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After the Capitals’ Stanley Cup win on Thursday night, the NHL season, in terms of game action is officially over. In the coming weeks, teams will begin preparing for the offseason, including the NHL Entry Draft, Free Agency, and the contract decisions of players (and in the Capitals’ case, their coaches). In Capital Review, NoVa Caps will be taking a look at each player’s season, their contract status, and their outlook for next season, beginning in numerical order based on jersey number. First up: defenseman Matt Niskanen.
Games Played: 68
Since signing with the Capitals on July 1, 2014, Niskanen has arguably, been the Capitals’ best all-around defenseman, contributing offensively, defensively, and on special teams. Normally a durable blueliner, Niskanen’s season was marred by a hand injury early in the season, one that forced the Capitals to place him on long-term injured reserve and resulted in the normally durable blueliner to miss over a month of game action, weakening what was an already-depleted blueline for the Capitals. Prior to his injury on October 13, 2017, Niskanen had recorded one assist in five games and had averaged 21:09 of ice time a game on 134 shifts. Niskanen returned to the lineup on November 14, 2017 and subsequently recorded seven goals and 21 assists in 63 games played.
As mentioned above, Niskanen was once again one of the Capitals’ most reliable penalty killers, averaging 2:43 of ice time while shorthanded, second only to fellow defenseman Brooks Orpik’s 3:06 during the regular season. Niskanen also saw time on the power play, playing primarily on the second unit, averaging just 0:31 seconds on the man-advantage, recording no points. During the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Niskanen averaged 25:23 of ice time, second only to fellow defenseman John Carlson’s 25:38, and recorded nine points (one goal, eight assists) in 24 games played, with a plus-6 rating.
Status: Three seasons remaining on seven-year, $40.25 million deal ($5.75 million salary/annual average value)
Money Left on Current Deal: $17,250,000 left in total salary
Free Agent: 2021, Unrestricted
Analysis: The Capitals signed Niskanen to fortify their defensive corps and provide both an offensive punch and defensive stability. Since signing with the team in 2014, Niskanen has been both things and more. In the first four seasons of his seven-year deal, Niskanen has played in 310 of a possible 328 games, scoring 21 goals and adding 110 assists for 131 points, with a plus-61 rating, all while averaging a career-high 22:59 minutes of ice time a night. While he has never matched his career-best offensive numbers (10 goals, 46 points in 2013-14), it is the result of being tasked with more defensive responsibility and a reduced role on the power play. When his deal expires, Niskanen will be a few months shy of his 35th birthday, meaning the Capitals should get at least another two seasons of productivity before Niskanen’s offensive output begins to decline.
Assuming he is able to stay healthy the entire season, Niskanen should once again log heavy minutes for the Capitals both at even-strength and on the penalty kill. Depending on whether Carlson is re-signed or leaves in free agency, Niskanen may or may not see an increased role next season. As Carlson mans the point on the first power play unit and has generally logged slightly more minutes than Niskanen, losing him would almost certainly mean more ice time and offensive opportunities for Niskanen, who is also a right-handed shot. Niskanen will turn 32 in December and his overall durability through his first four seasons in Washington is an encouraging sign that he will be able to stay healthy as he gets older. Niskanen has averaged five goals, 28 assists, and 33 points in his first four seasons in the District, and one should expect him to match or slightly exceed those totals next season, depending on his role and his ability to stay healthy over a full 82 games.
MATT NISKANEN HIGHLIGHT OF THE SEASON
By Michael Fleetwood