The season before he signed a seven-year, $40.25 million contract with the Capitals, Niskanen enjoyed a career-high 10 goals, 36 assists, and 46 points with the Pittsburgh Penguins as the team’s best blueliner.
Seeing regular playing time increase due to an injury-plagued defensive corps, Niskanen averaged 21:18 minutes of ice time and saw increased power play time. His all-around game improved drastically and set himself up for a big payday.
The Capitals added both Niskanen and veteran Brooks Orpik to bolster a less-than intimidating blueline; one that had seen 14 different rearguards suit up for Washington. In his first season in a Capitals sweater, Niskanen recorded 31 points (four goals, 27 assists) while playing on a second-pairing with defensive-minded Karl Alzner and providing a steady, two-way presence. This season, however, feels like his final season in Pittsburgh.
For starters, the Washington blueline has been ravaged with injuries to Brooks Orpik and John Carlson, the latter who is now out three to four weeks after undergoing a procedure to fix a lower-body injury. In Pittsburgh, the Penguins suffered injuries to their top defensemen, including Kris Letang. With the injuries to Orpik and Carlson, Niskanen and Alzner have seen top-pairing minutes and more penalty kill and power play time. Niskanen has clearly benefitted from it: in his last ten games, Niskanen has eight points (three goals, five assists) and has seen his average ice time increase to 24:33. Secondly, Niskanen has seen his role increase as it did in Pittsburgh with the team’s top defenders out.
Niskanen is on pace for 35 points and while it may not be the 46 points he finished with in his final season in Pittsburgh, it is a four-point increase from last season and it is all because Niskanen has become arguably, the team’s best defenseman since Carlson went down and capitalized on his opportunities. His hard work ethic and willingness to shoot the puck have him poised for a great rest of the season.
By Michael Fleetwood