When the puck drops in Pittsburgh on Thursday night for the first time since the Olympic break, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen will find himself in a familiar situation.
It’s no secret the Penguins have been plagued with injuries this season, but now that the top-two defensemen for Pittsburgh will be sidelined for a long period of time, it’s up to Niskanen to be the leader on the back end of the ice.
Kris Letang hasn’t played since Jan. 27, and what was originally reported as an illness turned into the terrifying report that Letang had actually suffered a stroke. There is still no timetable for his return.
Paul Martin traveled to Sochi to compete for the United States of America in the Olympics but returned without a medal and a broken hand. He’ll be out 4-6 weeks.
Earlier this season, Letang, Martin, Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi were all injured and Deryk Engelland was serving a suspension, leaving Niskanen as the only healthy, top-six defensemen.
Despite this, the Penguins continued to win.
Niskanen has been the unsung hero of the Penguins this season, proving that he can lead any defensive unit through adversity. He has already set career highs in goals, assists, points, game-winning goals and currently leads the NHL with a plus-29 rating.
Honestly, there is an argument to be made that Niskanen should win the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman.
The rise of Olli Maatta this season should also be at least partly attributed to Niskanen, who has been his defensive partner since Maatta came into the league. Early on, Maatta lacked the confidence with the puck, but over time he became more comfortable with Niskanen and his skills began to showcase themselves on the grandest stage.
The biggest task for Niskanen moving forward will be quarterbacking one of the most talented power plays in recent history. The official Penguins Twitter account tweeted today that the top unit consists of Niskanen, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz and James Neal.
Ideally, Letang would be the one in Niskanen’s spot, and after Letang it would be Martin. Niskanen has some big skates to fill considering the power play has never been his forte.
Special teams is one of the biggest reasons why the Penguins have been so successful this year. They currently have the league’s best power play with a success rate just over 25 percent. As long as Niskanen understands his role on the top unit, the power play should have no trouble continuing its success.
As soon as Niskanen receives the puck up top, it should be off his stick immediately. The Penguins like to keep Malkin and Crosby on the end walls and use Neal as the shooter in front. There’s a reason why Neal has 35 power play goals over the last three seasons. If Niskanen can continually get the puck to the playmakers around him, he’ll have no problem playing on the top unit.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if opposing penalty kill units isolated the four forwards and forced Niskanen to get pucks to the net. As long as he avoids his shots getting blocked, potentially freeing opposing penalty killers for breakaways, there’s no reason to believe the power play can’t be successful without Letang or Martin.
As he was earlier in the season, Niskanen is once again the most seasoned veteran on the Penguins’ blue line, and he must lead the younger defensemen on the roster if they want to remain on top of the Metropolitan division.
Shane Darrow is an NHL writer for Rant Sports; Feel free to follow him on Twitter @ShaneDarrow