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Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Greatest Trade Ray Shero Never Made by @griffTHW

Only a few months ago, Matt Niskanen's days with the Penguins appeared to be numbered.  Because, despite a resurgence in the defenseman's career upon his arrival in Western Pennsylvania, it wasn't difficult to fathom that Matt's $2.3 million salary would ultimately transform him into a Pittsburgh cap casualty.  After all, his contract represented a lot of money for a projected #5 defenseman on a club that was up against the salary cap.

Despite what nearly everyone outside the organization thought, though, Ray Shero managed to keep both Matt on the roster and his club under the cap when the season began.  Still, the fact that "Nisky" was on the opening day roster wasn't enough to dispel the trade rumors, as fans and pundits continued to put stock in the idea that Niskanen either should or would be moved.

Luckily for the Pens, however, Shero never pulled the trigger on that "imminent" deal.

A Deep but Depleted Blue Line

When the Penguins acquired Rob Scuderi prior to the 2013-'14 campaign, it equipped the squad with one of the most formidable defensive units on the circuit.  Indeed, adding Scuderi to a blue line that included Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin provided the Pens with an imposing "top-four" while creating a sort of domino effect on the rest of the blue line.  Niskanen, for example, became more of a depth piece while Simon Despres was actually banished to the AHL rather than presented with the opportunity to enjoy an expanded role with the big club.  Add to that the plethora of blue chip prospects waiting in the wings and it becomes clear that few can match the defensive depth Ray Shero has assembled in Pittsburgh.

And, while it all looked great on paper, the Penguins' plans have once again proven no match for the annual arrival of the injury bug. 

Initially, it was "only" Kris Letang missing from the lineup.  After surviving the Norris Trophy-finalist's early season absence, though, things have actually taken a turn for the worse, at least on the medical front.  Because, while the Pens still sit perched firmly atop the Metropolitan Division, a rash of injuries will keep three of the club's top four defensemen out for the foreseeable future. 

So, while Scuderi, Martin and Orpik find themselves on the mend, Dan Bylsma will continue to rely on blue liners such as Niskanen to help keep the team rolling.

Matt Niskanen, Mr. Dependable

In much the same way that Jussi Jokinen can play throughout the Pens' forward unit, Niskanen is capable of playing throughout the defensive lineup.

When Letang, for instance found himself watching from the press box early in the year, Niskanen didn't even give Bylsma a choice regarding who should replace the star blue liner:
"At that point, I think out of all the defenseman at camp, Matt Niskanen had been the best. He's been excellent. He's done a great job almost from day one in camp...
So, when Kris Letang went down, I don't think there were any other options that we explored. It was going to be Matt Niskanen to go in with Rob Scuderi and form that pair." - Dan Bylsma, on the early season play of Niskanen
What's more, Niskanen flourished in the role, playing some of the best hockey of his career.  Recording eight points in the campaign's first 10 games, Matt continued to play a responsible, two-way game that helped Pittsburgh get off to a hot start. 

While his offensive numbers have dropped off (five points in his last 22 games) since Letang's return, the decreased production doesn't necessarily reflect Nisky's game.  He continues to lead the club in plus/minus (+16) while eating up significant minutes on the Pens' depleted blue line.  And, while some may not put much stock in the importance of such a statistic, it's hard to argue with the fact that Matt has been a minus player on only three occasions in 32 contests.

One of only two Pittsburgh defensemen (Olli Maatta) to suit up in every game this season, Niskanen continues to reward Shero for resisting the deal so many thought necessary.  Because, regardless of whether he plays 14 or 25 minutes each night, Niskanen has evolved into one of Bylsma's most reliable defenseman. 

Equally important, Nisky understands what will bring success:

"Now I'm just worried about trying to be a complete defenseman -- take what's there, play well all around and if I get points, great. In this lineup, if I play a good all-around game, then I'm probably going to get some points. Make good outlet passes, be in good position. If you have a shot, take it." - Niskanen, on the evolution of his game
Thankfully for the Penguins and their fans, he still has the opportunity to be that complete defenseman in Pittsburgh.


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