The Pittsburgh Penguins will surely look a lot different going into next season. Moving forward, the Penguins have plenty of changes and challenges as an organization – not just in the front office. One decision they’ll have to make a call on is what to do they do with Matt Niskanen. Do they let Niskanen walk as an Unrestricted Free Agent and let him sign with whomever, or do they sign him to a new contract?
Niskanen had a career-best season for the Penguins in 2014, notching 46 points (10G; 36A) and carried his production into the post season, tallying nine points in 13 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs – eight of which came in the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets. He is one of Pittsburgh’s most versatile defensemen and played throughout the lineup. He logged a decent stretch of time on the first defensive pairing with rookie Olli Maatta this past season because of simultaneous injuries to every player in the top four. Niskanen was arguably one of the teams anchors on defense this past season, providing the Pens with consistency, steadiness, and reliability both sides of the puck.
PROS: While playing in almost every situation, he has proven himself to be a sound decision-maker, and is as steady and reliable as they come. He’s a player that does a lot of the little things right in a hockey game. With Brooks Orpik likely gone and Paul Martin’s contract up at the end of next season, Niskanen could potentially provide the Penguins with a relatively young, quality veteran presence on the blue line that could help the Pens young defensive prospects along.
CONS: Niskanen is likely the biggest name on the market this summer for defenseman. Based on that alone, he is due an enormous pay day. That doesn’t bode well for the salary cap-spending Penguins being able to resign him. If you look at the chart above, Niskanen fits the prototypical second-to-third-pairing defensemen. His quality of competition is middle of the pack, and he’s capable on both sides of the ice. Niskanen will likely get offers that many top-pairing players make based on what else is available on the open market.
The Pens have a prospect pool chalked full of young defensemen who might be ready to make the jump to the NHL in the eyes of team management. Simon Despres could potentially take Niskanen’s role on the blue line next season. Over time, that might prove to be a better option anyway.
Niskanen also played his best hockey in a contract year, which sends all kinds of red flags flying. There’s a reason players play great in a contract year. While he’s a fine player, there’s no guarantee that Pittsburgh would continue get this kind of production out of Niskanen season after season.
If you look a bit closer at the situation, Niskanen benefited from playing with higher caliber players more frequently this past season.
In 2013, Niskanen spent a majority of his ice time with Kris Letang, Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz, James Neal, and Brandon Sutter. That’s not a terrible list of players to spend a majority of your ice time with, but when you compare it to his top five most common on ice teammates in 2014 – Olli Maatta, Sidney Crosby, Jussi Jokinen, Chris Kunitz, and Evgeni Malkin – it’s no wonder his production went up. Almost any NHL player would see their production sky rocket in this situation.
Niskanen was a tremendous bargain this season for the Penguins, but he’s likely shown all he could do in a Penguins uniform. Even if he plateaus and produces at or around the same totals going forward, he will likely cost twice the price because of the market and it’s not worth it for the Penguins to re-sign him based simply on a cost-per-point-production value when you have other in-house options in your defensive pipeline.
Perhaps the biggest con though is that he’s bad at darts.