Nov 1, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen (2) handles the puck against the Columbus Blue Jackets during the first period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins won 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

On Second Thought, Let's Keep Niskanen


With all the injuries the Pittsburgh Penguins have on defense, maybe it was a good idea after all not to part ways with blueliner Matt Niskanen.

Niskanen, who’s the best option on defense right now with the team’s top-4 blueliners’ shelved, has logged heavy minutes and shouldered the load alongside young Olli Maatta for Pittsburgh. He works on the team’s top power-play unit, protects the net on the penalty kill, and contributes exceptionally well on the forecheck.

But because Pittsburgh had so many defensive players heading into the season, and with him being in a contract year, Niskanen was speculated to be moved. Perhaps moving him to free up salary cap space – to which he takes up $2.3 million on the payroll – or to possibly stabilize the forward position more.

And while shipping him out still remains a possibility once the injured Pens’ defensemen return, keeping him up until this point in the season has been arguably one of the best decisions the team has made. Without him, Pittsburgh’s lineup on defense would have been inexperienced, to say the least.

However, it’s a somewhat surprising and slightly not shocking to see how well Niskanen is flourishing in the leadership role. Although he wasn’t awful last season, turnovers were a problem for Niskanen, and picking up assignments didn’t come easy to the 27-year-old former first-rounder. Which was almost a direct correlation to his trade speculation in the offseason.

He’s also been a little injury prone over the last few seasons. Then again, who hasn’t been hurt for Pittsburgh. But he has yet to play an entire season injury-free with the club, and somehow, with all the injuries on the team’s back-end, he’s been the healthy one. And when Niskanen’s on the lineup card, able-bodied, he’s contributing all over the ice.

Leading the league this season with an outstanding plus-20 rating, Niskanen is a player you want to have on the ice when you need to score. And his 16 points (2G, 14A) have him on pace to smash his previous high in that category (35), which is crucial for him because of his impending trip to free agency.

As the season goes along, Pens’ fans have to be feeling more enamored, and more confident in Niskanen’s ability to contribute on a game-to-game basis. For some players, it just takes longer to get acclimated to a system – to be entirely comfortable. But as-far-as noticing Niskanen’s true value, I don’t think it’s ever been higher than right now.

So will the team ultimately trade Niskanen because of his fantastic success, or realize he’s more important being on the team than off it? General Manager Ray Shero is known to full a fast one, so only time will tell.

For now, Niskanen’s been just fine.


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