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Penguins defenseman Niskanen is thriving in prominent role with team

| Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013, 9:30 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen checks the Blue Jackets' Drandon Dubinsky on Monday, Dec. 9, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.
NHLI via Getty Images
Todd Reirden headshot

Matt Niskanen has come a long way.

Two years ago, Phoenix Coyotes coach Dave Tippett commented that Niskanen “is a great No. 5 guy,” an insinuation that the defenseman wasn't worthy of top-four consideration. Tippett coached Niskanen in Niskanen's first season in the NHL with the Dallas Stars.

Dan Bylsma coaches Niskanen now and offers a different take.

“Tipp coached Matt a long time ago,” Bylsma said.

When the Penguins acquired Niskanen in a trade from the Stars almost three years ago, they received a former first-round pick who had lost his way.

A new Niskanen has emerged. Solid throughout his Penguins career, Niskanen has been a standout this season when the Penguins have needed him most.

“It was all about rebuilding his confidence,” said assistant coach Todd Reirden, who oversees the team's defensemen. “He was an admitted throw-in to a deal that involved James Neal and Alex Goligoski, and he knew it. When you do know something like that, it has to take something out of your confidence, and that was the case for him.”

Niskanen had broken into the league with Dallas and, as a rookie, joined star Sergei Zubov.

However, Niskanen struggled in the following couple of seasons and wasn't in the Stars' future.

After a solid-but-unspectacular first season with the Penguins, Niskanen sat down with Reirden. The defenseman's career was on the line.

“I have a plan with all of our defensemen to make them the best players they can be,” Reirden said. “With Kris Letang, it was about trying to get him to become one of the NHL's best defensemen. With Matt Niskanen, it was trying to keep him in the league. That's where our plan started.”

Niskanen need not worry about remaining in the NHL. Rather, the Penguins might want to start worrying about being able to afford him in the summer when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

He is being used as the Penguins' top defenseman because the regular top four — Letang, Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi — are out with injuries. The Penguins keep winning, and Niskanen is a big reason for their success.

“I feel really good about myself,” he said. “Am I maybe a little more tired than I normally would be because I've been playing so much? Yeah, sure. But that's OK. I'm enjoying it.”

Niskanen has produced 17 points this season, and his plus-20 mark is tied for second-best in the NHL.

“I don't know if people around the NHL have noticed how good he is,” defenseman Robert Bortuzzo said. “But we've all noticed in this locker room. It's no secret to us how good he is.”

Many of the team's younger players — and Reirden went out of his way to mention this — have credited Niskanen, 27, for being one of the veteran players to take the current stable of players from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton under his wing.

“He's a great leader and is playing some unbelievable hockey,” center Brandon Sutter said.

Is Niskanen a top-four defensemen?

Given that he is excelling while playing 25 to 30 minutes a night, is shutting down the opposition's best players and is on the top power-play and penalty-killing units, the Penguins have made up their minds.

“I think a very strong case can be made that he is,” Reirden said. “He had something to prove, and he's done it. Right now, he's our No. 1 defensemen, and he's been great.”

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jyohe@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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