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Niskanen Ready to Contribute to Pens' Blue Line

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins
When he’s playing his best game, Matt Niskanen described himself as a strong-skating, mobile defenseman that gets involved in the attack all over the ice.

He should fit right in with a Penguins defensive corps that likes to activate and join the rush to fit in with head coach Dan Bylsma’s philosophy of tilting the ice “70/30” – 70 percent in the offensive zone, 30 percent in the defensive zone.

“I think one of my best assets is my skating legs and being a mobile defenseman,” he said. “So I’ve got to use that to my advantage and be involved all over the ice and get up the ice and be involved in the attack as much as possible.”

Although Niskanen didn’t get to participate in Tuesday’s full practice with his new team, he did get some one-on-one time Tuesday evening with assistant coach Todd Reirden before partaking in Wednesday’s morning skate.

“Morning skate was good, I got to actually do a few of the things they’re talking about in the video and in the meetings,” Niskanen said with a smile. “So it was helpful this morning to get out, get a good sweat and kind of get used to the guys, too.”

While Niskanen’s playing style should fit seamlessly into Pittsburgh’s defensive philosophy, learning a new system is always overwhelming – especially since Pittsburgh’s is so detail-oriented.

“There’s certain details in the way they want to play the game here that I’m just trying to pick up as fast as I can and buy into that system,” Niskanen said. “And hopefully be good right from the start.”

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He won’t be alone in his efforts. The Penguins’ coaching staff is doing their best to ease Niskanen in as painlessly as possible, and what better way to do that then by having him meet with veteran defenseman in Brooks Orpik – who also initially struggled with Bylsma and his staff’s mindset.

“We’re going to have Brooks Orpik talk to him with another player right after our meeting this afternoon,” Bylsma said. “I’ll paraphrase what Brooks said. ‘When I first heard what you said, I thought you were crazy. I thought you were nuts about how we go back for pucks and come out of the D-zone. Now, I know that helps us out in the way we play and limit our time there.’ So I think initially, there is a hesitation or a questioning of what we ask.

“So we’re going to have Brooksy and a few other guys talk to him and say, ‘I know what you’re thinking and I know what you’re feeling, but this is how we do it, and these are the details that can help us play our game.’ It’s not an easy assimilation. It’s not going to be a snap your fingers thing or anything. Hopefully, he sees in here what we’re saying, and with the help of his teammates he’ll understand.”

Niskanen, now in his fourth NHL season, produced his best offensive numbers in 2008-09. He tallied six goals and 29 assists that season for 35 points, and the year before that, he posted seven goals, 19 assists and 27 points in his rookie campaign.

While his production has fallen off since then, Niskanen hopes that with the Penguins and their style of play, he can get his offensive game back to where it used to be.

“The potential’s there,” he said. “A couple years ago I thought I had a real good offensive season. I did a lot of good work on the power play in Dallas. The last two years I’ve kind of slipped, so that’s where I’m working to get my game back to.”
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