When trade rumors were swirling around defenseman Matt Niskanen this summer, almost everyone outside the Penguins organization thought the defender would be shipped elsewhere due to cap constraints before the season began.
Fast forward to mid-December, and it is hard to imagine a depleted Pittsburgh defensive core without Niskanen, the leader of a young group currently suiting up on the back end.
Niskanen, 27, has been counted on heavily after injuries to the Penguins top-four defensemen, leading to an increased role in every facet of the game.
“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,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “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.”
The Virginia, Minnesota-native logged a career-high 29:26 minutes at Detroit on Saturday, the 17th straight game that he finished with a plus or even rating.
“Right from the beginning of the year, he stepped in with the absence of some of our defense,” Bylsma added. “His (Niskanen) numbers are fantastic, his plus-minus, the roles he’s played — he’s stepped up on the top power play and done not just an admirable job, he’s done a very good job. Last game he stepped right in there on the power play and with what he was able to do, we get two big goals that help us win that game against Detroit. Ends up playing 29 big minutes.”
In addition to being counted on to log big minutes on the ice, Niskanen has also been instructing the crop of young defensemen on how to act as professionals, something he talked about as an important and distinctive experience he had during his time as a rookie in Dallas.
“Mattias Norström was a guy who really took me under his wing,” Niskanen said. “He taught me how to be a pro, how to work everyday and how to prepare. Just the ins-and-outs of professional hockey and being a defenseman especially in situations like the penalty kill, I thought he did a really good job of looking after me and he wanted to see me do well, wanted to see me succeed.
“I think those experience are ones I remember and I am really thankful for him for doing that. I think I can relay that along to some of the young guys here.”
It is something Niskanen will have to do on the fly. Rookie defensemen Olli Maatta, Robert Bortuzzo, Brian Dumoulin, Philip Samuelsson and second-year man Simon Despres have played a combined 139 career games – a whole 306 games less than the 445 Niskanen has played in seven seasons in the NHL.
Despite the influx of youth on defense — something the organization has worked to build up in recent history — the calming influence of a ‘veteran’ like Niskanen on the back end has without a doubt expedited the learning curve for the group.
“They have been doing a good job,” Niskanen said. “They have a lot of promise, bright futures for a lot of our young defensemen here. It is fun to see them grow. I don’t have to do a lot if I just give them one piece of information on a situation that happens in a game or practice, just try to be there for them and talk to them.
“If we can help them just a little bit, that is a rewarding experience. Something I don’t get to do everyday is step into that leadership role and take on more responsibility and help the young guys succeed.”
As the uphill climb to the midway point of the 82-game season nears the climax, no doubt is left in the mind of Niskanen or anyone inside the locker room that sticking around has turned out to be the best case scenario for both parties.
“He has been great,” Dumoulin said on Niskanen. “The thing about Matt is that he is really calm and he is out there logging big minutes. If you are a young guy, he is someone you want to be like.”