What Matt Niskanen brings to the Caps


Photo by Amanda Bowen, RRBG Photography

The Caps made a few additions to the team this summer via free agency. I’ve already written about Brooks Orpik. And then I wrote about him some more. Oh, and then I wrote about him some more. I also wrote about the Caps new backup goalie, Justin Peters.  But I haven’t written in much detail about Matt Niskanen, who the Caps signed in July to a 7 year, $40.25 million deal.

Niskanen appeared in 81 games last season for the Pittsburgh Penguins, totaling 10 goals and 36 assists for 46 points, all career highs. Niskanen’s previous career-high in goals was in 2007-08, his rookie year, when he had 7. Niskanen’s previous career high in assists (29) and points (35), came in 2008-09. A large part of the career-highs was the fact that Niskanen saw more PP TOI/Game (2.87) than any other time in his career, and was more productive in these minutes (3.87 P/60) than ever before.

A closer look at some other numbers will help give context to Niskanen’s season. Here’s how Niskanen stacks up to the Caps defenders who played the most minutes last season, as well as Brooks Orpik.


FenClose rel%-The percentage of unblocked shot attempts a team takes when that player is on the ice vs. when he is off the ice. Think of it like +/- but for shot attempts, and expressed as a percentage. A player with a 0% Fen Close rel means his team does the same with him off the ice as on. A positive FenClose rel% means that the team does that much better, in terms of unblocked shot attempts, with that player on the ice than when he’s off. A negative number means that a team does that much worse with the player on the ice than when he’s not. If you’re skeptical as to how much this stat matters, here is a chart showing the top Fenwick teams of recent years.

ZS%-This is the percentage (ratio) of offensive zone to defensive zone face-offs for a player. A lower percentage indicates a player is assigned “tougher” minutes as he is on the ice for more defensive zone face-offs.

QOC TOI%-This is the quality of competition a player faces as measured by the average time on ice of the opposing players he faced.

“Close” game situations are games within a goal or tied in the 1st or 2nd period, or tied in the 3rd. It is used so score effects don’t inflate or deflate a player’s numbers in blowout situations. All FF% and ZS% below are in close-game 5-on-5 situations only. QOC TOI% is from all situations at 5-on-5. Yes, I realize it’s unconventional to look at ZS% only inc close game situations, but if possession numbers can be skewed because of score effects, deployment can be as well, as coaches are much more likely to just roll lines with a large lead.

Player ZS% QOC TOI% FenClose Rel%
Orlov 50.1% 28.0% +6.72
Green 53.2% 28.5% +6.36
Niskanen 47.5% 28.4% +5.87
Alzner 49.1% 29.4% -0.25
Carlson 51.3% 29.6% -1.75
Orpik 48.2% 29.3% -3.80
Erskine 52.8% 27.7% -6.28%

Zone Starts-Niskanen faced tougher zone starts than any other player in this chart. I’ll be honest, I was really surprised by this when I looked at the stats. I expected him to be a strong possession player, but I thought he’d be deployed more in the offensive zone, since he is thought of as an offensive-minded defenseman, much like Green and Orlov. But really, this makes a lot of sense. Putting a guy with good foot speed and a knack for strong breakout passes is the exact kind of player you’d want to help you get the puck out after a defensive zone draw. I hope this deployment continues in Washington. He can clearly handle it.

Quality of Competition-Niskanen faced the 5th toughest competition out of the 7 players listed here. Niskanen isn’t generally regarded as a “shutdown” D, so this makes some sense. However, one has to wonder, with Niskanen slotted to lineup next to Karl Alzner this season, if he will see an increase in the level of compeition he is deployed against.

Possession-The Penguins saw a 5.87% improvement in possession in close-game situations with Niskanen on the ice vs. with him on the bench. If he can continue this trend, the Caps will be on their way to getting their money’s worth this season. To put this in the context of Caps players fans may be more familiar with, noted possession standout Mike Green saw similar competition as Niskanen, much easier zone starts, and only a slight edge in possession.

Matt Niskanen brings to the Caps a puck-moving defenseman who can handle tough zone starts but still be a driver in terms of possession. He’s also capable of quarterbacking the power play, although it remains to be seen which defenseman Barry Trotz will have quarterback his top PP unit this season. While many may judge this deal by Niskanen’s offensive totals, I’ve already discussed why this may not be an accurate indicator of his play. His PDO, which was north of 103.0 last year, is almost certain to regress towards to the mean, while it remains to be seen if he’ll be given the chance to rack up points on the PP. But I, for one, expect Niskanen to be worth his price tag, both in his offensive totals as well as in other areas of his game.





About Pat Holden

Pat writes regularly about hockey on Brooks Laichyear and Russian Machine Never Breaks. His work has also appeared on ESPN.com and The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pfholden

Posted on October 6, 2014, in hockey, NHL, Washington Capitals and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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