When defenseman Kris Letang went down with an injury to open the season, it allowed two things to happen; hide his salary cap hit and more than likely keep Matt Niskanen. All things considered, Niskanen looked to be the odd man out to start the season. With the Penguins defensive depth and Niskanen, 26, having a very friendly cap hit of $2.3 million and one season left before free agency, it made sense he was deemed expandable. But something special is happening this season with Niskanen’s play that may not have happened if Letang had gone down.
Niskanen was kind of a non-factor in the James Neal deal. Where Penguins fans bragged in their takeaway with Neal, they didn’t appreciate the former first round draft pick by Dallas. But something tells me he liked that because there was no expectation on him.
With five points in six games, and a game-winning goal against Tampa Bay, he is playing some of the best two-way hockey I have seen from him. He is logging about 21 minutes of ice time a game and is a plus eight. He has been defensively sound, making smart decisions with the puck and avoiding stupid penalties. His current playing partner, Rob Scuderi, who would have been Letang’s line mate, has aided in his overall game and as a result, he has looked every bit the part of Letang.
But what to do with him when Letang is back? It really is a matter of days. Letang has been skating on his own and today he practiced. He looks sharp and ready to go, as he should be for what he costs. The nasty trade rumors everyone read this off season, it seemed almost a given he would be gone. He claims that was only by the Penguin fan General Managers stating: "None of that talk was coming from the Penguins. It was media and fans. They love to pretend they're the GM. That's fine.”
Touché Matt Niskanen. Touché. Luckily they did not trade him. Who would have done as well as he has in Letang’s absence is beyond me. He is blocking effectively, dumping loose pucks well and is able to play two-way hockey. He has been shuffled between lines, sometimes at the point on the power play and seems every bit up to any challenge.
It is hard to ignore his presence, and it is impossible to not give him the credit he deserves. What has become hard is to figure out where he will be two months from now and no one pretends to know the answer, not even him. Niskanen's success is making it easier to trade him, teams would be interested. What is apparent is that he is making the most of the opportunity he has been given; the opportunity he has earned. He summed it up best though: "I put in the work to get ready for camp. Camp went well. And now it's carried over…”
Yes Matt, it has.