We continue our player profile series here at Defending Big D, in which we look ahead at each player's expectations for the upcoming season. It's up to you, the reader, to give us the numbers you expect each player to produce next season, and what your expectations for them are moving forward. We'll start at the bottom of the roster and work our way to the top, taking a look today at Matt Niskanen.
Matt Niskanen is an enigma. At times he displays the skill and tools necessary to be a top defensemen in the NHL, and other times he's completely lost on the ice. The ups and downs in Niskanen's two year NHL career can be attributed to many different factors, mostly being the trial by fire method he's been forced to take during his introduction to the NHL. With a surprisingly strong rookie season and a bumpy sophomore effort, this season will hopefully see Niskanen reach the potential he's shown he has.
Niskanen earned himself a spot on the opening night roster in 2007, and has been entrenched on the Stars blue line ever since the first game of his rookie season. Along with Mark Fistric and Nicklas Grossman, Niskanen helped form a trio of promising young defensemen that exceeded all expectations that season and helped lead the Stars deep into the playoffs. There were questions however, of whether he and the other rookies could continue their relatively high level of play while continuing to grow and gain experience in the NHL. Niskanen, with only 13 games of AHL experience after two years of college, surpassed all expectations in a season where many thought he was only starting the season with the Stars because of injuries and would be sent down as soon as others returned. But with 26 points and a team 2nd-best +22 rating, Niskanen claimed his roster spot and never let go.
Unfortunately, it was level of play he could carry over to the next season.
In 2008, like most everything else with the Dallas Stars, Niskanen was disappointing. The loss of veterans Mattias Norstrom and Sergei Zubov led to a painful regression for Niskanen, who had excelled in a pairing with Zubov his rookie season. Along with the rest of the young defensive corps, he struggled with positioning in the defensive zone and was hesitant to join the rush. At times Niskanen looked utterly lost around his own net, a factor that lead to a monstrous goals-allowed average the first two months of the season. When the Stars acquired veteran Daryl Sydor a few months into the season, Niskanen started to settle down and return to the form he showed the year before. More sure handed with the puck and strong in front of the net, he showed that perhaps he was as good as she played the season before, and the questions about whether he would ever return to being the player he was with Zubov beside him were temporarily silenced.
|2008 - Matt Niskanen||80||6||29||35||-11||52||2||0||0||0||111||5.4|
With young players, especially defensemen, patience is required as they fight through growing pains. There's a reason that most players have a jaunt in the AHL before making the jump to the big show, as they struggle to get acclimated to the faster, most physical style of the NHL. Young forwards have a bit more leeway, as their mistakes can be masked a bit and they have the opportunity to learn and adapt on the third and fourth lines. A defenseman has no such luxury, and despite his incredible success in 2007-08, Niskanen showed just how much the flaws of a blue liner can become apparent when he's struggling.
Perhaps it was the lack of veteran leadership or just the natural regression of a second season in the NHL, but Niskanen toiled at a time when the team could not afford to give him time to reset in the AHL. He was forced to fight through his struggles and eventually started to regain the form he showed the year before. Two months into the season Niskanen was at a -14 rating with just 12 points. With more playing time down the stretch and a renewed confidence evident in his game Niskanen finished with 29 assists and 35 points, tops among all Dallas Stars defensemen. Despite ending the season with a team 2nd-worst +/- rating, Niskanen finished the season strong. He was given more time on the power play and proved to be a dangerous option from the point if given the chance.
Niskanen is a smooth skater with an excellent shot and above average passing ability. What he lacks in size he can make up with good positioning and smart decision making, traits he's shown he possesses but lacked during the first few months of last season. Under new defensemen coach Charlie Huddy, Niskanen could benefit from a more aggressive scheme that takes advantage of his offensive skills. If paired with a steady veteran like Karlis Skrastins, he could become a much more dangerous player on the point for the Dallas Stars. While he'll never be confused with a true blue line quarterback, Niskanen does have the ability to become one of the more well rounded defensemen in the NHL.
Consistency is his issue, and the question all Stars fans have is which Matt Niskanen they'll see on opening night: the steady and dangerous defensemen from his rookie campaign or the floundering young defensemen from last season.
What are your expectations for Niskanen for this season? Will he continue to grow into a cornerstone for this defense for the foreseeable future?