I'm starting to see more and more that some Penguins fans, perhaps for sentimental reasons, are hoping/expecting/thinking that the Pittsburgh Penguins will bring back Matt Niskanen. Dejan Kovacevic included it in his checklist for the new GM.
I just don't see how it's possible, or would be a positive development.
First, let's get the good out of the way. Matt Niskanen, deservedly, won the Penguins team defensive player of the year for 2013-14. In a season where every other major NHL defenseman on the team (Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik, Rob Scuderi) suffered at least one injury, only Niskanen and his teenaged rookie partner Olli Maatta answered the bell for every game of the season. Well, Niskanen got a break in the end of the season, sitting out one game to rest, but you get the point.
Niskanen had a career year in many major categories. Goals (10), assists (36), points (46) were all among them. His +33 in the +/- category was among the league leaders. He got time on the top power play unit and made the most of that opportunity. He was fantastic and a very good player for the Penguins in 2013-14.
So why not keep him?
Comparables, for one. Matt Carle- a similar defenseman in style and age to Niskanen- got a six year contract worth $5.5 million a year two summers ago on the open market from the Tampa Bay Lightning. Earlier this spring, the Philadelphia Flyers locked up Andrew MacDonald to a six year, $5.0 million contract. These deals, among others, set the bar very high for what Niskanen would expect on the open market.
Among unrestricted free agents-to-be this year, Niskanen easily stands out as one of the finest defenseman, and certainly is the youngest by a mile. There are only two other legitimate top-4 puck moving defensemen on the open market- Montreal's Andrei Markov and San Jose's Dan Boyle- and they are 35 and soon-to-be 38, respectively. We didn't include Kimmo Timonen (39 years old), because he's publicly said that he will either retire or re-sign only with Philly, meaning he's not really a "free" agent.
Niskanen, however, very much should be a free agent if his agent is smart. He's 27 and coming off his best NHL season. The list of teams looking to add a young, point producing defensemen will stretch down the corner and around the block, and NHL general managers are never known to be timid in July to add a big free agent that they think they need.
Hockey is a business, and business is good for Matt Niskanen. Impeccably good, one couldn't really think of better timing for him. Oh, and did I mention the salary cap is expected to rise too, giving those general managers more money in their pockets to spend?
Other than sheer business reasons, there are some hints that the Penguins should shy away from Niskanen as well. His PDO (a measure of on-ice shooting percentage and on-ice save percentage) was 7th in the entire league at 1,031. This number, over the long term, almost always balances down to 1,000. Which isn't to say Niskanen's good year was all attributed to luck, but he was certainly very fortunate that when he was on the ice his teammates were scoring goals, and his goalie was making saves- which is also why he was so high in the +/- race. Having that kind of result certainly makes a good year seem even greater.
Is that repeatable? Perhaps so, but Niskanen is probably going to seek (and receive) a 5-6-7 year contract. Is it repeatable for the length of that contract? Seems doubtful. Will Niskanen continue to rack up the points at a career high level each and every season? Again, seems unlikely that he will.
Career years are called career years because they only come around once in a career. Which isn't to say Matt Niskanen won't have many solid seasons in his future, he probably does. But for the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team with limited cap room and a number of big-time prospects nearing NHL-readiness in the likes of Simon Despres, Brian Dumoulin, Scott Harrington, Derrick Pouliot- paying Niskanen a premium amount of money doesn't make sense.
Niskanen has earned his payday, but it should come with a new team. The best bet for the Penguins is a tough call, but a necessary one. The days of Niskanen in black and Vegas gold should be over.