When former Penguin Rob Scuderi was re-signed on July 5 of this past summer, the Penguins defensive core became stocked with NHL-caliber talent.
But a training camp injury to Norris Trophy candidate Kris Letang forced some shuffling on the back end, and the team needed someone to step up and fill his spot.
Enter Matt Niskanen.
Niskanen was inserted into a top-four role alongside Scuderi and on the blue line of the team’s top power-play unit.
Niskanen has thrived in the role, totaling five assists during even-strength situations and registering the game-winning power-play goal against Tampa Bay with 18.6 seconds left in the game.
Despite leading the defensive unit in points through nine games and posting an impressive plus-9 rating, Niskanen said he hasn’t changed his game to focus more on offense.
“I’m not doing a whole lot to force offense,” Niskanen said. “It just kind of happens. When I get opportunities I shoot the puck, I try to get as many shots as I can and try to generate that way. That is typically how I generate my offense – just getting the puck around the cage and let our forwards tap in rebounds. Screens and tips, things like that.”
As successful as the Niskanen-Scuderi pairing has been, the first sign that Letang will be returning to game action very soon came on Wednesday, when he replaced Niskanen on top power-play unit and skated alongside Scuderi in even-strength situations during an open practice at Southpointe.
The return of Letang shifted Niskanen to the third defensive pair, where he skated alongside 19-year-old Olli Maatta. After their first practice as a pair, Niskanen talked about how things went and how skating alongside a younger player for the first time in his career was new to him.
“He is a very smart player for how young he is and knows his position,” Niskanen said. “He is very capable. He is good guy to play with so far, just been one day but I’m excited for that opportunity if that is what’s coming.
“Pretty much my whole career I’ve played with older guys. Now, I feel old standing next to Olli. It is kind of a new thing for me. If that is going to be the case moving forward then it’s a challenge I look forward to having.”
Head coach Dan Byslma talked about the progression of becoming an ‘older guy’ and what that means for a player like Niskanen.
“I always took a lot of pride in being called an old guy because you are still around,” Bylsma said. “Matt (Niskanen) is just moving down the road in his career and probably can relate a lot to Olli (Maatta) and his situation. He was a young kid in the league and always played with an older guy in Dallas, and knows what that is like and benefitted a lot from that.”
The two defensemen were also paired together on top of the second power-play unit, where Niskanen’s right-handed shot has been a weapon all season.
The stellar play of Niskanen has turned many heads in Pittsburgh and around the league through nine games, and after a tumultuous offseason filled with trade rumors, he said he is just happy to still be here.
“There was a lot of talk,” Niskanen said. “I was just worried about getting ready for camp and getting ready for the season. It’s up to management. I’m just here to play for as long as I’m here and do the best I can. Happy I’m still here. We have a lot of depth in this organization. Moving forward, it is good for all of us, good competition with all these guys trying to make the team and trying to play more. Competition within the group is a good thing and we’ll have that moving forward.”
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