“Let your dreams outgrow the shoes of your expectations.”
-- Ryunosuke Satoro
When the Washington Capitals signed former Pittsburgh Penguin defenseman Matt Niskanen to a seven-year/$40.5 million contract on the heels of signing former-now-reunited teammate defenseman Brooks Orpik on July 1st, the deal was not only the longest and richest contract of the 2014 unrestricted signing period, it was among the largest deals the Caps have ever made with an unrestricted free agent from another team.
It is a lot of money and a long term for a “puck moving” defenseman who ranks 56th in goals scored among defensemen since he broke into the league in 2007-2008, 47th in points. What the Caps bought was four things:
1. Improvement. Over the past four seasons Niskanen has improved each year in goals per game (from 0.02 to 0.12), assists (from 0.14 to 0.44), and points (0.16 to 0.57).
2. Career Year. The 2013-2014 season was a career best for Niskanen. He set personal bests in goals (10, tied with P.K. Subban and Drew Doughty, among others, for 18th in the league among defensemen), assists (36, tied for ninth), and points (46, 12th in the league). Some of that might have been fueled by a potent Penguin power play (3-12-15), but Niskanen ranked only 23rd in power play points. He ranked sixth in even strength points among defensemen.
3. Depth. Niskanen, along with Orpik, provides a level of depth the Caps have not had on the blue line in at least a decade. Teams in the early 2000’s could go four-deep without a big drop off (2001-2002, for example, had: Sergei Gonchar, Sylvain Cote, Brendan Witt, and Ken Klee), but you might have to go back to the 1997-1998 Stanley Cup final edition of the club to find a Caps team as deep as the 2014-2015 can be with the addition of Niskanen and Orpik.
4. Prime. Niskanen will not turn 27 until early December. He is entering the chronological prime of his career. His addition makes for five of the projected top-six defensemen having an age range of 23 to 28, once Dmitry Orlov returns to the lineup.
As you might expect, his performance with the Penguins last season looked a lot better in wins than in losses. In 51 wins he was 7-27-34, plus-34. By itself his points line looked a lot like his previous career best year, his sophomore season with the Dallas Stars in 2008-2009 (6-29-35 in 80 games). That kind of performance suggested he was no passenger, even if you could also reasonably say that he benefitted from having a skilled offensive club around him.
Plus-minus has its limits as a metric, but here is something. He was only a minus-1 in 30 regulation and extra time losses. To the extent plus-minus serves as a gross indicator of good things and bad things happening on ice, there did not seem to be many bad things happening on Niskanen’s watch in losing efforts.
He had strong possession numbers, too. Niskanen was 41st of 197 defensemen appearing in at least 40 games in Corsi-for/on-ice at 5-on-5 (behindthenet.ca) , sixth among that group in Corsi-relative (on-ice relative to off ice) That he finished ninth in PDO among those defensemen suggests a certain amount of luck in his favor. All of those numbers were best among the Penguins’ defense. But here’s the thing. Those rankings aren’t much different from his last full year in Dallas in 2009-2010 (behindthenet.ca). Niskanen might just be a good possession defenseman.
He ain’t a workhorse, cuz. Last year he averaged 21 minutes a night, the most he’s averaged over his seven-year career. Last year he was fourth on the Penguins in even strength ice time. He was third in average power play ice time, and he doesn’t kill penalties (42 seconds a game shorthanded last year). He might not play top pair with the Caps, but he hasn’t yet shown he can skate top pair minutes, anyway. Last year he skated most at 5-on-5 with, inorder, Sidney Crosby, Jussi Jokinen, Chris Kunitz, and Evgeni Malkin. That’s pretty nice shelter there. Is he going to have that with the Caps?
The Big Question... Just what is Matt Niskanen’s role?
By Washington Capitals standards, Matt Niskanen is a big free agent acquisition. Signing players in their prime on high-dollar, long-term deals is not something the Caps have done a lot of over the years. But if one looks at Niskanen’s comparables by age (25-29) and cap hit ($5.5-6.0 million), courtesy of capgeek.com, one sees a nice, tidy neighborhood: Tobias Entrom, Brent Burns, Brent Seabrook. It is a neighborhood of upper-middle class homes, not the McMansions where Shea Weber, P.K. Subban, and Ryan Suter reside. And that raises the matter of the role Niskanen will play for the Caps. He could end up on any of the three pairs, skating on the right side next to Karl Alzner, Brooks Orpik, or Dmitry Orlov (or whoever mans that spot until Orlov is healthy).
As Cheerless noted, Niskanen has not been called upon to be a minutes-eater, and chances are he will not be one for the Caps. He figures to get the 17-or-so even strength minutes he had with the Penguins the last two seasons. Chances are he will at least start as the third option at the point on the power play, suggesting he will not get the three minutes a game on the man advantage he enjoyed in Pittsburgh last season. He was not a penalty killing fixture with the Penguins, and it is uncertain that he will increase his time in those situations.
In the end…
This discussion argues for moderating expectations with respect to Niskanen. He is a good – a very good – defenseman. He provides a measure of depth in skill that the Caps have not had at the position in some time. He is not a slam-dunk first pairing defenseman, and truth be told, the notion of a “top pair” loses some meaning on this club when they can ice five very good defensemen. It suggests that Niskanen will be part of a robust chorus, a group that will average similar minutes in even strength ice time, the differences among them being in how they are deployed on special teams.
His numbers might not reach those he put up in his career year last season, but think of his contribution in terms of “wins over replacement.” He will be a big improvement over the cast of defensemen from last year that he replaces, and that should be enough to secure a few more wins for the Caps, the margin they would need for a return to the playoffs. It is not expectations for Niskanen’s own numbers that are relevant here, it is the expectation for the team given his presence and how it firms up what was a thin back line that should be one’s focus.
Projection: 76 games, 7-23-30, plus-6
Photo: Geoff Burke-USA Today Sports