Defenseman Matt Niskanen is a player that Philadelphia Flyers fans are pretty familiar with. He spent a few seasons playing for two Metropolitan Division rivals in the Washington Capitals and the inner-state rival Pittsburgh Penguins throughout his career and has helped those teams be a thorn in the Flyers’ side over the years.
Now, however, the 32-year-old finds himself joining the Orange and Black in their quest to return to the NHL playoffs, and I think he is a solid addition that will only benefit the franchise going forward. Not everyone may be familiar with his work though, so I believe some background is necessary.
Who exactly is Matt Niskanen?
Western Conference Beginnings
Niskanen was drafted by the Dallas Stars in the first round (28th overall) in the 2005 NHL Draft. It took a couple of years before he finally accomplished his dream of going pro. He started off by going to college at Minnesota Duluth, where he played a significant role for their hockey program for two seasons. His stats while playing for the Bulldogs in two seasons were the following:
- 2005-06: 1 goal and 13 assists in 38 games
- 2006-07: 9 goals and 22 assists in 39 games
After his second season with Minnesota Duluth, the Stars brought him into the organization and had him continue his development down with the Iowa Stars, their AHL affiliate at the time. During his 12-game stretch down in Iowa in their 2006-07 season, Niskanen tallied two goals and five assists. He wouldn’t make a return to the minors after this run the following year, though.
After a lot of hard work, determination, and perseverance, Niskanen finally landed himself on an NHL club’s roster – he made the Dallas Stars in the 2007-08 season, making his debut at the Pepsi Center against the Colorado Avalanche.
It wasn’t long before he established himself as a regular throughout the entire year. He played in 78 out of the possible 82 games for the club, scoring seven goals and assisting 19 times. The following seasons for him with the Stars saw consistency and improvement throughout his game. He posted the following points during his tenure in Dallas:
- 2007-08: 7 goals and 19 assists for 26 points in 78 games
- 2008-09: 6 goals and 29 assists for 35 points in 80 games
- 2009-10: 3 goals and 12 assists for 15 points in 74 games
The 2010-11 season saw Niskanen play in 45 games for the Stars, notching six assists. It seemed as though his production had taken kind of a hit. Maybe a change of scenery was needed. That was when a decision was made that altered the young defenseman’s career.
Joining Crosby in Pittsburgh
In a surprising deal that came out of nowhere, Niskanen was a key piece in a trade that sent him, along with then-Stars promising young winger James Neal, to the Penguins in exchange for defenseman Alex Goligoski.
I remember thinking it was an interesting transaction, considering Niskanen is one of the few players in the league that Penguins captain Sidney Crosby was willing to fight. Crosby, like many other star players throughout the league, was typically not one to fight anyone, but there were a couple who he was willing to go against, Niskanen being one of those guys (another name that comes to mind is former New York Ranger and current Columbus Blue Jacket forward Brandon Dubinsky).
Both Neal and Niskanen proved to be solid depth additions for the Penguins, as the team made the playoffs every season those two played for the club (2010-11 season through 2013-14). Niskanen continued to put up solid numbers during the Penguin days of his career, and made a difference in the Penguins’ playoff appearances as well:
- 2011: 1 assist in 7 games
- 2012: 1 goal and 2 assists in 4 games
- 2013: 2 assists in 15 games
- 2014: 2 goals and 7 assists in 13 games
At the end of the 2013-14 Penguins season, ownership decided that it was time for a change at the helm, and both general manager Ray Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma were relieved of their duties. New general manager and Stanley Cup winner Jim Rutherford arrived and brought in his own vision of what the Penguins could become.
With the organization making plans for a bit of a reset, Niskanen’s future with the team was a question mark. Fans wondered if the team brought the defender back, but it was also known that he was due to make a big payday in his next contract. It was ultimately decided that Niskanen and the Penguins went their separate ways.
A Capital Decision
Experiencing NHL free agency for the first time in his career, Niskanen decided to sign a seven-year contract with one of the bigger rivals of the Penguins, the Washington Capitals and captain Alex Ovechkin. He and fellow Penguin teammate defender Brooks Orpik both ended up jumping ship in Pittsburgh to sign with the Capitals. The depth throughout the entire Capitals lineup at the time made them legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. Niskanen helped add more depth to the defensive units.
As a result of the team that was built, not only were the Capitals able to finally beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs, a team they had struggled to get past in previous seasons, but they were able to finally win the Stanley Cup in 2018 as well. They defeated the expansion Vegas Golden Knights in five games, winning the franchise’s first Cup and what was Niskanen’s first of his career, too.
During that run to the Cup, Niskanen scored a goal and provided eight assists in the 24 games he suited up for them. He played one more season for Washington, notching eight goals and 17 assists in 80 games.
Making His Way to Philly
In yet another unexpected move, Niskanen was traded again, this time to the Flyers, in exchange for defenseman Radko Gudas this past offseason. Gudas was a guy who brought grit to the team’s play, but Niskanen, on the other side of it, brings scoring and offensive prowess to the table. This move came with two years left on Niskanen’s contract.
Niskanen, along with fellow defender and former San Jose Shark Justin Braun, were brought in for veteran leadership and experience to an otherwise young defensive unit for the Flyers. For guys like Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov, Niskanen can be an offensive mentor, and show them how he carries himself as an offensive defenseman. He can be a top locker room guy in general through his experiences from the other teams he has played for, and he knows what it takes to win the ultimate prize, as he did with the Capitals in 2018.
He might not put the offensive numbers up every single night like some other defensemen throughout the league, but he provides stability to the Flyers, and can help shape the mentality that can get this Flyers team back to where they want to be. I have always been a fan of Niskanen and his play, and expect him to be a key contributor throughout his tenure with the team.