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Friday, October 18, 2013

Matt Niskanen: The Odd Man Out by @PandaPSU

Remember Alex Goligoski?  He was that offensive-minded defenseman that used to play for the Penguins.  He was also the main reason fan-favorite and sharpshooter James Neal came to town. On February 21, 2011 Ray Shero traded Alex Goligoski to the Dallas Stars for James Neal and Matt Niskanen. Fans were excited to acquire James Neal, but did not really know a whole lot about the "throw-in" Niskanen.

To give a little credit where it is due, Matt Niskanen has played well for the most part.  He has provided a nice mix of offense and defense, although the latter seems to depend greatly on his partner.  He is rarely the flashy player, like Kris Letang, but he is also rarely the scapegoat, like Deryk Engelland.  He would normally be a player a team like the Penguins would love -- a defenseman who fits in on the second or third pairing and is consistent in both ends.  The problem Niskanen faces is that the Pens are near the limit in terms of the salary cap and are in the midst of a transition to their youth.  He is caught in the middle, and he will soon be the odd man out in Pittsburgh.

Two reasons why Matt Niskanen gets traded:

(Information courtesy of

1) Salary cap considerations and the youth movement:  A look at the salary cap breakdown for the Pittsburgh Penguins provides a bit of clarity.  Letang and Scuderi will be here for the next few seasons.  These two are the pieces Shero would like to build his defensive corps around.  Paul Martin is not going anywhere based on his play over the last season and a half.  After a tumultuous start, he has shown why Shero was eager to sign him for $5 million per season in 2010.  While Brooks Orpik has fallen out of favor with some of the fans, he is still a favorite of the coaching staff because of his physical nature.  So, when I view the untouchables for this season, I have Martin, Orpik, Letang, and Scuderi. This leaves a pool of five defensemen: Olli Maatta, Robert Bortuzzo, Deryk Engelland, Simon Despres, and Matt Niskanen.  The Olli Maatta experiment through seven of his nine games has been nothing short of spectacular.  The 19-year-old has proven himself as being NHL ready now.  Robert Bortuzzo impressed the coaches enough last year that he signed a two-year extension in the offseason. Deryk Engelland, against all odds, seems to be another player who is in the coach's good graces.  His stay-at-home defense has been dreadful at times, but I believe the coaching staff likes him for his occasional "enforcer" role.  At the very least, with teams like the Flyers still in the same division as the Pens, the coaching staff likes to employ his services for these contests.  Simon Despres has been relegated to the AHL for the start of the season, but that is less based on talent and production, and more for salary cap reasons.  The only person left is Matt Niskanen, and he has the distinction of not being paid as an elite defenseman, but he is certainly not a low-tier guy either. He carries a $2.3 million cap hit.  With Letang getting healthy and young players like Maatta and Despres ready to flourish, the future for the Pens is not with Matt Niskanen.

2)  His trade value will NOT be higher than it is right now:  As a newbie to advanced stats in hockey, I will try to explain a stat that is relatively new to me. PDO is the sum of "On-Ice Shooting Percentage" and "On-Ice Save Percentage".  So, each player starts at 100 and goes up or down depending on how well the team is scoring goals and/or preventing goals while that player is on the ice.  Matt Niskanen is in the top 10 among defensemen in the NHL and in the top 45 players overall. Also, for whatever it is worth to folks, he is leading the NHL at +10 in the +/- rating.  These numbers are outstanding, there is no getting around it, but these numbers are also not sustainable.  I was able to speak with Rich Miller (follow him on Twitter @pensbender), a well-respected Pittsburgh blogger, about the topics of PDO and Matt Niskanen.

​Why is PDO such an important stat?
Rich Miller:  With everything else being equal, it's important mainly because you can predict a regression or explain a lack of production.

So in Niskanen's case, it would be likely to assume a regression because his PDO is so high currently?
Rich Miller:  Very likely.  Theoretically you're either excelling at scoring goals or preventing them.  Right now, he is beyond excelling at both.  Everyone regresses to the mean, however.  Something will eventually have to give.

For these reasons, it is understandable why a few days earlier Rich said, "I'm just saying if we're talking about return, it would never be as good as it is now [For Niskanen]. And Maatta is definitely ready now."  I tend to agree with him, and the numbers and statistics prove his theory.

The piece that makes the decision imminent on Matt Niskanen will be Olli Maatta.  He has two games left in his nine-game trial period with the Penguins. This means his potential last game will be Monday, October 21, against the Avalanche.  I cannot see the front office letting Maatta return to the OHL London Knights.  I do think Ray Shero is salivating at the chance to see what return Niskanen can bring in a trade, while starting the much needed youth movement on defense.  Time is ticking, and the future of the Pittsburgh Penguins blue-line should become much clearer by next Tuesday.  A future that almost certainly leaves Matt Niskanen as the odd man out.

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