Conventional hockey wisdom suggests a player on defense benefits more from experience and maturity than a forward, and that a typical NHL defenseman hits peak performance around 27 years of age. No one offers stronger testament to this theory than Matt Niskanen of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The whole next level of awesome that Niskanen reached this season -- a time during which he celebrated his 27th birthday -- was not only generally unexpected, but exceptionally timely.
Drafted 28th overall by the Dallas Stars in 2005, Niskanen followed up a solid rookie debut in 2007-08 with an even better sophomore campaign. The future for the young blueliner in Dallas appeared bright. But what followed were four remarkably second-rate campaigns, interrupted by a trade to the Penguins. Which brings us to the 2013-14 regular season, when Niskanen erupted for 46 points, capping off an 81-game stint at plus-33. And, wouldn’t you know, it’s a contract year for the former Minnesota-Duluth Bulldog. Niskanen’s explosive output and proven durability, cobbled together with this summer’s wafer-thin market for well-rounded defensemen, means the pending unrestricted free agent is about to cash in huge.
Whether that entails re-signing in Pittsburgh or joining another club remains to be seen. With a limited amount of cap space available, GM Ray Shero is unlikely to re-sign both Brooks Orpik and Niskanen. So there’s a healthy chance Niskanen ends up testing the market and inks a lucrative deal elsewhere. The fantasy ramifications of such a move could be significant.
There’s no chicken/egg argument to be made here; Niskanen is a better offensive defenseman because of his supporting cast. Anyone would be more productive skating with the likes of Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin and/or James Neal at even strength and on the power play. The Penguins rank fifth in scoring overall and first in power-play efficiency (tied with the Washington Capitals). So there’s little doubt, in our mind anyway, that Niskanen’s number would suffer slightly elsewhere.
And if he does receive an extension in Pittsburgh -- the club is admittedly keen on his blossoming pairing with rookie Olli Maatta -- there’s the issue of competing with Kris Letang and Paul Martin for the juiciest opportunities. Battling a variety of health issues, Letang and Martin combined for a mere 76 active games this season. If both remain healthy for most of next season, Niskanen could see a reduced role, particularly with the man advantage.
Without argument, Niskanen was a gem when the Penguins needed him to be this season. He’s going to be (over-)paid handsomely for that effort soon. But we’re not convinced another 45-plus-point campaign lies in store for the former first-rounder. Gauge his performance in the postseason and monitor where he lands after July 1, if the Pens don’t sign him to an extension in the meantime. And be cautious in investing a high fantasy draft selection based on a few great months.
Here’s a look at a few other key unrestricted free agent defensemen from around the league:
At last check, Markov’s reps and the Canadiens were still working to hash out a new deal for the 35-year-old free-agent-to-be.
"I met with [GM Marc Bergevin] a couple of days ago when they were here [in Florida]," Markov’s agent Sergei Berezin told ESPN.com in early April.