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Underrated Niskanen Proves Invaluable to Pens

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

One constant for the Penguins all season has been defenseman Matt Niskanen. At every practice, every game and every media availability, Niskanen is there.

The media always goes to him when they need a quote, on anything and everything. He’s always ready with a smart, thoughtful and insightful response to whatever question he might be asked. And Niskanen can be counted on for honest, candid answers after losses, including the toughest defeats when other guys clear out of the locker room as quickly as possible.

It’s why he’s won the Good Guy Award for two years running, which is presented annually by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association to the player the local media wants to acknowledge for his cooperation throughout the year.

Now, we figured it was time to give him a break from answering questions for once and ask some of his teammates about him and the fantastic season that he’s had, as Niskanen was also named the team’s Defensive Player of the Year for the 2013-14 regular season.

Niskanen, 27, has been Pittsburgh’s most consistent defenseman in a season where their blue line was absolutely ravaged by injuries. At one point, they were missing their entire top-four when Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi were all out at the same time.

So the team counted on Niskanen, who’d played primarily on the third pairing until this season, to step into a bigger role and handle more responsibility in every aspect of the game – both on and off the ice. That’s a LOT to ask of a player, but Niskanen wasn’t in over his head, treading water. He was absolutely up to the challenge.

Niskanen excelled in his assignments, which included top-pair minutes, shutting down the other team’s most dangerous players, quarterbacking the first power-play unit (a role he’s kept regardless of who’s been in or out of the lineup lately) and mentoring the young defensemen getting a look with the big club.

Niskanen has a career-high 10 goals, 35 assists and 45 points through 80 games, surpassing his previous personal bests of 7, 29, and 35, respectively. He ranks fifth in the NHL with a plus-32 rating, which is especially big considering he’s faced every opponent’s best players. He's just been a phenomenal, all-around puck-moving defenseman.

“I think for Nisky, certainly him being there every game is important. Not just physically playing in games, but he plays a big part in them,” Scuderi said. “He plays over 20 minutes a night, plays on our first power-play unit. His presence on the power play and getting pucks to the net has been a big reason why it’s been so successful.

“And that’s just offensively. Defensively, he’s taken care of his responsibilities. He’s played with different guys all year and he’s continued to play well.”

“He’s been great,” agreed Orpik. “Especially when we had a lot of injuries, he got a bigger opportunity. And some of the guys we were calling up at the same time. Usually you bring guys up and you bring them up slow. But they were playing 20 minutes a night, so a lot of guys had bigger roles. Some guys probably wouldn’t do so well with it, and he obviously (did). It’s been his best year, so he’s welcomed the challenge and he’s been huge for us.”

Thinking of where Niskanen was when he first came to Pittsburgh and where he is now, it’s amazing how far he’s come.

The 2005 first-round draft pick (28th overall) broke into the NHL at age 20 and had an outstanding first season, playing in the 2008 YoungStars Game at NHL All-Star Weekend. He followed that up with a fantastic sophomore season that concluded with him representing Team USA at the World Championship.

But over the next two years, as Niskanen put it, his play “kind of slipped.” He wasn’t playing at the same level he had been, especially offensively, and was struggling to find consistency. And eventually, the Stars ended up trading him and winger James Neal to Pittsburgh on Feb. 21, 2011 – right before the deadline – for defenseman Alex Goligoski.

Orpik remembers when he first met Niskanen, days after he was traded here from Dallas. He saw the potential that was there, and knew his new teammate just needed to be put into a position to succeed after a tough couple of seasons. The rest would take care of itself, with the kind of character that he has.

“He’s a guy who comes in, works hard,” Orpik said. “He has no ego whatsoever. He just comes in and does his work. He’s super humble. I think here at Southpointe, this was the first practice I had with him. I was out with a broken hand right when we got him. So it was just me and him and (assistant coach) Todd Reirden doing extra stuff right when we got him from Dallas. So I saw the skill he had right away.

“I think it was just a confidence thing, really. Everyone in this league is so good. Confidence is what separates a lot of guys from playing in this league and not playing in this league, and for some guys who struggle, there are some guys who really excel. And I think he just needed to get his confidence back. They definitely gave him an opportunity here and he’s made the most of it.”

His adversity didn’t necessarily end there. With his two-year extension up at the end of this season, trade rumors began swirling around Niskanen this summer and many media and fans thought the defender would be shipped elsewhere due to cap constraints before this season began. Now, it’s hard to imagine the D corps without Niskanen, who’s had such a re-emergence with the way he’s embraced the challenge of having a bigger role not just on the ice, but off of it as well.

Confidence is certainly something that almost all of his teammates mentioned when talking how and why Niskanen has grown into the player – and leader – he is now.

“I’ve known Matt for a lot of years and I always thought he was a great defenseman. I think sometimes all it takes is to get that opportunity or for someone to like you and give you those minutes, like he didn’t get in Dallas,” Martin said. “When he came here, I think he wasn’t as confident as he had been. And then I think the way that we play and with the staff that we have, the encouragement, I think he just built on that and continued to get better. And now this year, with some injuries, he’s on the first power play, he’s getting those minutes and he’s capitalized. That’s good. He’s had a great year and he deserves (the award), because he’s been putting in the work and he’s been fun to watch.”

Neal has known Niskanen the longest out of all the Penguins, as they were drafted by Dallas a year apart, developed alongside each other in the Stars organization and were traded to Pittsburgh together. He knows perhaps better than anyone what Niskanen was always capable of.

“He definitely always had it in him,” Neal said. “Coming into Dallas as a young D-man, he was always a great passer and always had a great shot. He had a tough go in Dallas and found a home here in Pittsburgh, and he’s been unbelievable ever since.

“He just keeps getting better and better and his confidence just keeps growing. When you’re playing with that kind of confidence, it’s a good thing and he’s definitely in the zone right now. He’s making guys around him better and he shows his leadership by the way he practices and works every game.”

He’s also showing that leadership in other ways as well.

As Orpik mentioned, Niskanen has a pretty quiet personality. He’d always been more of a lead-by-example kind of guy, but with so many veterans sidelined for the Penguins this season and with his confidence and game at perhaps the highest it’s been, Niskanen decided it was time to adapt a more vocal role in that regard.

He took it upon himself to help teach the other young defensemen in the lineup about the ins and outs of being professional hockey players, something Mattias Norstrom did for him in Dallas when he was in their position.

“He taught me how to be a pro, how to work everyday and how to prepare,” Niskanen said. “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.”

And he did.

“I was forced into a leadership role this year with the injuries that we had, so that presented a unique and a different type of opportunity for me and that was a fun challenge,” Niskanen said.

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