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MELTZER: Getting the Job Done

How the steady play of Matt Niskanen has helped the team to early success

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer

Assuming that he does not miss any time between now and then, Flyers defenseman Matt Niskanen will hit the 900-game mark in his NHL career on Nov. 15. He also has 125 playoff games to his credit, and averaged a monstrous 25:23 of ice time for Washington in 24 postseason games in 2018 on the way to Barry Trotz's Capitals winning their first Stanley Cup.

In short, Niskanen has seen it all and done it all in his National Hockey League career. 

His calling card is resiliency, poise under pressure and ability to absorb a lot of minutes. Among defenseman leaguewide, Niskanen may not be elite in any particular area, which is why he's never finished higher than 10th in the Norris Trophy balloting, but he's above-average in virtually every one. 

He's always been a plus skater and passer. Drafted as primarily an offensive-minded player, Niskanen developed into a reliable two-way defenseman over the years, and has played both ends of special teams already for the Flyers. He has above-average size and strength. Niskanen is selectively physical and manages his energy wisely, which is why he still plays 20-plus minutes a night at age 32.

Although not a rah-rah or in-your-face type in the locker room or the bench, Niskanen has a calming presence about him and an honest, self-aware demeanor in breaking down a game. Niskanen learned long ago not to let a bad play, a bad shift or a night where nothing seems to go his way affect him the next time out.

"He's a proven winner. He does all all the things the right way; in practice, in games, He's not overly vocal but he has that quiet confidence. [He brings] leadership and a voice that's good for a locker room. His experience enables him to play well with the puck and without the puck," head coach Alain Vigneault said.

These traits, along with his right-handed shot, were among the reasons why Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher started out his off-season moves by trading for Niskanen. He did so despite the fact that Niskanen struggled for several months last season after returning quickly from a frightening crash into the boards shortly before New Year's last season. 

Through the first three games of the 2019-20 season, Niskanen has looked more like himself again.  

"Nisky and Brauny [fellow veteran Justin Braun], they're exactly what they thought they would be," Vigneault said.

In the NHL Global Series match against Chicago at O2 Arena in Prague, Niskanen logged 20:23 of ice time, played both on the penalty kill and second power play unit, attempted three shots, and was credited with one hit.

In the Wells Fargo Center home opener against New Jersey, a 4-0 win, Niskanen assisted on Ivan Provorov's power play goal that snapped a scoreless deadlock midway through regulation. Earlier in the game, he calmly won a loose puck footrace and beat the Devils forecheck with a tape-to-tape breakout pass. His other body of work that night included coming up with a pair of clutch blocks, and being credited one takeaway, two hits and two shot attempts in 20:29 of ice time. Those were hard minutes, too, with 4:26 of shorthanded time folded in, which included Philly twice killing off 5-on-3 disadvantages.

In Vancouver, Niskanen flew beneath the radar again, but was instrumental in the team securing even one point from the game.

The veteran broke up a late second period 2-on-1 with partner Travis Sanheim caught up-ice (the third time in the early going of the season that he used a diving sweep-check successfully). It was Niskanen's well-conceived offensive zone entry, after the first power play unit struggled, that started the sequence that ended in Oskar Lindblom's game-tying power play goal late in the third period. In OT, Niskanen was a tower of strength on a 4-on-3 penalty kill, including a desperately needed zone clear, that helped get the game to a shootout. Niskanen played 19:58 over 29 shifts.

Through three games and 60 plus minutes of combined ice time, Niskanen has yet to be charged with his first giveaway of the season. He's started more than half his 5-on-5 shifts in the defensive zone so far. 

However, this workload ratio through three games is much more evenly divided (48.7 percent offensive zone, 51.3 percent defensive zone) than it was in his final two seasons in Washington, when he was almost exclusively assigned shutdown duties (a whopping 63.1 percent of his shifts started in the defensive zone in 2018-19 after absorbing 61.4 percent defensive zone starts the previous year).  

Just prior to the Flyers departure for Europe and the beginning of a very demanding early season travel schedule -- traveling across six times zone back from Prague to spend roughly 72 hours back in Philadelphia and then three more times zones to start the current western Canada road trip -- Niskanen said that it was important for the team to stay on an even a keel as possible.

"You can only worry about what you can control, which is your own play," Niskanen said.

The veteran admitted during training camp that there have been some adjustments to make from the systems he played in Washington under Trotz and Todd Reirden to the ones that Vigneault has installed in Philadelphia. 

For example, the breakout patterns are a little different, with the forwards in different spots. Some of the communication words on the ice are also different. He said it would be a work in progress for awhile but felt it was coming along.

"I'm pretty confident we'll get there," Niskanen said on Sept. 25. "We've got a good group."

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