He’s playing a regular shift on defense in the National Hockey League with the Dallas Stars -- and he’s at the All-Star Game in Atlanta rubbing elbows with the game’s greats, preparing for the YoungStars skills competition Saturday night.
After finishing his sophomore season at Minnesota-Duluth, the 6-1, 195-pounder from Virginia, Minnesota, played in 13 regular-season games with the Stars’ Iowa team in the American Hockey League and then starred with two goals and five assists in 12 playoffs games before going the Dallas’ training camp in September and making the big show.
"It’s been an unbelievable ride," Niskanen said Friday night at an interview session of YoungStars. "I’m having a blast. Enjoying every day.
"It was my dream to play in the NHL since I was 5 or 6 and my parents couldn’t get me off the rink. But going into training camp I figured I’d be headed for Iowa."
Except for a couple of injuries at the start of the season, this story might have been different. But the Stars first pick, 28th overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft never lacked for skill and confidence.
At the All-Star break Matt is second in goals by a rookie defenseman to Edmonton’s Tom Gilbert with five and second to Atlanta’s Tobias Enstrom in assists and points with 14 assists and 19 points in 53 games. Most important, his plus-12 plus-minus number is eye-popping for rookie or veteran alike.
"We’ve played the Stars six times and while I maybe didn’t notice him individually that much the first couple of times I saw him because of the guy he plays alongside most of the time, Sergei Zubov," San Jose Sharks Coach Ron Wilson, an assistant coach for the Western Conference in the All-Star Game, observed. "But the last few times we’ve played them you can see him coming and coming with his skating skills jumping into the play and puck skills working the transition game.
"I’ve always felt that Sergei Zubov is the most underrated skilled defenseman in the game and you can sure tell that he’s mentoring Matt the way he’s developing."
"Sergei makes it work," Niskanen said emphatically. "He’s so good at reading so many things that are happening at fast pace on the ice -- and I’m lucky enough that he’s shared some of those little details on what to look for and when to go with the puck that he’s simply the master of doing."
This All-Star notoriety is fun for the 21-year-old Niskanen.
"I always watched the All-Star Game," he said. "I remember when Owen Nolan pointed to where he was going to score against Dominik Hasek and the game that Mario Lemieux scored three goals in the first period and had four total and a game when they had Wayne Gretzky miked up and he told his linemates they’d each get two chances to score -- and they did. The skills in this game are off the charts."
Growing up in the Iron Range in Minnesota, Matt was a North Stars fan first and a Pittsburgh Penguins fan second. His favorite players? Mike Modano and Mario Lemieux.
"Yeah, it’s funny," Niskanen said, when asked about a defenseman idolizing two star forwards. "I always played defense, but I guess I’ve always wanted to be a forward."
Stars Coach Dave Tippett is happy where Matt is playing and what he’s doing right now, thank you.
So where was he last year in late January of this whirlwind year?
"I was probably in class just starting the second semester or talking hockey with my six hockey-playing roommates (five sophomores and one senior) in Duluth," he laughed.
The decision to leave school and take a chance in professional hockey was very tedious. He and his parents, Chuck and Linda, spent countless hours. But hockey won out over his double major in school of health and physical education.
Now he’s majoring in looking mature beyond his years on the Dallas defense -- with the obvious smarts to listen to a pretty good defensive partner.
Niskanen laughs when he talks about growing up, partly because his Stars teammates, particularly goaltender Marty Turco have given him lots of grief over the 2001 Pontiac Sunfire with more than 92,000 miles that he had shipped with him from college.
"We came back from a trip a while back and I got to the parking lot and my car was gone," Niskanen said, sounding a bit perturbed to be the part of one of Turco’s practical jokes. "Marty had the car towed away ... and he had it PIMPED up, detailed with outlandish hub caps and everything."
The forward-thinking youngster learned his lesson. Now he drives a 2008 Chevrolet Silverado. The truck of choice back on the Iron Range in Minnesota.
Most important, he’s driving a few opponents to wonder just how such a young player can play with such poise.