When a team leads the league with 250+man-games lost and just half a season played so far, it is hard to find consistency in any facet of the game. At one point this season, the Pittsburgh Penguins were missing 5 of their top 6 defensemen and were relying on a defensive core consisting of AHL replacements. Despite all the injury woes they powered through, taking the lead in the Eastern Conference and losing only 3 games in the month of December.
Praises of the Pens’ blue-line most commonly include the names Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, or even rookie Olli Maatta. One player though, has been the rock of the D through all the injuries, through all the change-ups, through all the downright craziness of this season so far: Matt Niskanen
Matt Niskanen was acquired by the Pens from the Dallas Stars near the trade deadline in the 2010-2011 season. Back then he was just a salary cap dump; he was just “thrown in” with that trade that brought James Neal to Pittsburgh and sent Alex Goligoski to Dallas. Ever since then, Niskanen has become one of the most solid, consistent defenseman on the star-powered back end.
Through 47 games this season, Niskanen has posted a plus-24 rating, tying with 2 other players for best in the league. He is the only member of the Penguins’ defense to play in every game this season. On top of the defensive workload, he has chipped in offensively. Niskanen has 6 goals and 17 assists, giving him 23 points six games past the half way mark. When Letang was out, Niskanen stepped up on the top unit power play, scoring 2 PPGs and 5 PPAs. If that wasn’t impressive enough, he also has 5 game-winning goals, and now has the all-time Penguins defenseman lead in that category.
Pittsburgh has battled through despite all that has been stacked against them. The team, more importantly, the defense is starting to get healthy again. Despite all the big names being back in the lineup, defensive production has been down. Looking at the numbers, the big name players have been the ones on the ice for the most goals-against in the last 4 games.
|#4 Rob Scuderi||3||1||3||1||8|
|#44 Brooks Orpik||2||2||3||0||7|
|#58 Kris Letang||1||1||1||1||4|
|#3 Olli Maatta||1||1||0||0||2|
|#47 Simon Despres||0||2||0||0||2|
|#2 Matt Niskanen||1||1||0||0||2|
While the struggles for Orpik and Scuderi might just be temporary, Niskanen’s success is helping power them through. He is stepping up and making plays both offensively and defensively.
Niskanen’s value to the Pens’ blue-line has been at an all-time high this season. He stepped up and became a leader through all the injuries, and continues to be solid in this time of healthy player’s transitions.
It’s hard to predict what the future holds for Matt Niskanen. He is a big asset to Pittsburgh this season, but he hits free agency at the conclusion of this year. Many fans would like to see him stay with the Penguins. Niskanen’s only problem is that Pittsburgh is rich with defensive prospect depth, and any one of them could take his roster spot for less money. As his trade value is higher this season with his great play, the Pens may also try and move him before the trade deadline this season. His consistent play could benefit any team in the league. On a team stacked with talent in the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc Andre Fleury and others, every year they are a Stanley Cup contender. Hopefully Niskanen can stay with the team through this season, enjoy the wild ride this team has been through, and bask in the glory for his great defensive efforts. Either way, Matt Niskanen has proved himself the unsung hero for the Penguins so far this season.