After a highly successful rookie year in 2007-08 as a fresh-faced youngster just three years removed from high school hockey, Niskanen struggled at times through the first two months, mirroring the team overall.
But like the Stars as a whole, Niskanen has regained his confidence and has gotten his season back on track, delivering solid-to-excellent performances over the past month or so.
That was clearly evident during Monday night’s thrilling 5-4 overtime win over Detroit, when Niskanen earned two assists, including setting up the OT game-winner by fellow blueliner Trevor Daley
. Niskanen also matched a career-high by firing six shots on goal in that contest.
“I guess I got the credit for putting it in, but he did most of the work,” Daley said of Niskanen on the game-winning play.
He’s come a long way since the dog days of October and early November. But as the Stars clawed their way out of last place in the Western Conference standings with an 8-4-1 December, Niskanen also executed an about-face in his play at both ends of the ice. After starting the season with just one goal and one assist over his first 20 games, and having a difficult time in his own zone to the tune of a -9 plus/minus rating over that span, Niskanen caught fire.
In his next 13 contests, Niskanen, the Stars’ first round selection (28th overall) in the 2005 Entry Draft, contributed two goals and 10 points and registered a +3 as the team enjoyed an 8-4-1 stretch.
“I think it’s coming along all right,” said Niskanen, who has three goals and 14 points overall while averaging 19:01 of ice time this season. “There definitely have been a few bumps in the road. That’s part of being a young guy, I think, and being new in the league. You got to learn and there’s going to be a few setbacks here and there, but it’s all about how you respond to it and I think I’ve been playing more consistent, a little bit better hockey lately, so it’s going well.”
“Ever since he came to us, he’s been unbelievable and he’s continued on this year,” added Daley. “He’s come in and he’s had to take even more of a role than he had last year, getting on power plays and playing a lot of minutes. He’s one of the guys that we look to to step up big for us.”
After such an impressive rookie year, Niskanen’s difficulties to start this season were unexpected and detrimental to a team that was relying on him even more, following Mattias Norstrom’s retirement and veteran Sergei Zubov’s long-term injury. Niskanen set the bar high with his performance last year, recording seven goals and 26 points, which ranked third and fourth, respectively, among NHL rookie defenders. He also posted an impressive +22 plus/minus rating, demonstrating his proficiency on both sides of the puck.
Not coincidentally, Niskanen’s turn-around began around the time that coach Dave Tippett partnered him with veteran defender Darryl Sydor, which seemed to have a settling effect on the 22-year-old from Virginia, Minnesota.
“Nisky’s played very well lately and I think some of that is due to he’s found some rhythm with Darryl Sydor,” Tippett said. “Darryl and him have been a very good pair for us. The things I see in Niskanen right now, he’s much stronger on the puck, he’s more confident in moving it. He’s never going to be a guy that is going to bull his way around the ice, but he’s a strong thinker, he thinks the game very well. His puck-movement has been very efficient lately and him and Syd have made a very good pair for us lately.”
“He helps a lot, a great veteran leader, very vocal,” Niskanen said of Sydor. “He’s been around, he’s been very successful. He’s a big help for me and he’s someone that I can look up to and kind of model my work ethic off of his and see how he goes about his business every day as a professional hockey player. He’s a good role model. Just his voice in the locker room alone is very valuable and he’s also a solid hockey player and he knows how to win.”
For his part, Sydor, 36, who recently skated in his 1,200th career game, has been very impressed with his new partner.
“I think things have been going good,” Sydor said. “He’s obviously a young kid that has a lot of capability and a lot of good assets and I think it’s just a matter of just learning the game and getting better at his defensive game. The defense is what keeps you around. As long as you can be solid in that part of the game, he’s got many years ahead of him.”
Sydor has made it a point to take Niskanen under his wing as a kind of mentor and his efforts are clearly paying dividends.
“It’s been fun to play with him and I remember when I was in those shoes and I played with older guys,” Sydor said. “You just try and talk to him a lot and help him out whenever he has questions and just try and keep him composed and mentally sharp. And he has all that, so it’s been a fun little time playing with him.”
And while he has played well in the defensive zone recently, it’s the resurgence of Niskanen’s offensive contributions that have helped garner him some additional attention of late, especially after Monday’s game.
“He’s chipping in some points and for me, that’s just from his strong puck movement,” Tippett said. “He’s making good decisions with it, he’s getting it going to the forwards on the offensive blue line, he’s finding ways to get it to the net. They’re not what you’d call pinpoint assists, but they’re plays that are getting made that allow us to have scoring chances and he’s getting some points.”
“That’s the thing, usually from good defense, you’re going to create good offense,” Sydor noted, “and that’s what’s been happening and he’s getting rewarded that way, from playing sound defensively.”
Niskanen pointed out that he hasn’t been making a concerted effort to get more involved in the attack, it has just been a by-product of his improved performance overall.
“I think it’s just kind of happened,” the 6-foot, 199-pound Niskanen said. “I’ve tried to play a little bit better in all aspects of my game, especially without the puck and I’ve kind of just been playing more of a sound game and good things have been happening when I’ve been on the ice and just kind of fell into place.”
“He’s been great,” added Daley. “He’s great with the puck, he has his head up all the time, he makes great plays, so there’s no reason why he shouldn’t (be contributing on offense).”
Of course, with just about everyone else playing better lately too, Niskanen’s enhanced contributions have had more impact and have helped the Stars get back in the thick of the Western Conference playoff chase. After Monday’s win, the Stars trailed Colorado by just three points for the eighth and final playoff spot.
“Yeah, when everybody gets going, points come,” Niskanen stated. “If you’re playing well and doing the right things, it just kind of happens I think.”