Friday, September 21, 2018

Washington Capitals 2018-2019 Previews -- Defensemen: Matt Niskanen

Matt Niskanen

“The most successful men in the end are those whose success is the result of steady accretion.”
-- Alexander Graham Bell

When Washington Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen took the ice on April 5th against the Nashville Predators he became the 22nd defenseman active in the 2017-2018 season to appear in 800 career NHL games.  With the 68 games he played in the 2017-2018 season, Niskanen became the 20th defenseman in Caps history to play in 300 or more games for the club.  It was a season that fit squarely with Niskanen’s performance profile over his previous 11 seasons in the NHL.  If anything, it was somewhat better.  He appeared in 68 games (his career average before last season: 67), but his 7-22-29, plus-24 scoring line was more in line with his per-82 game averages over his previous 11 seasons (6-25-31, plus-10).

The breakthrough for Niskanen in 2017-2018 was becoming a full-time first-pair defenseman.  His pairing with Dmitry Orlov (perhaps a bigger surprise in getting top billing) was the most reliable, most stable pairing for the Caps over the course of the entire season.  He shook off an early scoring slump, posting only two assists and a plus-1 in his first ten games (punctuated by a 13-game absence to a hand injury), to go 7-20-27, plus-23 in his last 58 games.  Only once did he have a streak longer than three games without a point, a six-game streak from December 16th through December 28th.

There was a dramatic shift in one aspect of Niskanen’s game in 2017-2018.  In each of his previous three seasons with the Caps, he averaged more than one minute of power play ice time per game with a high of 2:25 in 2015-2016.  Last season, however, he averaged just 31 seconds of power play ice time per game.  That was offset by lesser increases to even strength ice time (up 1:35 per game) and shorthanded ice time per game (up eight seconds per game).  He still managed to average more than 22 minutes per game for the fourth time in four seasons as a Capital.

Odd Niskanen Fact…

Matt Niskanen is one of only nine defensemen in the last 30 years (and only the third not drafted by the club) to skate more than 7,000 minutes as a Capital.  

Bonus Odd Niskanen Fact…

Matt Niskanen dressed for 16 games in the postseason in his rookie year with the Dallas Stars.  He would not appear in that many games in a postseason again over his next seven trips to the playoffs… until last season with the Caps (24).

Double Bonus Odd Niskanen Fact…

Matt Niskanen was part of the 2005 entry draft class, the tenth defenseman taken and 28th player overall.  Defensemen taken ahead of him by the Caps in that class?  Sasha Pokulok (14th overall; no NHL games) and Joe Finley (27th overall, one pick before Niskanen; 21 NHL games).

Fearless’ Take…

Matt Niskanen was a minutes-eater in the postseason, to good effect.  Washington did not lose a game in regulation time when he skated 25 minutes or more (eight wins and two overtime losses).  It was a continuation of his profile in the regular season where the Caps were 14-2-3 in the 19 games in which he skated more than 24 minutes.  Offensively, it was, if not his best of his four seasons since he came to Washington from Pittsburgh, then close to it, given the games missed to a hand injury.  His 0.10 goals per game was his best as a Capital, and his 0.43 points per game was his second best with the Caps and fourth best of his 11 year career.

Cheerless’ Take…

In his first ten seasons, Matt Niskanen was over 50 percent in even strength Corsi-for percentage, averaging 52.5 percent over those seasons.  Last year, he was under 50 percent for the first time (48.7 percent; source:  His relative Corsi-for of 0.7 was off by 2.6 points from the previous season. 

Potential Milestones…
  • 300 career points (he needs 2)
  • 100 power play points (he needs 11)

The Big Question… Is Matt Niskanen underappreciated?

Matt Niskanen came into the NHL in 2007-2008.  Since then the population of defensemen with 800 games, 50 goals, 250 points, and plus-100 or better includes the following:  Zdeno Chara, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Niskanen.  That’s it.  And Niskanen did it while playing the fewest minutes of the group (16,596), more than 1,300 fewer than Vlasic (17,908).  However, since he finished eighth in the Calder Trophy voting for top rookie in 2007-2008, only once did he receive any votes for an individual award, finishing tenth in the Norris Trophy voting for top defenseman with Pittsburgh in 2013-2014.  It probably says more that we would ask a question about the level of appreciation in his play than any particular aspect of that play and whether he could improve on it or suffer a regression. 

The fact is, he is among the most reliable defensemen in the game.  With the Caps, his range of goal scoring in four seasons is four to seven, and his points range from 29 to 39, although his other two seasons of 31 and 32 points suggest a predictability as a low-30’s point producer, right where is in his career per-82 game average (31 per 82 games).  There is every reason to think that, absent injury, he would once more produce in that area, and little expectation that he would experience an upward spike in his scoring.  If there is a Capitals defenseman from years gone by that he might resemble in his reliable and understated play, it might be Calle Johansson (albeit a bit edgier). That's not bad company.

In the end…

Matt Niskanen is not a conventional top-pair defenseman.  He isn’t a big goal scorer, not a fancy playmaker, isn’t extraordinarily physical (although ranking 25th in total credited hits by defensemen over his four years in Washington, it might be an underrated part of his play), doesn’t get much time on, let alone dominate a power play.  He is an adept all-around defenseman who has quietly, steadily, bit by bit built a body of work that is impressive more in its totality than if you look at it game-by-game, or even season by season.  It would be folly at this point to expect anything other than that reliable, dependable, productive level of play. 

Projection: 74 games, 6-24-30, plus-14

Photo: Getty Images North America