Slick-skating defenseman Matt Niskanen, one of the players attending the Dallas Stars development camp last week whose future the club is most excited about, has made tremendous strides since the his selection in the first round (number 28 overall) of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.
The highly-skilled Niskanen, 20, left the University of Minnesota-Duluth after his sophomore season ended last March and performed quite well for the Stars’ primary American Hockey League affiliate in Iowa down the stretch and through the playoffs.
Since being drafted out of high school in Virginia, Minnesota following his senior year in which he scored an astounding 27 goals and 65 points in 29 games, Dallas has been duly impressed with his progress. Coming into 2007-08, his first full professional season, the Stars are counting on him to take another step in the process, maybe even including an audition in Dallas at some point.
Yes, expectations are high for Niskanen.
“His upside, I think, is real solid,” said Les Jackson, the Stars’ assistant general manager in charge of scouting and player development. “He comes from a background of high school hockey and I think his improvement-potential gap is a lot wider than lots of players. I don’t know where he’s going to go this year. He’ll certainly be a good player in Iowa, and he’s for sure going to get a chance at some point to play some games with the big club.”
Offensively, Niskanen is quite gifted, as evidenced by his impressive output of nine goals and 31 points in 39 games with UMD last season. He has also concentrated on improving his defensive abilities and bulking up his 6-foot, 194-pound frame.
“I always try to work on all parts of my game, obviously, but one thing, off-ice, I definitely need to get stronger, still,” Niskanen admitted. “I’m only 20 years old and I’m playing against professional athletes who are grown men and the best in the business, so I’ve got to continue to get stronger. And definitely, the defensive part of my game. I’ve always been kind of an offensive-type guy from the back end, but at this level, you have to be able to play defense in order to play, so I have to continue to get better defensively and continue working on all aspects of my game.”
Niskanen points to another Minnesota native, former first-round draft pick Keith Ballard, who scored 29 points for Phoenix last year, as an on-ice role model. He also admires a certain Dallas defender as well.
“I’ve kind of always been a big fan of Keith Ballard of Phoenix,” Niskanen revealed. “He played at (the University of) Minnesota, I grew up watching him. He’s a real solid, two-way defenseman, real skilled, and kind of a mean guy, plays like a (jerk). I guess I’ve almost modeled my game after him, but on the Stars this past year, I really liked watching Stephane Robidas
. He’s really solid, plays tough, good in both ends of the rink, he’s got some skill. I really like watching those two guys.”
Observers of the Iowa Stars certainly enjoyed watching Niskanen join the AHL club’s lineup after his college season and fit right in seamlessly. His ability to make that transition smoothly accelerated his progress that much more than if he didn’t turn pro until September, because now he’s already gone through it.
“Great experience for me, learned a lot on the fly,” Niskanen said of his first taste for the pro game. “I was fortunate enough to be able to step right in and get some good playing time. I played in a lot of different situations, in front of a good coaching staff and on a pretty good team in a playoff race. I got thrown right into the fire, and gained some really good, valuable experience, got to see what pro hockey was all about right away, and I think it’s really going to help me this fall.”
Niskanen contributed three assists over the final 13 regular season games in Iowa, then boosted his level of play another notch in the post-season, registering two goals and seven points, which was tied for third on the club, in 12 playoff contests. That performance definitely caught the attention of Dallas management.
“Niskanen’s made some great advancement,” Jackson said. “He goes from high school into college hockey and plays well there, and last year, he comes out and plays a number of games in the American League and plays like he’s been in the league for a year or two. He came right in and played a big part on the team.”
It was Niskanen’s ability to adapt to the AHL so quickly that has the Stars thinking, with another year of development, he might be ready to suit up for a couple of games in Dallas by the end of this coming season, much like Niklas Grossman did last year.
It has been suggested that part of the reason he has advanced so far just two years removed from playing high school hockey is that Niskanen has finally devoted all of his energies to hockey. He starred in both football (as quarterback, was named his region’s player of the year as a senior) and baseball (a four-time all-conference pitcher and infielder) at Virginia-Mountain Iron-Buhl High School and only upon enrolling at Minnesota-Duluth did he give the other sports up.
“Ever since I started playing it, when I was six, that’s kind of been my dream, to play in the NHL, play college hockey, and even high school, at that age, that was a dream of mine,” Niskanen said of why he chose to stick with hockey. “In Minnesota, hockey’s pretty big, and it was just my favorite. But all the way up until I was a senior in high school, I did play all three, enjoyed them all, took full advantage of my time when I had baseball season or football season, but hockey’s definitely for me.”
He even acknowledged that he occasionally misses competing in the other sports.
“I still both love watching them on TV,” Niskanen said. “And in the summers, me and my buddies in Virginia, Minnesota always mess around with the baseball or the football, throw it around a little bit. I’ve definitely got some special memories from those teams.”
Virginia, which is about 60 miles northwest of Duluth in northern Minnesota, is also the home of Nico Sacchetti
, the Stars’ first choice (second round, number 50 overall) in the 2007 Entry Draft, and Niskanen fondly recalled their one season as teammates.
“He came up when I was senior in high school, he was a freshman, and he was probably the best forward on our team, even at that age,” Niskanen said. “That year was unbelievable, it was the first time we ever made it to the state high school tournament in Minnesota, which was a big deal for us. We had a pretty good team that year. I sure had a lot of fun, and we both grew quite a bit that year, got a lot better as players. He turned out to be a pretty good friend and hopefully, we’ll be friends for a long time.”
“It’s a dream come true for two kids from the same high school to be drafted by the same team,” said Sacchetti, who will play this season for Omaha of the USHL, the top junior league in the U.S., “so hopefully, we’ll be teammates again in the near future.”
With Sacchetti, a highly-skilled center, also attending the Stars development camp this past week at the Dr Pepper StarCenter in Frisco, Niskanen had a chance to advise his hometown buddy.
“The biggest thing that I’ve told Nico, from what I’ve learned and coming up through college and just a little bit of pro, is I know that he has all the skill in the world, but it’s all about the drive and what you have in your chest,” Niskanen said. “It’s all about heart, and I’m pretty sure he has that - in fact, I know he does - and he’s just got to continue to work hard and push himself to get better each and every day. He’s on the right track, and I think he’s going to get there someday.”
The same could be said for Niskanen, whose progression up the hockey ladder has clearly been aided by his outstanding natural athleticism, as well as his considerable inner drive.
As he continues his development, and with the Stars’ top pick from 2004, Mark Fistric
, also coming along nicely, the long-term future of the Dallas blueline looks to be pretty bright.
“They’re different styles of players,” Jackson noted. “Mark is more of a shutdown player and a penalty killer and a real capable defender, and Matt’s game is two-way. He’s real good with the puck, he makes good choices, able to play with high-end players. When you’re putting a group of defensemen together to build your team, those two styles of players are certainly valuable.”