|Dallas rookie defenseman Matt Niskanen, the Stars' top pick in the 2005 Draft, ranks second in goals, assists, points and plus-minus among rookies.
After a long road trip, most players want nothing more than to climb into their cars, go home and collapse into a familiar bed.
But the first part is finding the car at the airport.
Dallas Stars rookie defenseman Matt Niskanen was no different when he arrived back in Dallas after the team’s return home from its East Coast swing at the end of November. He remembered where he parked his car, but in case he had forgotten, someone had been nice enough to paint his name and No. 5 on it for him.
How kind, right?
“Once I found out I was going to be staying down in Dallas, I had my car, that I’ve had since I’ve been 16, shipped down, a 2001 Pontiac Sunfire, my college car,” Niskanen said. “I was going to keep it the whole year. The guys were giving me a lot of grief; ‘Hey, go get yourself a new car, get rid of that thing.’ When we went out east for a 10-day road trip, (teammate Marty) Turco had somebody steal my car from the airport and brought to one of those Pimp My Ride places, and they put ‘Dallas Stars’, ‘Nisky No. 5’ on it. Sweet paint job. It’s got rims and a sound system in it. They really did a good job on it. What a practical joke! I had no clue it was going on. Quite a surprise.”
Equally surprising has been Niskanen’s rise to the top of the Stars’ defensive depth chart.
The 28th overall pick in the 2005 Entry Draft, it was expected Niskanen would start his first full professional season with the Iowa Stars, Dallas’ American Hockey League affiliate. Instead, Niskanen’s training camp performance earned the 21-year-old a full-time spot in the Lone Star State.
“It (making the team) was definitely my goal,” Niskanen said. “I wasn’t really quite sure if that was even a possibility. I wanted to come in and have a good camp, but I thought I would be going to Iowa in the American League for at least the start of the season. An injury opened a window for me and I took advantage, and I’ve been running with it ever since.”
During that run, he’s accumulated numbers that rank him second among all rookie defensemen in goals (five), assists (14), points (19) and plus-minus (plus-12). It also earned him a trip to Atlanta for the YoungStars Game as part of All-Star Weekend.
Niskanen has played in all 53 games this season, and is averaging more than 19 minutes of ice time per game.
That number has risen recently, as Niskanen’s defense partner, Sergei Zubov, has missed time with a foot injury. In the last eight games, Niskanen has averaged more than 20 minutes, and he plays in all situations.
“I’ve definitely had more of a prominent role (since Zubov’s injury),” said Niskanen. “I’m not going to get the job done like he does, but it’s a great opportunity for me to get my feet wet more in that role. Kind of have to grow up real fast and help the team win games while Zubie’s out.”
He’s done just that as the Stars have won three of their last five games and currently hold a share of the Pacific Division lead.
"We’ve played the Stars six times and I maybe didn’t notice him individually that much the first couple of times I saw him because of the guy he plays alongside most of the time, Sergei Zubov,” San Jose Sharks coach Ron Wilson told reporters. "But the last few times we’ve played them you can see him coming and coming with his skating skills, jumping into the play and puck skills working the transition game.”
One of Niskanen’s best moments came on Jan. 3, when the Virginia, Minn., native played his first game against the Wild at Minnesota’s Xcel Energy Center.
The 6-foot, 194-pound blueliner, who played two collegiate seasons at Minnesota-Duluth, played a season-high 26:34 and scored a second-period goal, all in front of hundreds of family members and friends.
“We lost the game (6-3) so that kind of stunk,” he said with a laugh. “Coming home, I had a ton of people from my hometown there. I scored a goal in the second period, it was so much fun. Nuts. It was a pretty cool moment. Everyone from my hometown had blue shirts with my name on them. It was pretty cool.
“Everyone back home found out I was going to be on the team right out of training camp. Somebody in town had connections with the Wild and we got a whole block of tickets. Two busloads came down.”
All the fame and fortune hasn’t changed Niskanen that much. He still has his pimped-out ride.
“I drove it for about three or four weeks,” he said, but then the honking horns and other reactions he would get sitting in traffic became a bit much, so he got a new truck right around New Year’s.
“I don’t drive it as much anymore,” he said, “but I still have the car.”
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org