalty minutes, 80 shots and seven power-play points. He's owned in just 52 percent of Yahoo leagues.

TRENDING DOWNWARD

Andrej Sekera, Carolina Hurricanes -- Sekera has been an attractive fantasy player this season, but he has been cold of late. The seven-goal scorer has zero points over his past six games and is minus-5 over his past four. We would look elsewhere until he ramps up again.

Justin Faulk, Carolina Hurricanes -- Faulk joins his partner Sekera on this list. He has put up just three points over his past 19 games. He is still an upside player, but it is time to look elsewhere for production, especially in single-year leagues. Here's hoping an effective showing at the Olympics will get his motor going.

Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning -- Hedman is only on this list due to the gray area surrounding his injury. He is still listed as day-to-day and Tampa Bay does not play again until Thursday. Our suggestion is to reserve him in weekly leagues and take a wait-and-see approach until we get solid info on his injured ankle. If he is healthy, he is a must-play.

KEEP AN EYE ON ...

Nick Holden, Colorado Avalanche -- The Avalanche keep finding hidden gems on the blue line and they might have done it again with Holden. The 26-year-old has picked up two goals and two assists over his past two games and has 10 points in just 21 games on the season. He has picked up 55 hits, blocked 16 shots and added three assists on the power play. He is available all over, so take a chance if you need some defensive depth.

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