When the Capitals signed defenseman Matt Niskanen in free agency three years ago, they did so hoping that he could help bolster a defensive unit that had lacked a true game-changer for quite some time. And while Niskanen has met and perhaps exceeded expectations, this season could be one of, if not the, most important of Niskanen’s Capitals career.
While free agency and the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft inevitably meant the losses of important players, it may be safe to say that the Caps lost more than they bargained for on defense. While the losses of defensemen Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk were all but inevitable, the loss of young blueliner Nate Schmidt was surprising due to the fact that the Capitals’ later transactions would have allowed the team to protect Schmidt in the Expansion Draft had they completed them prior to the draft.
As a result, the Capitals have two gaping holes on their blueline that will likely be filled by two of their top defensive prospects (or in outside signings). As a 30-year old veteran, Niskanen will be looked to become a leader for any new young rearguards on the team, while being expected to continue his offensive production – he has averaged 34 points over his first three seasons as a Capital – playing top minutes for the Caps. While he is expected to be paired with youngster Dmitry Orlov, the arrival of two young defenseman will mean the 10-year veteran will be called upon by the Capitals coaching staff to be a mentor and leader for the team’s young blueliner.
But perhaps more importantly, Niskanen will need to continue consistently producing offensively for the Capitals, especially with the losses of Schmidt and Shattenkirk. As mentioned above, he has averaged 34 points a season and will need to meet or exceed that total this season. Defensively, Niskanen has been arguably, the Capitals’ best all-around blueliner, finishing last season with a Corsi rating of 53.4 and 4.8 defensive point shares (amount of points contributed by a player due to his defense). In each of his three seasons with the Capitals, Capitals goaltenders have finished with a save percentage of .927 when Niskanen is on the ice.
While the play of other key defensemen such as John Carlson and Orlov will be important for the success of the Caps’ blueline, Niskanen’s all-around play and offensive capabilities, along with his likely role of mentor to new players will be crucial. Given his track record of productivity, there’s no reason to believe Niskanen cannot do so.
By Michael Fleetwood