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Niskanen impact this season

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  • Niskanen impact this season

    Bill Meltzer put up a very good article today about Matt Niskanen that is worth sharing here...

    4) Sometimes it is easy to get caught up in what the statistics say and forget that there are a variety of factors that go into shaping a player's season for the better or worse. On Dec. 27 of last season, veteran defenseman Matt Niskanen (then with the Capitals) went very awkwardly into the end boards after being bumped by Carolina's Clark Bishop on a scary looking play. Niskanen's head collided with the boards and his neck was at a weird angle, too.

    Niskanen claimed to feel OK afterwards and was declared day-to-day. He passed the protocol, so he was right back out on the ice and his season continued. One problem, though: For the next six weeks or so, Niskanen played some of the least effective hockey of his career. Players are never supposed to use injury as an excuse for subpar play -- and Niskanen didn't -- but something clearly wasn't quite right with him. January 2019 in particular was one of the worst months of his career.

    I don't think it was a coincidence, nor do I think Niskanen suddenly "lost it" as an above-average all-around defenseman a few weeks after he turned 32. Fast-forward to the 2019 playoffs, where Niskanen played pretty well despite the defending Stanley Cup champs going out in a seven-game first round.

    Another factor that has pulled down Niskanen's numbers the last two seasons: his deployment changed. Whereas he had started 49.4 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone in 2016-17 (and had been at 50 percent or higher offensive zone starts in nine of his previous 11 seasons), he started 56 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone in 2017-18 and 57.4 last season. Meanwhile, he pulled down an average 22:36 TOI on 2017-18 and then 21:56 in 2018-19, with heavy usage against other teams' top offensive lines.

    Well, guess what... skew any player's usage so significantly away from roughly 50-50 offensive zone vs. other zone starts toward primarily D-zone deployment with heavy ice time and see where their underlying numbers correspondingly go. "Expected goals against" are probably going to go up, and expected goals for are probably going to significantly decrease. That is not to say that the role change for Niskanen in his early 30s was ill-considered by Barry Trotz and then Jeff Reirden or that he hasn't done fairly well in it. Hell, the Caps won the Cup in 2018 with Niskanen pulling down 25:23 of playoff ice time in largely a shutdown role. He was certainly making a valuable contribution during that run. You can't "hide" someone for that many minutes in the playoffs.

    As such, I am inclined to chalk up a lot of Niskanen's so-called "decline" the past two years to being asked to play more of a D-zone based job description. He's still a very good passer and can break up plays as they enter the zone but D-zone starts put everyone a bit behind the eight ball, and a 57-percent ratio of them is tough row to hoe. Then add in whatever physical issues that Niskanen played through the last season -- the utter flat-lining of his numbers for awhile strongly suggest he may have been better off resting awhile than playing. To me, that's more plausible than someone playing some of the best hockey of his career one spring (and collecting a Cup ring from it) and then his game vanishes because he turned 32.

    I expect something of a bounceback year from Niskanen this year . Whether or not that will show statistically in a dramatic way will depend in part on how much defensive burden he has to shoulder. My main concern is for him to stay healthy and for the Flyers team to get into a position where it's a playoff club. At this point of his career, I think Niskanen is one of those vets whose value is more immediately evident come the postseason than during the regular season marathon.

    I remember creating a post on this site when that hit occurred. Its shocking that a player could come back from such a hit. Niskanen having had time hopefully to completely recover...I really think he could be a major reason for allowing this team to take the next step forward.

    If all goes well, he will have a positive impact on at least 3 other players...Provorov because he will be playing along side him, Sanheim because we don't need to put extra pressure on him to play the #2 role and Ghost because he no longer will need to play against the other team's top lines (better protected).

  • #2
    Agreed. The notion of a bounce back year for him is real. I like the acquisitions on the back end, we should be much more poised defending in our own zone this year.