Thursday, September 21, 2017

Washington Capitals 2017-2018 Previews -- Defensemen: Matt Niskanen

Matt Niskanen

“Good, better, best. Never let it rest. 'Til your good is better and your better is best.”
-- St. Jerome

When Matt Niskanen signed a seven-year/$40.25 million contract as an unrestricted free agent in July 2014, he was cashing in on what was a perfect example of timing.  After six seasons with Dallas and Pittsburgh in which he never recorded more than seven goals (and that in his rookie season) and never more than 35 points (in his sophomore season), he hit the jackpot with a 10-36-46, plus-33, season with the Penguins in 2013-2014.

When Niskanen fell back to a more career-normal 4-27-31, plus-7, in his first season as a Capital in 2014-2015, it might have been seen by some as a disappointment.   What he gave the Caps was a solid 22 minutes a night in 82 games, he and John Carlson being the only Capitals defensemen averaging over one minute of both power play and shorthanded ice time for the season.

What Niskanen has done in two seasons since is improve his numbers incrementally each season and establish himself as perhaps the Caps’ best all-around defenseman.  In three seasons with Washington, Niskanen is second among Caps defensemen overall in goals (14, tied with Dmitry Orlov), assists (88), and points (102), all to John Carlson (29-102-131). He has averaged 23:04 of ice time over those three seasons (two seconds fewer than Carlson).  He has logged more than 600 more minutes (5,585) than the next Capital in line (Karl Alzner  with 4,969) and missed just four games as a Capital, all of them in 2016-2017.

Last season, his best as a Capital (5-34-39, plus-20, in 78 games), he displayed a certain consistency in his production.  Only once in eight ten-game splits did Niskanen record fewer than four points (three in Games 61-70, which included one of the four games he missed for the season), and he was a “minus” player only in his second segment of the season (minus-2). In his fifth and sixth segments (Games 41-60) he contributed seven power play points as John Carlson missed six games to a lower-body injury.

Odd Niskanen Fact… Of Niskanen’s five highest ice time totals last season, the Caps lost five times, four times in extra time and each of those instances on the road.

Bonus Odd Niskanen Fact… All five of Niskanen’s goals last season were scored against Metropolitan Division teams (one against Columbus, two each against Philadelphia and the New York Islanders).

Fearless’ Take…

Matt Niskanen is one of five defensemen over the past three seasons to play in at least 225 games, record 10 total goals, 100 total points, and post a plus-minus of plus-30 or better.  Despite being a Capital for only three seasons, he is 24th in team history in games played (242), 23rd in goals scored (14), 15th in assists (88), 15th in points (102), 14th in plus-minus (plus-37), and tied for 11th in game-winning goals (11, with Rod Langway).  Last season he demonstrated a certain “road warrior” mentality, going 3-23-26, plus-6, in 39 road games (both of his game-winning goals came on the road) while posting a scoring line of 2-11-13, plus-14, at home.

Cheerless’ Take…

Outside of John Carlson (8-14-22, plus-2), the Caps have not had a lot of offensive numbers put up by defensemen in the postseason over the last three seasons.  Matt Niskanen is no exception, even if he is second in points over that span.  In 39 playoff games over his three seasons with the Caps, he is 1-10-11, plus-1.  And that goal came in a 6-2 thrashing by the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 2 of their second-round series last spring (to be fair, it was a power play goal that tied the game in the first period).  In fact, Niskanen’s postseason production has lagged his regular season numbers for most of his career.  The four points he posted with the Caps last spring in 13 games tied his second-highest point total in any playoff year (he had nine points in 13 playoff games in his last season with the Pens in 2013-2014).

Potential Milestones to Reach in 2017-2018...

  • 800 games played (currently has 733)
  • 50 goals (currently has 49)
  • 300 points (currently has 269)
  • 500 penalty minutes (currently has 383)

The Big Question… Does Matt Niskanen have another level of improvement to provide?

Losing the likes of Karl Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Nate Schmidt on the blue line; and replacing them with rookies, late training camp signings, or in-season replacements makes for a difficult challenge on defense.  It places a certain pressure on both John Carlson and Matt Niskanen to strike a balance between improving their production and staying within their comfort zones in terms of style and role.  That Carlson slipped a bit last season in terms of per-game production at least suggests the potential for bouncing back.  Niskanen presents a different situation.  While he has improved in each of his three seasons with the Caps, the numbers in each of those seasons are all higher than his career per-82 game averages.  It begs the question of whether he regresses to a personal mean, or he has another 2013-2014 level of production in him.  The answer to that question might signal whether the Caps are a contender or will fight for a playoff spot next spring.

In the end…

Matt Niskanen is not going to show up on a short list of elite defensemen.  He does not have the offensive numbers of an Erik Karlsson, doesn’t have the cannon of a shot of a Shea Weber or a Brent Burns, and he does not have the deep playoff resume or a Duncan Keith or a Drew Doughty.   And even though a Capitals defenseman did receive a vote for the Norris Trophy last season, it was not Niskanen (it was Dmitry Orlov).   His is the profile of an underrated player, one who is very good at a wide range of tasks.  He plays well in all three zones and in all three strength situations. 

That he carries the description of “two-way” defenseman might normally suggest he is not especially skilled in either way, offensively or defensively.   Far from it.  Niskanen might be the best defensemen at both ends on this team, who has been durable, to boot.  His presence lends stability and consistency to a lineup that will need it this season, but if he was better last season than he was in the season before that, and better then than in the season before that one, he might have to be at his best this season for the Caps to make a deep playoff run.

Projection: 79 games, 7-36-43, plus-18

Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America