Matt Niskanen, 20, was Dallas' first round pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, and he began the 2006-07 season as a sophomore defenseman for the University of Minnesota-Duluth. After shining as a UMD Bulldog, he ended up finishing the campaign as an anchor on Iowa's blue line in the Calder Cup Playoffs.
After collecting 31 points (nine goals, 22 assists) in 39 games and earning All-WCHA honors at Duluth, Niskanen joined the professional ranks on March 19, signing a three-year contract with Dallas. While that contract doesn't kick in until the start of next season, Niskanen promptly joined the Iowa Stars on an amateur tryout contract (ATO) and made his professional debut on March 20 vs. Peoria.
"It took Matt about two weeks to get his feet wet in the professional ranks," said Scott White, Iowa's Director of Hockey Operations, "but he dealt with the pressure well and he played with poise well above his years. He was our youngest player, but he was able to log 20-22 minutes a night, on the power play, on the penalty kill and playing against some pretty good players. He showed a great deal of maturity and growth, and his adjustment was steady, which is a positive sign."
The native of Virginia, Minn., posted three assists in 13 regular season games for Iowa after making the jump to the AHL, and his first pro goal came against Omaha in the first round of the AHL Playoffs. Niskanen netted the Iowa franchise's first playoff shorthanded goal in Game Two against Chicago on May 4 -- in spectacular fashion -- and in 12 playoff games, tallied two goals and five assists for seven points, placing him tied for first on the club in helpers and tied for third in scoring.
"I don't think there are too many guys who can do what he was able to do, making the transition and adjustment he did," said White. "He is a quality, respectful person and a really good hockey player with very good instincts at both ends of the rink. We got a glimpse of what he was capable of when he joined our club in March, and I think he's going to be playing in the NHL for a very long time."
Niskanen also didn't waste any time endearing himself to his Iowa teammates when he made the jump from the college ranks.
"Matt is a really smart player, he has great skills and he makes really good plays in difficult situations, which can't be taught," said Junior Lessard, the 2004 Hobey Baker Award winner at Minnesota-Duluth. "He is a hard worker with solid hockey instincts, and he is committed to being a great hockey player. He's a really good kid with a good head on his shoulders and a bright future."
DallasStars.com had an opportunity to visit with Niskanen during Iowa's playoff run to discuss his transition to the pro game and his goals for the near future.
DallasStars.com: How has your transition to the American Hockey League from the college ranks been so far?
Niskanen: "The transition definitely required an adjustment period for me. It is definitely a higher level of play here, and there are obviously challenges of coming into a new dressing room and living a different lifestyle. I am just trying to learn as much as I possibly can each day, and adjust to the style of play at the AHL level. The pace of the game is much quicker and the players are bigger and stronger. The players are also much smarter too, so if you don't take care of the puck, they are going to make you pay. It's definitely a higher level of play and the best hockey I've ever been around."
DallasStars.com: For the second straight year, you were a team leader for the UMD Bulldogs. How did you see your sophomore season?
Niskanen: "I had a pretty good season in Duluth this year. It wasn't quite as good as we had hoped from a team perspective, but we picked things up in the second half and put together a pretty decent season. We came up a little bit short in the playoffs, but overall, it was a pretty good year and I feel like I was able to continue to improve my game."
DallasStars.com: Did you feel any added pressure while playing at Duluth, being an NHL first-round draft pick?
Niskanen: "There was some added pressure being a high pick, especially when our team was struggling a little bit. The team looks to their top guys to carry them, so that added some pressure, but I understand that comes with the territory. I took that as a challenge to raise my game another notch, and when we started playing much better at the end of the year, I was happy with that."
DallasStars.com: With two years of collegiate eligibility remaining, what was your decision process like, deciding whether to turn pro or stay in school? Niskanen:
"I tried not to think about it during the season at all, and it took me about a week after the season ended. I didn't get any sleep that week, I was just thinking long and hard about the decision that was in front of me. I just tried to figure out which direction I wanted to go and I decided that turning pro would be the best option for me. Ultimately, I think this is the best way of preparing myself for the next level, and hopefully getting to the NHL someday. I know I have a long way to go and I think this is a step in the right direction."
DallasStars.com: How meaningful is it that you got to join the Iowa Stars right in the midst of a playoff push?
Niskanen: "It's crunch time and I got to see what pro hockey is about right away. It's been intense since the first day I got here, because we weren't a lock to make the playoffs at the time. Now, to experience the playoffs in the professional ranks, I'm getting to see the intensity and passion from each and every guy. I'm trying to help this team go as far as we possibly can this year, but it's going to be huge for me come next year. I think it's going to be so meaningful for me, understanding the pressures and how to play with the intensity necessary at this level. I am getting to see what pro hockey is all about right now, and the playoffs are bringing out the best in everything. I'm just trying to do the best I can and learn as much as possible.
DallasStars.com: Have the UMD Bulldogs taken over the Iowa Stars dressing room, between you and Junior Lessard?
Niskanen: "Junior and I share a few jokes about Duluth and there are a lot of good stories and memories that we share with the guys. I know we both really liked it there. There's another pretty decent player from Duluth that Dallas fans know pretty well -- Brett Hull -- so there's a nice connection between Dallas, Iowa and Duluth."