Photo by Amanda Bowen
About a quarter of the way into his first season of a 7-year, $40-million deal, it’s time to take a look at the other defenseman the Caps signed over the summer, Matt Niskanen.
In 2013-14 Niskanen set career high in goals (10), assists (36), and points (46). At the time of the signing, I said “don’t evaluate this deal solely based off of the offensive numbers Niskanen puts up next season. For reasons not within his control, they are almost certain to drop, even if he is playing well.” This is because Niskanen wasn’t likely to see as much power-play time this season (be was on the ice for 55.4 percent of Pens PP time last season. He’s been on the ice for 22.78 percent of all Caps’ PP time so far this year) and his PDO of 103.1 wasn’t likely to be duplicated (it’s currently at 97.55 for the season).
With that in mind, but while also not ignoring or outright excusing a drop in offensive production, Niskanen has been a solid player for the first 1/28th of his contract. But the Caps should expect more from him and give him more of a chance to do so. Here’s a closer look at his first 20 games in a Caps uniform.
When Niskanen is on the ice, the Caps see 52.24 percent of all 5-on-5 shot attempts go in their favor, which is an improvement of 0.52% compared to when he’s off of the ice. Mike Green and Nate Schmidt are the only other Caps’ defender who improve the teams’ share of shot attempts when they are on the ice. Niskanen has started 58.95 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, which is 3.88 percent more than the average Caps’ defender. Only John Carlson and Brooks Orpik have faced tougher competition than Niskanen.
Niskanen has skated 84+ minutes with 9 different teammates during 5-on-5 play. Here’s how those teammates fare when on the ice with Niskanen compared to when they are on the ice without him, in terms of the percentage of 5-on-5 shot attempts that go in the Caps’ favor.
Six of the nine players see an improvement in team shot attempts when playing with Niskanen as opposed to playing without him.
Karl Alzner certainly isn’t hurting from playing with Niskanen. While the “without” numbers above can be written off as noise (roughly 30 minutes of play), Alzner is seeing more shot attempts go in the Caps favor this season with him on the ice than any season since 2010. While he is facing easier competition this season, he has only faced tougher zone starts than this season, relative to his teammates, once in that time.
In terms of the eight forwards on the chart, the five who see an improvement playing with Niskanen are all what I’d consider skill players. It isn’t surprising that Niskanen’s skating and passing abilities benefit other skill players. As for the other three forwards, Joel Ward, Jason Chimera, and Troy Brouwer, perhaps their skill sets don’t benefit as much from a player like Niskanen and vice versa.
But still, the Caps need more from Niskanen, and Niskanen needs to be given more of a chance to thrive from the Caps. Last season, Niskanen was 11th in points per 60 minutes of play among all NHL defenseman who played 500+ minutes. This season, Niskanen is 73rd among qualifying defensemen.
As mentioned above, a significant drop in PP time plays a huge role in this drop in production. The Caps are paying Niskanen, an offensively gifted player, an amount of money where you’d expect him to be the quarterback of the PP for the majority of his contract. With Mike Green here, he probably isn’t going to see those minutes, which might spell the end of Green’s time in DC soon.
Regardless of the Green situation, there is more Niskanen can do. Even when you remove PP time, Niskanen’s 5-on-5 production has dropped.
As you can see, his 5-on-5 production is down. Part of this is due to the fact that Niskanen is shooting the puck less this season.
Niskanen should shoot more. The Caps generate fewer shot attempts than the 2013-14 Pens team, so part of this is on the coaching staff for their style of play (which seems to value suppressing shots over generating them).
So far, Niskanen has been a solid player for the Caps. However, the Caps should expect more from him. But the team can only expect him to produce at the level he is capable of if they put him in situations to take full advantage of his skill set.
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