One of the first moves of new Head Coach Barry Trotz and new General Manager Brain MacLellan was the signing of defensemen Matt Niskanen, on July 1, 2014. Bringing Niskanen on board signaled that the Capitals were committed to strengthening the previously ailing defensive line. Niskanen, and his fellow defenseman Brooks Orpik, both unrestricted free agents with the Pittsburgh Penguins, were hired at the recommendation of former Penguins assistant coach Todd Reirden. Reirden oversaw Pittsburgh’s power play strategy that yielded the NHL’s best conversion percentage for the 2013-2014 season.
However, Orpik is largely credited with helping to recruit Niskanen to the Capitals. Niskanen said, “He [Orpik] just got a really good feel for what they’re [the Capitals] trying to do, the direction they’re headed, the people they’re around,” said Niskanen. Orpik’s feedback, the opportunity to reunite with Reirden who, according to Niskanen, “…helps guys, young defensemen get better, …He works on details extensively, builds your confidence” and a lucrative seven-year $40.25 million deal lured the 27-year-old defenseman to Washington.
Niskanen began his NHL career in 2007 with the Dallas Stars. In his rookie season, the NHL invited him to the Young Stars game as a part of the 2008 NHL All-Star weekend. The Stars traded Niskanen to the Penguins in 2011. With 10 goals and 36 assists – Niskanen achieved his career high in points during his 2013-2014 and his final season with the Penguins.
Frisky Nisky’s Great Beginning
While Niskanen did not achieve the career highs that he experienced during his last season with the Penguins, he did make significant positive contributions to the Capitals. In his first year, he earned 31 points with four goals and 27 assists and an average of over 22 minutes on ice per game.
Niskanen is low-key, both on and off the ice. Players respect his even and steady play and that he demands retribution when warranted. After Niskanen hit Scott Laughton in the Capitals January game against the Flyers Trotz said, ‘‘He’s like Eddie Haskell. He’s got the young face and all that, but he’ll run into you, he’ll give you the stick.” Niskanen’s fateful hit knocked off Laughton’s helmet and launched him airborne.
Niskanen and Laughton would eventally drop the gloves during their next meeting in February.
Overall, Niskanen had a good season with the Capitals and he feels good about his play. In an interview with Mike Vogel he said, “My role changed a little bit from in the past – played more minutes, tougher minutes, not as much power play time, had tougher assignments, and penalty killed more than I ever have. Those were good challenges for me and I think I grew more as a player because of it.” And, while Niskanen may not have had a career season, teammates John Carlson and Karl Alzner certainly did and Niskanen was certainly a contributor to their success.
The Best is Yet to Come
Niskanen is spending his summer in Minnesota with family and friends. After the season, he took a month off before he re-ignited his training. His goal is to come into the 2015-2016 season in better condition and he hopes to land more pucks in the net this year. With his low-key style and quality play, he will continue to be a stronghold for the Capitals D-Line. Video highlights of Niskanen’s initial season with the Capitals, including goals against the Islanders and the Bruins are here: Best of Matt Niskanen.
By Stephanie Judge