2013-14 Season in Review: Matt Niskanen

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

We fell behind and got out of order thanks to the Coachgate fiasco, but here is the long awaited review of top UFA target Matt Niskanen.

Age: 27 (December 6, 1986)

Contract Status: Unrestricted Free Agent

2013-14 Stats

GP

TOI/GP

Goals

Assists

Points

81 (1)

21:17 (3)

10(2)

36 (1)

46(1)

Corsi For %

Corsi Rel %

Quality of Comp. (TOI%)

Zone Start %

PDO

53.4% (1)

7.3% (1)

28.4% (5)

49.0% (5)

103.1% (1)

(Numbers in parentheses indicate descending rank among regular Penguins players at his position, i.e. one of the team's top nine defensemen or top 14 forwards.)

Most frequent D partners

Partners

Goals For%

Corsi For%

Total 5v5 time (1334:18 for Niskanen)

Olli Maatta

60.0%

53.3%

558:35

Rob Scuderi

73.7%

51.9%

236:50

Deryk Engelland

63.6%

43.9%

163:25

With the season opening injury to Kris Letang, the Pittsburgh Penguins ended up starting the season using him in a Top 4 role skating alongside veteran Scuderi. They were an extremely effective pairing, and later on we learned that Niskanen was the only player on the team that could make Scuderi look like he still belongs in the NHL.

After Letang returned, Niskanen was bumped back to the 3rd pairing partnered with Maatta. However, the injuries quickly piled up while Niskanen and Maatta found themselves getting elevated minutes. They did remarkably well together up until the Olympic break, but then they hit a wall and struggled at the end of the season, most particularly evident in the playoffs where they became two of the worst D and an extreme defensive liability.

The Nis-cannon

Matt Niskanen evolved into an extremely effective offensive D this year, which his booming shot from the point being a big part of the Pens PP success this year. He ended up replacing Letang as the preferred D on the top unit, and only Paul Martin saw more overall PP TOI per game during the playoffs this year, and that was due to their switch to a 2 D PP unit. He had a career year offensively, surpassing his previous highs by quite a wide margin. He was pretty solid defensively for most of the year as well, and he finished the season with the top Plus/Minus amongst blue liners.

The Other Side of the Coin

While Niskanen most certainly had an offensive breakout, we did see some mishaps in regards to his defensive zone play. He took more penalties this year than he had in previous years, and also saw his number of Giveaways, and as such his overall turnover differential, take a turn for the worse. And while he didn't spend an awful lot of time on the PK, he actually has the lowest SH TOI per game amongst our blue liners, when he was out there he was one of the worst.

For most of the year his excellent offensive play more than made up for the minor mistakes he made. But for whatever reason they hit a wall after the Olympics and began to struggle, and his defensive production during the playoffs took a turn for the worse. His regular season production was fairly unsustainable, as evidenced by his high PDO, so we were expecting the bottom to fall out eventually. I think the increased pressure, playing bigger minutes against tougher opponents than he was used to as the season went on, finally caught up to him.

GIF of the Year


The Nis-cannon in action, a blistering shot from the point that soars past 3 players before sliding under the goalie's pads and into the back of the net.

Preseason expectations

Before the season started nearly everybody had expected Niskanen would be on the trading block as the Penguins were trying to figure out how to remain under the Salary Cap. Despite an admirable performance partnered with Letang for half of the previous season, he was viewed as a #4/5 D who was better suited for 3rd pairing minutes with limited appearances in the Top 4 filling in for injured players. Based on that assumption, he was overpaid for the role we expected him to play.

Verdict

Niskanen managed to have a career year and for much of the season didn't look overly out of place as he was called upon to play a bigger role due to all the injuries the team suffered. He played himself out of the Penguins' price range and is expected to be looking at a huge payday as arguably the top free agent target this year. It is all but guaranteed that we have seen the last of him in black and gold.

However, it is not all sunshine and roses, as the team that ends up signing Niskanen could be in for a big disappointment. Career years are called that for a reason, and it is quite unlikely that he will be able to repeat that performance next season, particularly considering how high his PDO was this year. In addition, as we saw late in the season his performance dipped as the increased responsibility started to takes its toll, and those that complained about his playoff performance in previous years were vindicated in proving that their worst fears were realized when it mattered most.

***

Feel free to vote in the poll below to grade Matt Niskanen's season on a scale from 1 to 10. Vote based on your expectations for him coming into the season -- i.e. 1 being "he was incredibly disappointing and I want him out now", 10 being "he was outstanding even beyond my craziest expectations".

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