Matt Niskanen is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent. At 27 years old Niskanen is probably the headliner of the free agent defensive class. This is both a compliment to his development with the Pittsburgh Penguins and a criticism of the free agent class at large.
He has garnered praise in Pittsburgh for his improved defensive play. This season he set a career high in points with 46 which is by far the most he has had in any season since he was 22 years old. In fairness, last year he was on pace for 28. Still. The increase was significant.
Long story short, Nisky is about to get paid by some team that needs defenders. The Stars are one of those teams, and Niskanen could make some sense. However, teams like the Stars need to be careful not to pay him like he is a top pairing defenseman.
I decided to look and see what changed between last season and this season to cause the huge surge in production. The initial results are in the chart below:
Nothing about how Niskanen was used changed. He saw the exact same percentage of offensive zone starts and actually saw a slightly easier average matchup. The curious thing I came across is that his shots for jumped, his shots against dropped significantly, and his points jumped significantly. Either he took a major step forward from being a second pairing guy, or something else happened.
The next item I wanted to look at was his teammates. We know the Penguins have two of the three or four best players in the world in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. I was curious to see how much he played with each in 2013 and 2014. The results aren't shocking.
In 2013 Niskanen's top five most common teammates were Kris Letang, Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz, James Neal, and Brandon Sutter.
You can see where this is going I imagine.
In 2014 his top five most common teammates were Olli Maatta, Sidney Crosby, Jussi Jokinen, Chris Kunitz, and Evgeni Malkin. Hey, look who joined the party. Two of the best players in the world spent a ton of time with Niskanen and his production sky rocketed.
For the season Niskanen was a 53.3% Corsi player.
With Crosby? 58.3.%
With Malkin? 58.8%.
He still registered the points. More power to him. The influx of ice time with those two unquestionably helped though. Any team signing Niskanen has to keep this in mind.
Niskanen is likely going to be a solid investment for some team, possibly even the Stars. But these teams need to understand that he isn't a top pairing 30 minute per night 50 point scoring defenseman. He has developed into a solid second pairing guy who has proven he can handle 20 unsheltered minutes per game. That's a valuable player, but certainly not a $6,000,000 and up type of investment on a long term deal.