By his own admission, the 23-year-old Dallas Stars defenseman didn’t have the best year in 2009-10, and he dedicated his longer-than-expected off-season to making sure it doesn’t happen again this coming season.
It’s almost hard to believe that the smooth-skating blueliner is entering his fourth season, after he burst onto the scene with an impressive 26-point rookie season as a 20-year-old out of the University of Minnesota-Duluth in 2007-08.
But after enduring his share of ups and downs in Years 2 and 3, particularly last season, Niskanen spent the summer working harder than ever to ensure that he is ready to go as soon as Stars training camp opens on Sept. 17 in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.
“It’s been kind of a long off-season, I’m anxious to get back out there again, start practicing again and especially start playing games,” said Niskanen, who has joined a growing group of Stars skating out at their practice facility at Frisco’s Dr Pepper Arena. “I’m excited. I took advantage of the longer off-season and started my off-season workouts a lot earlier. I took about two weeks off and then got right back into it, so I probably went about six weeks to two months longer than I have the last couple of years, so hopefully that will pay dividends when we start going on the ice (in training camp).”
Niskanen acknowledged that last season, in which he recorded just three goals and 15 points in 74 games, and registered a team-worst -15 plus/minus rating, was not representative of what he can do, and that’s why he has focused on making sure that performance is quickly forgotten.
“Definitely I had some quiet moments last year where my play wasn’t quite up to par, I guess,” admitted the 6-foot, 204-pound Niskanen, who sat out as a healthy scratch five times during the year and endured a stretch of 20 games without a point. “And with that extra focus with the things that I can control in the off-season, like my work in the gym, it’s going to help me hit the ground running this year. Confidence is something that you kind of earn, I think, through your hard work and being prepared, and I’ve done that so far, I just got to keep going and I think I’ll be all right.”
Stars coach Marc Crawford has been impressed with the way Niskanen has committed himself during the off-season and is confident he will be much-improved in 2010-11.
“We’re really thrilled about where Matt’s at,” Crawford said. “Sometimes when you go through a tough season - and he went through a tough season - those are the biggest seasons of growth that you can have. I know Matt feels that way. He’s taken it upon himself to get in better shape. J.J. McQueen, our strength and conditioning coach, has been to see him a couple of times and kept close tabs on Matt, and Matt needs to be better in the battle areas. If you’re going to have confidence to handle those battle situations, you’re going to have to put the work in and he’s doing that this off-season. There’s always a positive to going through a rough part in your life. You come out of any crisis that you’ve gone through usually with a lot more knowledge and a lot more understanding about yourself and what it takes to be successful.”
In looking back on some of his struggles last season, Niskanen determined that after a difficult start, he began to lose his confidence and it just created a vicious cycle throughout the year to where he never did quite regain his footing. He vows that won’t happen again.
“I didn’t quite have the start I wanted and it seemed like I was starting from behind right from the start,” said Niskanen, who was the Stars’ first-round selection (28th overall) in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. “Hopefully, I’ll hit the ground running right from the start of training camp this year and just kind of focus on the positive things out there. Sometimes as a young defenseman, you have to have a short memory, because things are going to happen. There are great players in the league, so focus on the good things that you’re doing and learn from your mistakes as you go and keep at it.”
While Niskanen displayed flashes of offensive brilliance in his first couple of years, including a career-high 35 points in 2008-09 before falling off a bit, he pointed out that he has not been concentrating on one improving one aspect of his game over any other.
“The number one job as a defenseman is always to defend, so that’s something that I always have to be real conscious of,” noted Niskanen, who skated for Team USA at the World Championships in 2009, collecting a goal and two assists in nine games. “The all-around game, I think, is where I need to make improvements - do the things I do well in moving the puck and skating and being involved in the play all over the ice.”
Still, there is no question that Niskanen has the potential to blossom offensively, and perhaps claim a spot on the power play unit. Crawford notes that he’d love to see the native of Virginia, MN step up in that area and lessen some of the burden on top defenseman Stephane Robidas
“I do think that there’s reason for optimism on a player like Matt Niskanen,” Crawford said. “He’s got great ability and sometimes you suffer a great deal before the light goes on, and you figure out exactly what you need to do to be more effective in the system. We need somebody to take the pressure off of Robidas and Matt can really do that, especially in our offensive game.”
And while he’s dialed in on the task of raising his level of play this year, Niskanen recognizes that after some of the personnel changes the club has undergone this off-season, as a fourth-year player, he will have to shoulder additional responsibility on the ice and in the dressing room.
“Our whole team is kind of changing, we’re kind of a younger group this year,” Niskanen noted. “We lost a couple of guys who have been around for a long time, so as a whole, our younger group has to start taking more responsibility and one of those parts is leadership, so that’s something I think we can all attack together. With it being my fourth year, I think some of that responsibility rests on my shoulders too, to kind of take a little bit more charge of my role within
While he is optimistic that he can bounce back this year, Niskanen also feels confident that the Stars will find their way back to the playoffs after not qualifying the past two years.
“I think a real team commitment of what we’re trying to do - great team defense, goaltending’s got to be there and special teams seems to be a thing that can really push you over the edge,” said Niskanen of what will be the catalyst for the Stars returning to the post-season. “I think our penalty kill’s got to improve, and I think if our power play can be where it was last year or a little bit better, then I think we’ll be in good shape.”
Niskanen’s resurgence could go a long way towards that. Of course, while it does seem like he’s been around a while, when critiquing Niskanen, it’s important to also remember that he’s still just 23.
“At 23 years old, I was still in the minors. I couldn’t crack an NHL lineup,” said Robidas, 33, who didn’t establish himself as an NHL regular until he was 25 in 2002-03 with Dallas. “He’s still a young guy, and he’s a good player. It was a tough year for the whole team. Obviously, when you don’t win, it’s easy to put the blame on guys. He’s really young, but he’s got lots of skills. He’s got a good heart, he wants to learn, and I think he’s still improving.”
“He’s still a young guy, 23 years old - there’s a lot of guys that are just coming into the league at that time,” Crawford added. “We’re happy with his off-season and we think he can really come back and be a difference-maker on defense. That’s what we need.”