When he hit the free agent market in July 2014, Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen was the most-coveted blueliner. Many teams were eager for a chance to sign the native of Virginia, Minnesota, who was coming off a career-year with the Pittsburgh Penguins; that season, he recorded 46 points (10 goals, 36 assists). As a right-handed shot, he was even more valuable and his asking price was expected to be high.
July 1 arrived and the NHL Free Agent Frenzy had begun. In Washington, at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington, Virginia, newly-appointed general manager Brian MacLellan had already inked Niskanen’s former Pittsburgh teammate, Brooks Orpik, to a five-year, $27.5 million free agent deal. MacLellan had decided he wanted to address his team’s weak defensive corps by hopefully signing two free agent blueliners. For the first time in a long time, the Capitals made a splash in free agency by not only signing Orpik, but Niskanen as well. Understandably, Niskanen’s seven-year, $40.25 million contract brought big expectations.
In his first season in a Caps sweater, Niskanen registered 31 points (four goals, 27 assists) and averaged 22:21 of ice time. One reason his goal total dropped was due to the fact his shooting percentage was 3.4, compared to 6.2 in his pre-free agency season. Niskanen saw less power play time and often looked for the pass. But while many believe Niskanen has failed to live up to his contract thus far, their criticism is unjustified. Niskanen is shooting the puck more at 3.8 and has seen extended power play time with the offseason departure of Mike Green. He also is averaging more than a minute more of ice time than he did in ’14-15, at 23:39. But it’s not just his offensive skills that Niskanen uses on a nightly basis: his two-way play has been instrumental in the Capitals’ rise as one of the best defensive teams in the NHL.
In Monday night’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Niskanen blocked seven shots, and was an even plus/minus. Among Capitals defensemen with at least 20 games played, he ranks third in blocked shots and first in takeaways.
Niskanen’s value goes beyond his offensive capabilities. Currently on pace for five goals, 27 assists, and 32 points, Niskanen still has time to bring those numbers up. All it will take is taking more shots on net and increasing the number of times he joins the rush. Niskanen’s production must increase, but he provides much value in the other areas of his game and that should not be overlooked.
By Michael Fleetwood