Matt Niskanen learned the nuances of handling a heavier workload last season, when he was unexpectedly elevated on the Pittsburgh Penguins defensive depth chart because of a rash of injuries.
Niskanen went on to have the best season of his career and this past summer he cashed in with a seven-year, $40.25 million contract from the Washington Capitals. Now it's the Capitals reaping the rewards from the experience Niskanen gained while playing for their biggest rival.
"I'm realizing he's a pretty outstanding player," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said.
Niskanen's ice time reflects Trotz's praise.
Defense - WSH
GOALS: 0 | ASST: 2 | PTS: 2
SOG: 5 | +/-: 3
Granted it's a small sample size (five games), but Niskanen is averaging a career-high 24:28 of ice time. He has played at least 26:42 in each of Washington's three overtime games, including a season-high 27:29 in a 2-1 shootout win against the Florida Panthers
He has two assists, a plus-3 rating and a Corsi-for percentage of 53.05, according to war-on-ice.com. His Corsi-for percentage is second among Washington defenseman to Mike Green, who has played in one less game and is averaging almost five fewer minutes of ice time than Niskanen.
Washington (3-0-2) starts a three-game road trip Wednesday against the Edmonton Oilers at Rexall Place.
"He's got such a good stick, he's really smart, and he's sneaky tough in the corners," Trotz said. "You watch him, he knows how to separate the puck and the man really well. He's doing a really good job on the penalty kill, and then he's on the power play. He's been a steady guy back there."
Niskanen was the steady guy on defense for the Penguins the final four months of last season. He played between 22 and 30 minutes in 29 of the final 51 games, but that was largely a result of injuries to key defensemen Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik.
His ice time through five games with the Capitals has been earned on merit. Washington has used the same six defensemen in each of its past four games, and Niskanen is first in ice time by at least 75 seconds per game.
"I like it, obviously," Niskanen said of his increased ice time. "I think it helps you get into the flow of the game better. I'm comfortable with what I've been playing. You feel like you really have an impact in the game and you get into a rhythm."
His impact is particularly felt in the third period, when Niskanen has played 46 shifts totaling 42:55. That's nearly six minutes more than he has played in 50 first-period shifts and seven minutes more than he has played in 41 second-period shifts.
He has averaged 9:01 of ice time in the third period of Washington's three overtime games.
"That shows that they're confident in me," Niskanen said of Trotz and assistant coach Todd Reirden, who is responsible for the defense in Washington this season after running the defense for the Penguins the past four seasons.
Niskanen said his transition from Pittsburgh to Washington has been made easier by Reirden.
"Playing for Barry is new, but Todd knows me well and knows that I can handle those [late-game] situations and be a smart enough player to recognize when you can be aggressive and when you can be smart, how you need to play in those tight games in the third," Niskanen said. "Last year, I lucked out. Because of all the injuries in Pittsburgh, I got a lot of reps in those situations, so I got some valuable experience there. The biggest thing for me was game management and really buckling down when you need to so you can execute a play or defend."
Niskanen said prior to last season the only time he can recall playing heavier minutes in the third period than in either of the first two was his rookie season with the Dallas Stars, but he said that was largely because he was playing with either Mattias Norstrom or Sergei Zubov.
"To be honest, I was kind of oblivious to the pressures," Niskanen said. "I just went out and played and didn't really realize the magnitude of those situations. Last year was the first time where I was consistently trusted in key situations. That gave me a lot of confidence."
In addition to leading Washington in even-strength ice time, Niskanen has played an important role on the special-teams units. Trotz has used him for 2:46 per game on the penalty kill and an average of 1:51 on the power play.
The Capitals are fifth in the NHL on the PK (90 percent) and tied for eighth on the power play (25 percent).
"He's been sort of that unsung hero on the back end," Trotz said. "Each game, we've had different guys who have really stepped up, and Matt has been sort of the constant every game."
It helps Niskanen that he's playing what he called an "almost identical" style in Washington compared to what he played in Pittsburgh. The difference is the attention he is drawing because of his mega contract.
"Oh certainly there is pressure," Niskanen said. "A team commits seven years and significant money to you, you're expected to play well. They didn't bring you in to be a low-minute guy without any expectations."
He said the pressure hasn't gotten to him yet, but he knows he'll eventually have to deal with it.
"I am human. I'm going to feel it at times this year," he said. "At the end of the day, I tell myself that they brought me here to be me; they didn't sign me to be somebody else. I need to play as well as I can and make sure the things I'm supposed to be doing well, that I do those things really well."
Staying consistent despite the heavy workload has to be the thing Niskanen does best for Trotz to continue to use him in all situations and for nearly 25 minutes per game. So far he's been on point. So far his experience from last season is paying off.
"That's what I've been striving to be more than anything, as consistent as possible from the beginning of the game to the end of the game, from early in the season to late in the season," Niskanen said. "I don't set goals for goals and points. Being consistent is what I strive to do."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl