It's Time to Give Matt Niskanen More Responsibility

Bruce Bennett

With the Pens' defense under the microscope, this could be Matt Niskanen's time to shine.

Sidney Crosby is well-rested, healthy, and motivated. Evgeni Malkin is warmed-up and ready to go. James Neal andPascal Dupuis are hot off record seasons. One look at the Penguins' offensive situation and there isn't too much concern outside of the hole on the second line wing. (But let's be real. How many years have the Pens been in the market for a top six winger? Exactly.)

The real issue is on defense. This became unfortunately obvious in the playoffs when the Flyers unleashed the firing squad against the Pens. 30 goals in six games felt like a typo. After dealing Zbynek Michalek on Draft Day, the Pens were left with another hole to fill on top of solving the defensive implosion. The critics went on the attack and rightly so: Brooks Orpik didn't look with it, Kris Letang's temper made him more of a liability than a threat, and Paul Martin's game didn't even exist.

But how about Matt Niskanen?

He had a rough transition after joining the Pens for the final quarter of the 2010-11 season, but most defensemen who haven't been groomed into the Pens system through minor league affiliates demonstrated similar problems.Niskanen didn't have much time to learn Bylsma's system and it showed. Having a full training camp did him good and his first full season on the team was a very pleasant surprise.

For some defensemen, like Martin and Michalek, adopting the system was/is a constant struggle, but Niskanen seems to more naturally fit the bill. His physicality and puck-possession show a stronger ability to do his part and potential to do more. Granted, he's spent his time on the Pens primarily as a fifth defenseman who wasn't often matched against top lines, but he proved to be very reliable and had a consistent presence on the blue line. Ray Shero rewarded his efforts with a two-year, $4.6 million deal before free agency.

Niskanen has proved his worth so it'll be interesting to see how Dan Bylsma will use him in this shortened season. If Shero decides to tap into his bottomless army of defensive prospects rather than trade for more experienced talent, Niskanen should see a promotion.

Dave Molinari posted an intriguing article regarding Martin's role on the team (and his potential new partner):

Bylsma, who knows better than most how much Martin struggled in 2011-12, projects him as a top-four defenseman, and is leaning toward deploying him with Brooks Orpik on the top defense-oriented pairing.

"Depending on how our lineup shakes out in camp and going into the first game, being paired with Orpik is a possibility that we maybe haven't done in the past," Bylsma said.

If Bylsma rolls with this, Niskanen should be moved to the second pairing, joining Letang. Of course, we all know how much Bylsma juggles his lines so who knows how long that will last.

Niskanen finished a solid season with the most games played among defenseman and shows potential to be even better now that he has a full season behind him. While the defense collectively needs to be better, I think the inevitable increase in ice time could give Niskanen the opportunity he needs to really shine in his position.

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