Whenever a player goes down with an injury, in order to maintain the team’s success a player has to step up and play beyond the team’s or even his own expectations. Using the adage of Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, ‘next man up’.
This also pertains to hockey, and with Norris Trophy Finalist Kris Letang out with an injury it is especially a need for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Replacing the top defenseman is never easy, but a combined effort among the defensive corps has the Penguins rarely missing a beat.
19-year old Olli Maatta has certainly exceeded the team’s expectations early on, simply due to the fact they probably had little to no expectations of him making the club. And it’s likely true. If Letang is healthy and ready for the season opener, Maatta is most likely sent to his Junior team from the get-go.
There is another defenseman that has elevated his game with Letang out. Although with Maatta you can almost say he is ‘ahead of schedule’, with 26-year old Matt Niskanen, it looks as if it has all come together.
Niskanen, the ‘throw-in’ on the James Neal deal, has flourished thus far this season in his increased role. Not only has his play been strong in the defensive zone, but he is one of the team leaders in points.
In fact, Niskanen is tied with Evgeni Malkin and Jussi Jokinen for second on the team in points behind Sidney Crosby. Where as if Letang was in the lineup, Niskanen would not have been on the ice for his game-winning goal against the Lightning.
And who knows if Letang put the puck in the net on that opportunity (and then imagine the Pens missing the playoffs by that point they didn’t get). Playing with Rob Scuderi has allowed Niskanen to advance his game into taking more chances and contributing in the offensive zone, not to mention what a guy like Scuderi could teach him in the defensive zone.
When Letang comes back it will force Niskanen back to the third pair, and when he comes back some have clamored to trade Niskanen while his value is at an all-time high.
Trading him would put a dent in the defensive depth the Pens have built, but if they believe that a combination of Maatta, Brian Dumoulin, and Simon Despres can provide a similar production, it is something the Penguins should explore.
Either way, no matter the team, Niskanen will be playing serious minutes for a team this season, even if it’s still with the Penguins.