“The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar, familiar things new.”
-- William Makepeace Thackeray
If you compared Matt Niskanen’s first season with the Washington Capitals with the season he had going into free agency – a season that resulted in a seven year/$40.25 million contract with the Caps – you might conclude that he slipped a bit. His goals scored dropped from ten to four, assists from 36 to 27, points from 46 to 31, power play points from 15 to 10, shooting percentage from 6.2 to 3.4. And, whereas he earned votes for the NHL all-star team and the Norris Trophy in 2013-2014 with the Pittsburgh Penguins, he earned votes for neither in 2014-2015 with the Caps.
Ah, but if you look at that table above, you will see that Niskanen’s first season with the Caps was squarely in line with his career numbers, the shortfall in goals perhaps a product of a shooting percentage that ranks in the lower half of his career results, by season, and was his worst (please note) since his first full season in Pittsburgh (both being 3.4 percent).
As it was, Niskanen still finished third among Caps defensemen in points (31), second in power play goals (2), second in total ice time (22:21), first in even strength ice time per game (19:00), second in hits (143), second in takeaways (34), and he did it playing in every game for the first time in his eight-year career. It was the profile of a solid all-around season, at least at a high level.
Underneath, it was a bit of an odd season. Looking at his ten-game segments, there was a strange relationship among his numbers. Early on, over his first 30 games, when he could score (2-10-12) he had a sluggish plus-minus (minus-6). Then his scoring tapered a bit over his next 30 games (1-7-8), but his plus-minus soared (plus-13). In his seventh segment he went dormant in production (0-1-1, plus-2), but then was hot as a firecracker in his last segment (actually, 12 games), going 1-9-10, but there was that pesky plus-minus (minus-2). What made it stranger was the fact that he was a Corsi plus-32 while going minus-6 in those first 30 games, only a Corsi plus-15 in his next 30 games while going plus-13. It made for a quirky season on a second-level.
Matt Niskanen has never been under 50 percent, Corsi-for, at even strength in his eight-year career. His first season in Washington was no exception, with a 52.0 percent for the year. On a segment-to-segment basis he was fairly consistent, at 50 percent of better between four and seven times over his eight ten-game segments. His consistency carried over to his home and road performance. In the friendly confines of Verizon Center, Niskanen was 3-13-16. On the road, he was 1-14-15. It makes sense. Niskanen skated 1,122 shifts at home, 1,131 shifts on the road. Consistent would be the adjective to describe his game.
Matt Niskanen might want to burn most of the game tapes from the postseason. Minus-4 in his first contest (Game 1 against the Islanders, a 4-1 loss), was an even or worse player in 10 of 14 games, had one point in his last nine playoff games, no goals in 14 games overall. Overall it was his worst possession performance in six playoff seasons for Niskanen, the only time (49.0 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5) he finished below 50 percent. And, he was even worse in close score situations (46.9 percent), also his worst career playoff result (numbers from war-on-ice.com). Here is an odd Niskanen postseason stat…he does not have a goal in his last 21 road games, dating back to April 18, 2012, when he had one of the ten goals the Penguins scored in Pittsburgh’s 10-3 win in Philadelphia over the Flyers.
The Big Question… Was last season merely a “warm-up” for a bigger season in 2015-2016?
In 2013-2014, Matt Niskanen had a career year – ten goals, 46 points, and his 162 shots on goal was more than a third higher than his previous high (118 shots on goal in 2011-2012). He had as many even strength points (31) as he had in total for the Caps in 2014-2015. What happened this season? Deployment? That might have had something to do with it. His special teams ice time per game between last year in Pittsburgh (3:41) and this year in Washington (3:20) was almost the same. However, he averaged almost three times as much power play time with the Penguins (2:59) as he did with the Caps (1:03).
But then there were the teammates. Last season, Niskanen the largest portion of his 5-on-5 time (1,334 minutes) with forwards skating with Sidney Crosby (434 minutes), Jussi Jokinen (388 minutes), and Chris Kunitz (374 minutes; numbers from stats.hockeyanalysis.com). This past season, he spent the bulk of his 5-on-5 ice time (1,440 minutes) with Nicklas Backstrom (473 minutes), Alex Ovechkin (457 minutes), and Marcus Johansson (395 minutes). It was not exactly a downgrade in teammates.
His was something of a less than expected level of output, especially at evens (2-18-20, compared to that 7-24-31 in 2013-2014). And, it did not appear tied to either ice time (he averaged more with the Caps at even strength than he did the previous season with Pittsburgh), or teammates. However, looking back at his early days in Pittsburgh, it might not be that much an unexpected result. After he was traded from Dallas to the Penguins in February 2011, he finished with just a goal and three assists in 18 games to finish the regular season. He also struggled in the postseason that year, going 0-1-1, minus-3 in seven games.
In the end…
Matt Niskanen had a solid year coming off a big signing in the off-season. Okay, that playoff record needs work, but he did not sink under the weight of a big contract. His regular season play was consistent in its results, even if he occasionally got there by different paths, looking at his ten-game splits. Now that he is more familiar with Washington, his teammates, and his coaches, he could experience an improvement in his performance this season, if his experience in Pittsburgh is a guide. It would be a bit much to think he would return to the level of performance he experienced with the Penguins in his last season there, but it would not be a surprise to find some improvement in Niskanen’s performance.
Projection: 80 games, 6-28-34, plus-7
Photo: Elsa/Getty Images North America