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Nisky Business

Why reshaping the Flyers blueline started with Matt Niskanen

by Bill Meltzer @NHLFlyers

The Flyers acquisition of veteran defenseman Matt Niskanen on Friday essentially boiled down to these two elements: the organization wants the 32-year-old to be a leader on an essentially young young defense corps while still playing significant minutes both at even strength and the penalty kill.

There is something else that the right-handed blueliner brings along with him to Philadelphia: a recent Stanley Cup ring from a playoff run in which he was a valuable contributor. 

Niskanen, who has averaged north of 20 minutes of ice time per game in each of the last seven seasons while playing for Cup-contending teams in Pittsburgh and Washington, logged a hefty 25:23 TOI average for the Capitals during their successful 2018 run to the Stanley Cup championship.

Overall, he has 125 games of Stanley Cup playoff experience to his credit as well as 881 regular season matches. The Minnesota native has gained a lot of hard-earned wisdom about exactly what it takes -- both individually and collectively -- to play deep into the spring. 

"It's so difficult. Before you do it, you kind of envision what it's going to take to get there, and as you're going through it, a couple things go right for you, you play well, you start advancing. That's when you realize it just gets so hard to beat good teams the further you go. You need some luck along the way, you've got to stay healthy, you obviously have to play well, and it's physically and mentally draining. My goodness," Niskanen said.

"When the party winds down, [Cup-winning players] realize how tired they are. It takes everybody, the whole team, the whole organization has to be all in. You need some things to go right. What a feeling, though, when you pull it off. Me being a year away from it now, you realize just how hard it was and what all goes into it. It takes everything you've got for two months. It's a series of sprints that's the toughest thing I've ever done."

By this stage of his career, Niskanen may no longer be the same caliber of offensive player who twice posted 39+ points from the back end, topped 30+ points in four straight years (although he had 29 points in just 68 games in 2017-18) while also playing a strong two-way game with above-average mobility. On the defensive side, he had particularly notable skills for breaking up developing plays at or near the defensive blue line and in getting the puck up to forwards.   

Niskanen's proportion of offensive zone starts has decreased the last few years as he's made a gradual transition in his role. This past season, 57.4 percent of his 5-on-5 shifts started in the defensive zone. 

From a physical standpoint, Niskanen is not going to routinely hit with the frequency of Radko Gudas, for whom he was just traded. Nevertheless, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Niskanen does not shy away from that aspect, either, when necessary.

Niskanen has averaged in the vicinity of two credited hits per game in recent years during the regular season; sometimes a bit more frequently in the postseason turf wars. For example, during the 2018-19 regular season, he was credited with 167 hits in 80 games. In the seven-game playoff series against Carolina, Niskanen had 21 hits.  

Niskanen, who was limited by injury to 68 regular season games in 2017-18 before his workhorse postseason run to the Stanley Cup championship, had a down season in 2018-19 compared to his prior standards. The abbreviated off-season after winning the Cup was one factor in some of his struggles, he believes. 

Additionally, this past season, Niskanen was again banged up at times; most notably after a frightening headlong crash into the boards on Dec. 27 against Carolina. Nevertheless, he dressed in 80 regular season games and all seven of the Caps playoff games in a first-round upset loss at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes. Niskanen averaged 21:56 of ice time.

Reflecting on the aftermath of the 2018 Cup Finals, Niskanen found it to a learning experience both for him and his now-former Capitals teammates.

"I had never gone that far, so I wasn't sure what to expect heading into the next season. At times I felt fine and had a lot of juice, but there were times during the year where, holy crap, am I tired, whether it be mentally fatigued or that I didn't seem to have the same pop in my legs. That's a lot of hockey and a short recovery period," he said.

No NHL player worth his salt wants an early summer vacation. However, the Capitals' early exit in the playoffs this spring may have been a blessing in disguise for Niskanen from a physical standpoint. The veteran said that he feels rejuvenated and is way ahead of where he was at a comparable juncture of his 2018 offseason.

"I feel physically much better than I did five weeks after going to the Final; I guess that would have been late July or early August last year. Physically, I've been training over a month now already, which seems like a long time this time of year compared to last year. So I'm good to go," he said.

At this point, Niskanen is more of a solid complementary piece in his regular season projections. Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher acquired him to play in tandem alongside one of the team's young lefthanded shooting defensemen; quite possibly either Ivan Provorov or Travis Sanheim (although it remains to be seen what pairings-related determinations will be made by new head coach Alain Vigneault and new assistant coach Mike Yeo). 

"Am I a Number 1 guy right now? Probably not. But I think I can be a real good piece; a part of a really good pair that can play top four or top two minutes if I had to. I see myself as a real good support piece for one of these young guys who's really talented. Maybe, together, we can be a real formidable pair with some good balance of puck moving, defending well, using our legs, adding to the offense, all that good stuff. So I think I'll be a good part of a real good pair depending on who they put me with, any of those young studs they have in Philly," Niskanen said.

Niskanen has a partial no-trade clause (NTC) in his contract, which has two seasons remaining and will carry over to Philadelphia. The Flyers were already one of his pre-approved trade destinations. As such, the salary cap-strapped Capitals did not have to approach Niskanen to waive or alter his NTC before trading him to the Flyers. The first he knew of it was when he was informed that he'd been dealt to Philadelphia.

"I was a little surprised. Not totally shocked but it caught me a little off guard. I knew once the NHL season was over, from now until the Draft, is typically when things happen. I knew what kind of situation Washington was in, so I knew there was a possibility," Niskanen said.

According to Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher, the acquisition of Niskanen was primarily geared toward adding a minutes-eating top four defenseman with the ability to adjust his own game to complement the skills of his partner. In the big picture, Fletcher envisions better balance to the three defense pairs with Niskanen in the lineup.

"This is still a quality veteran defenseman who logs tough minutes," said Fletcher. "He gets a lot of defensive zone starts. He's a high-end competitor. He's a physical player and he can move the puck very well. He's still a very good hockey player."

Added Fletcher: "Matt Niskanen is a player that has historically played in the top four. I believe he logged the second most minutes of any Capitals defender last year. He's a guy that's taken on tough assignments and logged big minutes, played both specialty teams. We feel like we're starting to slot players in their proper slot and we'll look to continue improving our defense."

Having played much of his career for two of the Flyers top rivals, Niskanen is familiar with much of the Flyers roster. He said that, even before the trade to the Flyers, he believed that Philadelphia a team that was finally on the verge of re-emerging from a fallow phase at the NHL level. He had seen some hints of the potential firsthand. During the 2017-18 season that saw the Capitals win the Metro Division with 105 points, Washington lost three of its four games against the Flyers.

"I remember saying to a teammate, 'They should be doing better than they are.' They have good people, dangerous players, talented forwards, a young group of D that can really play, they're just young, I think. They're on the upswing I think. It was hard to play against the Flyers. Good organization. They play the game hard, they play to win. Lot of promise there. I'm excited about that," Niskanen said.

Now on the other side of the fence, Niskanen aims to become part of the Flyers leadership group. He is not a cheerleader or in-your-face "bad cop" type by nature. He tries to lead by example but will speak up when he feels it's important to do so.

"I've been fortunate to be on real good teams. I've been around and I know what good hockey looks like and what a good culture looks like. I'm not going to be a rah-rah guy, but I think with my resume my words hold a little bit of weight, especially with young players," Niskanen said.

"I'm not going to come in and ruffle any feathers, but I think my word will hold some weight. I'll come in and try to have real good practice habits and have a good attitude, bring a good work ethic, and hopefully I'll be another piece to what they already have there."   

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