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Matt Niskanen: Flirting With Disaster

With the talented young rearguard Matt Niskanen floundering I got to thinking; Are we seeing the residue from a kid who skipped the step of playing at least a half a year in the minors?

Niskanen basically stepped right from college at Minn-Duluth to the NHL. Not many do that. Sure being paired with Zubov helped the transition but Niskanen didn't look out of place at the time. Now, at times, he does - and those times are becoming more frequent.

His confidence appears wilted and he seems neither fast enough nor strong enough to handle the NHL game right now. Nisky's plus/minus rating is a team worst -9. His best work has been done with the puck and Crawford has trotted him out on the powerplay a lot over the first two months. He has repaid him with 4 PP assists. Four.

-Daryl 'Razor' Reaugh, 'Taking Sips From A Firehose'

Matt Niskanen has had a rough time adjusting to life with Sergei Zubov. After playing just 13 games in the AHL after graduating from college, injuries on the Stars' roster thrust him into the starting lineup and he found himself playing next to a future Hall of Fame defenseman. He was second on the team in plus/minus with a plus-22, scored seven goals and was the breakout player of the year for the Stars. He and the rest of the Stars young defensemen, Mark Fistric and Nicklas Grossman, held together down the stretch when Zubov was out due to injury and played admirably in the playoffs that season. Yet the warning signs were starting to show.

In 2008, with Zubov struggling to return to the ice, Niskanen and his fellow defenseman fell flat on their faces. In the first month of the season Niskanen had just one assist and was a minus-7 as the Stars became a sieve on defense and in net, finding themselves in the basement of the conference standings just seven weeks into the season.

Niskanen would finish last season last among defensemen with a minus-11, yet set a career high with 29 assists and 35 points. There were some that played off the subpar season as a 'sophomore slump' and were encouraged by his offensive potential. He played well for the USA in the World Championships over the summer and with Marc Crawford and Charlie Huddy coming to the Stars to implement a new system, Niskanen looked to be on track to return to the form from 2007 that so many fans excited.

After perhaps the worst weekend of his career, some are wondering what happened to the defenseman that showed so much promise just a short time ago.

In his excellent article, Razor points out that the biggest issue for Niskanen is most likely the path he took to the NHL.

Nik Grossman: 2 years in AHL after a half season in Swedish pro league.

Mark Fistric: 150 games in AHL

Trevor Daley spent a year and a half in the AHL

Even the most senior veteran defensemen on this team, Robidas and Skrastins, spent a full season in the minors before becoming every day  NHLers.

Matt Niskanen? He played just 13 games.

When injuries forced the Stars' hand and Niskanen was needed to step in at the start of the season, no one predicted that he would play 78 games that season in the NHL. Normally when a young player is struggling you send him back down to the AHL for a kick in the rear and a taste of what life is like while not playing under the bright lights of the NHL. Mark Fistric was demoted for a time last season and has returned to the Stars a much more complete and mature player; he's not flashy but you still rarely see Fistric being beat on a regular basis.

Which brings us to Niskanen. The past two games there have been four goals that could almost single handily be blamed on him and he has looked shell-shocked and lost every time he's on the ice. His confidence is shot and he is nowhere near the level of a player who can carry a defensive pairing; he's too much of a liability in his own zone and is not enough of a scoring threat on offense.

What is frustrating is that Niskanen has all of the potential you would want in a defenseman: great skating ability, good size, good speed and a booming shot from the point. What Niskanen is in desperate need of is some extended time in the AHL, where he can just focus on his skills and his approach to the game without the distractions of having to play in top form 100% of the time for an NHL team fighting for positioning in the standings. There's a reason that Ivan Vishnevskiy is still down in Austin and he is well on his way into developing into a top defenseman for the Stars in the near future.

And there lies the crucial missing link for Matt Niskanen: development. Players coming to the NHL are expected to already be as polished as possible; that's what the AHL and ECHL are there for. Jamie Benn is an exception to the rule and he is having some growing pains as well that can be covered up while playing on the wing. As a defenseman, Niskanen's mistakes are all there for the world to see and there's no hiding his shortcomings.

Since there is no doubt that Niskanen possesses all of the physical tools you could possibly want in a defenseman, it all comes down to intelligence, training and confidence.

While he is still playing under his original contract, Niskanen has now played in enough games to necessitate the Stars place him on waivers in order to assign him to the AHL. That option no longer exists for the Stars unless Niskanen gets hurt and can be assigned to a 'conditioning stint' down in Austin.

So what's the cure? Should Marc Crawford bench Niskanen for a few games in favor of Jeff Woywitka to give him some time to get his head in the right place. Will that happen tonight, or will Crawford give Niskanen a few more games to prove that this past weekend is all a fluke? Currently, Niskanen possesses a team-worst minus-11 and is last among all defensemen with an overall plus/minus per 60 minutes (-1.22 per game). He has just seven assists and has not been the weapon on the power play that this team has needed him to be.

Even so, can the Stars afford to sit Niskanen? Are they better off with Woywitka playing more minutes while Niskanen sits? More importantly, will benching Niskanen shatter whatever amount of confidence he has left?

Is Matt Niskanen able to be saved? Without time in the AHL was Niskenen's career put on the wrong track from the start?

Whatever the answers to these questions might be, there's no doubt that the Stars can afford many more blatant mistakes like Niskanen made this past weekend.