One word can describe the Pittsburgh Penguins’ blue-line this season – injured.
Marred with ailments every which way, the Pens’ defensemen have endured the most pain.
At one point during this season, Pittsburgh was minus its top-4 d-men, and had to rely on a few call-ups from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, who’d never skated a second in the NHL.
Through all the misfortunes, if you thought defensemen Olli Maatta and Matt Niskanen were going to be the Pens’ most valuable assets at the beginning of the 2013-14 campaign, give yourself a round of applause.
Both have been utterly vital. Which is odd, considering each had their roster uncertainties to start the season.
Maatta, arguably, wasn’t set to be in the pros this year, and Niskanen was speculated to be moved, due to the Pens’ cap issues and his expiring contract. However, because Kris Letang began the season on the shelf, Maatta proved in his 10-game audition that he deserved to play for Pittsburgh, and Niskanen, despite the rumors, wasn’t dealt, probably due to general manager Ray Shero’s blueprint to maintain exceptional defensive depth.
Between the two of them, they have missed just one game, and it wasn’t because of injury. Maatta – who we must remember is still at the young age of 19 – was given a breather back on Dec. 31. So, to say both of them have been reliable would be an understatement. Maatta and Niskanen are the Pens’ saving grace this season.
Imagine Pittsburgh without them? Hard to fathom the Pens’ would have as many wins as they currently own.
Coming into the season, Letang and Paul Martin were debatably the Pens’ top defensemen, and for good reason. Unfortunately, the two just haven’t been able to remain healthy, and although Martin is probably going to be re-inserted down the road, Letang’s status is looking dimmer by the day. Thus, if you thought Maatta and Niskanen’s importance towards Pittsburgh’s success was now, think how imperative they’ll be come playoff time.
Johnny, you’re forgetting about Robert Bortuzzo and Deryk Engelland. Yes, each of those guys have been prized in their own right, but you think they would have put up identical production to what Maatta and Niskanen have contributed? Not in the slightest. Engelland maybe – given the man’s scoring goals like never before – but as much as Maatta/Niskanen? No.
Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi have both missed significant time earlier this season, could you even ponder if they hadn’t gotten injured and Maatta and Niskanen did? Orpik’s concussion was frightening and Scuderi’s broken ankle was extremely unfortunate, however, both of them haven’t performed like they have in years’ past – in my opinion. Scuderi’s a minus-5 on the season, and Orpik, well, he hasn’t been the same since Bruins’ forward Shawn Thornton sucker-punched him.
Of course, both Orpik and Scuderi will inevitably be in the lineup this postseason, so, they’re going to need to be playing some steady hockey. But, Maatta and Niskanen’s impending postseason performances are more crucial. Both of them log more power play time, and need to continue producing. Nonetheless, Maatta and Niskanen have seized the increased responsibility so far.
Maatta ranks second in the NHL for scoring among rookie defensemen with 28 points (9G, 19A), and Niskanen is tied for first in the league for plus/minus with a tremendous plus-32 rating. Niskanen’s 38 points (9G, 29) is already a career-high for him, and Maatta’s scoring total ranks him seventh on the Pens. Maatta has six more points than forward Brandon Sutter, and he’s the team’s third-line center. For a 19-year-old, that’s fantastic.
While I’ll save my overall judgement of Maatta and Niskanen until after the season’s over, because we’ve yet to see how they’ll perform in the postseason, they have without question been Pittsburgh’s most dependable defensemen up to this point.
And as I witness both of them excelling phenomenally, I can only shake my head and wonder how Shero does it. Maatta was selected 22nd overall in 2012, but is playing like a top-5 pick, and Niskanen – who was also a first rounder taken by Dallas in 2005 – perhaps was overlooked when acquired along with James Neal.
The future’s bright for these two.
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