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Matt Niskanen is head and shoulders the number one unrestricted free agent at his position. He is also coming off a career year with the Penguins. Who is going to overpay him?
Matt Niskanen has provided the Penguins with very solid play since being the throw in to the James Neal-Alex Goligoski trade. He has slowly built up his value around the league and now the time has come for him to cash in on his built up equity.
So how much is too much and should the Penguins even consider keeping him at a hometown discount?
First let’s take a look at the Penguins short term and long term situation at the defense position. The 2014-15 season has the potential to bring sweeping changes to the Penguins defense corp. In all likelihood Brooks Orpik will be moving on and Rob Scuderi should be moving on. Chances are Niskanen’s cost will be too high for the Penguins so that will potentially be 3 regulars who will be leaving the team. Some may view that as a problem, I view that as an opportunity.
Ray Shero has been criticized for not stocking the shelves with young capable forwards at the NHL level, this is valid criticism. The flip side of the equation is that he has invested in young puck moving defensemen. The Penguins are at a crossroads to where they should be looking to start utilizing these young players’ talents, as well as their ELC cap hits.
In the short term there may be some growing pains by loading up with youth (Despres, Dumoulin, Harrington, Pouliot) but I’m not so sure their “growing pains” will be any more egregious than the mistakes made by Orpik and Scuderi on a nightly basis.
In the long term it is likely that at least a few of these players turn into competent NHL defensemen. There is also a good chance that at least one of them will be able to provide solid top 4 minutes. If this is the case then I’m not sure you need to invest in Matt Niskanen for 7 or 8 years. It seems like it would be overkill to invest in drafting young defensemen and then shell out market value for the same position. At some point you need to have cheap players who can play above their pay grade. The Penguins have players that have the potential to do just that.
So why will Matt Niskanen likely demand the most money in the open market? He has been a very good player at even strength, one could argue a great player:
These numbers are tremendous. Niskanen drives possession when he is on the ice and it has led directly to an insane amount of even strength goals being scored in close games. This is top notch stuff.
Niskanen has also provided offense on the power play over the course of the 2013-14 season when both Paul Martin and Kris Letang were out injured. Niskanen had 15 power play points this past year which equals the total of power play points he had the previous three seasons combined. Niskanen notched six points in the Penguins first round series against Columbus on the power play. His removal from the power play and insertion of Kris Letang as the QB resulted in the Penguins struggling against the Rangers on the power play.
Niskanen’s best asset on the power play is his ability to get shots through the first tier of defenders. He consistently gets the puck to the net and allows his forwards to make plays on both rebounds and tips. This is a very underrated skill and one that he excels at.
So those are some of the good things that Niskanen can bring to a club. What are some of the risks involved with investing in Matt Niskanen?
One could argue that luck was on his side this past season. Niskanen led all Penguins in PDO (on ice save % + on ice shooting %). He also scored high in PDO when compared to other players at his position in the league. Niskanen ranked 7th overall amongst NHL defensemen with a PDO of 1031 last year.
Given the fact that a player or team’s PDO will always regress or ascend to 1000 it appears that NIskanen is due for a change in his “luck”. Niskanen set career highs in goals (10), assists (36), and points (46). How much of his career year was the beneficiary of good luck? How much of it can be considered sustainable? These are important questions to ask when making a big time investment.
Another area of concern that I would have with investing into Niskanen for the long term is his ability to anchor down a top 4 pairing. Niskanen is going to get big money, he is going to have to log big time minutes. Niskanen’s even strength numbers are tremendous, but Dan Bylsma has put him in advantageous situations since his arrival.
In 2011-12 he ranked 6th among Penguins defenders in relative Quality of Competition, in 2012-13 he ranked 4th, and this past season he ranked 5th. He has yet to consistently face the best that the opponents have to offer. When investing 5-6M per season I would personally want to see a sample size that had him playing tougher minutes than he did in Pittsburgh.
Here is a chart that shows the past 3 seasons of rel QoC for the Penguins. I have used players who have been on the roster for the past 3 seasons:
Ultimately Matt Niskanen will provide quality possession play which can be complimented by good production on the power play as long as he is slotted in the lineup appropriately. Whichever team that decides to heavily invest in Matt Niskanen will need to understand that he has yet to play in a top pairing role and the quality of his competition he has faced has him in as a fringe 2nd pairing guy.
When you combine the extremely high PDO with the advantageous matchups you have a perfect recipe for a career season. The Penguins may want Matt Niskanen for the 2014-15 season because of the transition to youth, but it would be an unnecessary and costly contract to invest in.
Kris Letang is coming off of a poor season which has been marred with multiple injuries, including a stroke. His value is at an all-time low and it is not good business to trade players at their lowest point. It makes much more sense to keep Letang around at 7.25M than it does to overpay for Niskanen at around 6M. Play Kris Letang with Paul Martin and watch his quality of play reach the level that you would expect out of a 7.25M defenseman. Don’t pair Letang with Scuderi/Orpik types. Letang playing at a high level helps the Penguins and it also helps his trade value if it comes down to that.
The Penguins got some good hockey out of Niskanen it is time to walk away and let somebody else drastically overpay for his services.
Thanks for reading!
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