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Niskanen's future with Pens still unclear after front-office changes

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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Matt Niskanen plays against the Blue Jackets in Game 1 during the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs on Wednesday, April 16, 2014, at Consol Energy Center. Niskanen signed a seven-year contract with the Washington Capitals on Tuesday, July 1, 2014.

By the numbers

Matt Niskanen's stats in 2013-14 (rank among NHL defensemen in parentheses):

Goals: 10 (18th)

Assists: 36 (10th)

Points: 46 (12th)

Game-winning goals: 6 (1st)

Shots: 162 (24th)

Plus/minus: Plus-33 (1st)

Hits: 124 (50th)

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Josh Yohe
Tuesday, June 10, 2014, 10:06 p.m.
 

The Penguins have Matt Niskanen's attention.

Niskanen, set to become an unrestricted free agent July 1, said he will be watching the Penguins' coaching search with great interest.

The 27-year-old defenseman has a close relationship with recently fired coach Dan Bylsma and an even closer one with assistant coach Todd Reirden, whose return to the team is in limbo. New general manager Jim Rutherford said the team's assistant coaches haven't been fired but are permitted to interview with other teams.

“Dan being dismissed won't affect my decision,” Niskanen said. “However, I will pay attention to what the coaching staff is going to look like. It's not the only factor in the decision. But it is a factor.”

The Tribune-Review reported on Monday that John Hynes, coach of the team's AHL affiliate, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, will be interviewed as a possible Bylsma replacement. Rutherford said he intends to interview multiple candidates before a decision is made.

He said a new coach will be named in June.

Free agency begins July 1, and if the Penguins have not agreed with Niskanen on a new contract by then, retaining him won't be easy. In what is a marginal free agent class, Niskanen, who is coming off a career season, will be in demand.

Niskanen is right-handed — a plus in the eyes of teams — and flourished during the past couple of seasons. He finished sixth in the NHL with a plus-33 rating this season. He also had 10 goals and 36 assists.

Dallas drafted Niskanen in the first round of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.

Niskanen is not necessarily interested in finding the most lucrative offer. He has said he was “in love” with Pittsburgh and the Penguins.

Rutherford's hiring hasn't altered Niskanen's feelings.

“I don't know a ton about him,” said Niskanen, who added he had a feeling of guilt when the news broke that Bylsma had been fired.

“I really enjoyed playing for (Bylsma),” Niskanen said. “He gave me a chance to get back on track in my career. I learned a lot from him. I will forever be appreciative of what he meant to me as a player.”

Bylsma's dismissal may have upset Niskanen, but it did not shock him.

Niskanen, who has emerged as a vocal leader for the Penguins, knew changes were coming after the Penguins blew a 3-1 series lead against the New York Rangers in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“I'm disappointed like everyone else that we didn't achieve more,” he said. “So I understand the change. It's professional sports, so these things happen all the time.”

Niskanen said he expects Bylsma will find a job soon.

“He will be a great coach for another team,” Niskanen said.

Whether Niskanen becomes a great defenseman for another team remains to be seen.

Coaching always has been important to Niskanen.

He credits Reirden with saving his career — a career now at a crossroads.

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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