When Matt Niskanen came to training camp last September after being acquired from Dallas in a trade the previous season, he knew the battle amongst the Penguins defensemen for roster spots would be fierce.
“We’ve got a lot of depth in this organization on defense,” Niskanen said at the time. “I’ll earn my spot on the team for playing time.”
Well, not only did Niskanen earn his spot – he earned a new contract.
On Saturday, the Penguins announced that they had re-signed the 25-year-old blueliner to a two-year deal that will run through the 2013-14 campaign and has an annual average value of $2.3 million.
“I’m just thrilled right now,” Niskanen said. “I’m happy that they wanted me back and I’m glad we were able to get a deal done.”
Entering this summer, Niskanen was a restricted free agent. If both sides hadn’t reached an agreement by noon on Sunday, he would have become an unrestricted free agent and able to sign with any team he wanted.
But the only place he wanted to be, he said, was Pittsburgh.
“The day I got traded there, I knew I was going to a good organization, a good place,” he said. “From the moment I got there, just the way me and James (Neal) were treated and how the guys were, I knew this was going to be the place for me.
“It’s home now. I feel like it’s where I belong. Everything has gone really, really well for me. I’ve absolutely loved my time there so far and I’m just excited to have the opportunity to play two more years there.”
Though Niskanen knew from the moment he arrived in February 2011 that this team would be a perfect fit for him, it’s still tough to deal with the shock of being traded and the difficulties of getting used to a brand-new organization mid-season.
But after having all last summer to get situated before getting a full training camp, Niskanen went on to develop into one of the Penguins’ most consistent and reliable defenders in his first full season with Pittsburgh.
“I thought I took a step forward with my game last season,” he said, crediting the Penguins coaching staff – especially assistant coach Todd Reirden – with spending a lot of extra time with him to help him improve. “Personally, I thought it went pretty well. I played much better, more consistent throughout the season from game to game and I was pleased with my progress.”
Niskanen’s game isn’t flashy, and his value can’t be necessarily be quantified by goals and points – though he can contribute offensively. What makes him so essential to this Penguins defense is the steadiness and calming influence he brings to the ice every single day.
“As a defenseman, I think it’s a compliment when someone says you’re a real consistent player,” he said. “I think that’s what younger players sometimes struggle with, and I struggled with that a few seasons ago. I always strive to be consistent game-to-game and throughout the season. I think that’s going to be my goal again this year: have another consistent year and just be a steady defenseman that can chip in offensively when I can. I’ll shoot for that again.”
Apart from his all-around consistency, Niskanen also showed his grit and character last season when he battled through a shoulder issue to put up a gutsy performance in the 2012 playoffs.
Niskanen, who spends his offseasons in northern Minnesota and is currently training there, said the shoulder “has come along nicely.”
“I’m getting a full range of motion again and I’m getting my strength back,” he continued. “It’s taking some time, but it’s on the right track for recovery and I should be 100 percent in plenty of time for training camp. The rest of my body feels really good. Training is going well and I’m anxious to get back on the ice here pretty soon.”