Matt Niskanen's offseason is on the verge of getting pretty hectic and it has nothing to do with his status of potentially being one of the top free agent defensemen on the market come July 1, the first day teams can sign players.
He's getting married in his native Minnesota Saturday.
Beyond the exchange of vows and the specter of the Chicken Dance, Niskanen will have to make another important decision with regard to his future. With an impressive 2013-14 season on his resume which saw him set career-bests in games played (81), goals (10) and points (46), a lean free agent market for defensemen and a rise in the salary cap, Niskanen has already garnered a lot of attention from potential suitors who have already contacted his agent during the NHL's free agency interview period which began Wednesday.
All those factors would lead most to assume Niskanen is poised to cash in big time.
Don't count Niskanen among those making that assumption. Earlier this week, he talked about his status as a free agent, his time in Pittsburgh, the Penguins' turbulent offseason and what he values as a free agent.
(Note: This interview was conducted before Wednesday's hiring of head coach Mike Johnston and assistant coach Rick Tocchet as well as the firings of assistant coaches Tony Granato and Todd Reirden.)
Have you talked with new general manager Jim Rutherford yet?
"I haven’t personally spoken with him. Neil Sheehy, my agent, has. I haven’t talked with him yet."
What did you make out of Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma being fired?
"Those are two of the biggest changes that can happen really. The leaders of the organization, aside from [the owners Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux] were let go. The two guys that have the biggest impact in leading the hockey team were let go. It’s significant change obviously. Mostly thankful for what they did for me. Ray bringing me there and giving me another contract [in the 2012 offseason] while I was in Pittsburgh and they way he dealt with me was nothing but positive. Dan was very good for my career as well. Taught me a lot. I learned a lot about details of the game. He helped me get better to get to this position. I’m nothing but thankful for Ray and Dan and all the coaches really."
Did changes of this magnitude feel inevitable after losing in the second round of the playoffs?
"I felt that there was a really good chance of it. It wasn’t a certainty. I think everyone kind of assumed Dan was going to be the guy who took the fall for that. Ray was a little bit of a surprise. But those things happen, especially with a team in the position that we are. We’re trying to win. Everyone in town and everyone in the organization believes you have a chance to win every year. For one reason or another, you don’t get as far as you like or get that opportunity to get to a final and have another crack at it, that’s just how it works in our league. They’re going got to be changes. Those are the easiest things to do [changing management]. Especially with [players’] contracts the way they are nowadays with no-movement clauses, that sort of thing. It’s easier to make a change with those people. It’s understandable."
You could be part of further change. Has there been one overlying factor which has given the Penguins troubles in having postseason success the last few seasons?
"It’s hard to point to one thing. I’ve been there for four playoff seasons now and each year we lost for a different reason. What was the primary reason? One thing… I just can’t put my finger on it. I wish I had that answer. We’re all searching for that. After the [loss to the Flyers in the 2012 Eastern Conference quarterfinal round], that was pretty easy to point out. There were some things that were pretty obvious that we did wrong in that series. We couldn’t score against Boston [in the 2013 Eastern Conference final]. This year [against the Rangers in the second round] was the hardest one to figure out probably. We were in a great position to get to the conference final against a team everyone thought we could perhaps have success. It’s never easy. If we play the conference final and play Montreal, we certainly would have to play well but we’re one series away from having a chance to [go to the Stanley Cup Final]."
"I lost a lot of sleep for several, several nights thinking about how what we could have done different against the Rangers. We’re up 3-1. We’re in a great position. I’ve been trying to justify it one way or another. I guess the only thing I keep telling myself is it’s really hard. I think we all realize that. The further you go, the harder it gets. [Rangers goaltender Henrik] Lundqvist played really well. I hate to just say well the other goalie was good. [Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury] played well in the playoffs. It’s just hard. These are the questions I ask guys who have won [the Stanley Cup] before. What was the feeling like? How did the games go? A lot of them, they can’t really explain one particularly thing. Those are the type of things that when they fall together, it just happens… I think."
How acclimated are you to the possibility you might not have a place with the Penguins any longer?
"In the world where there’s a salary cap, it’s math. You can’t fit. You can’t keep everybody for a lot of time anymore. I would completely understand if they thought the numbers aren’t going to work or if they want to make change for the sake of change, especially with the pipeline of defenseman who are knocking on the door and are going to be even closer this year. Who would blame them if they wanted to change direction because of that or change to make change? I certainly understand that. I certainly hope we could work something that that works great for both sides. I’ll just sit and wait and see what they say and what they want to do with me."
How much do you like playing in Pittsburgh with the Penguins and with some high-end teammates like Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin versus playing for Bylsma or Reirden?
"I think there’s two sides to that. For one, it was a change of scenery and a wake-up call the day I got traded. You look at the terms of the trade and I’m the ‘throw-in guy.’ That’s a wake-up call. I come to a new place. The players and the atmosphere in place and the winning attitude, that was really contagious. The work ethic and just being in that locker room, the practice habits and the way the players play the game and compete, that was contagious so I think that part helped me. And I’ve said on numerous times how much all the coaches – Dan, Tony Granato and Todd Reirden specifically - how he took me aside and we set up a plan and said we want to get you to here. It’s taken me four years to be the type of defenseman we talked about four years ago when I first got there. He helped me the whole way. The coaches did nothing but help me become a better player and become a more reliable defenseman. All those things have kind of helped me."
How much does a coach factor into whatever decision you make as a free agent?
"It’s not everything. I know I can play well with the players. A number of our guys but [Crosby and Malkin] specifically … they’re going to make everyone around them better. I know how that works. I’ve gotten better at fitting in with them the longer I’ve been in Pittsburgh. That could be a factor. That alone, I’d be crazy to not weigh that heavily. Probably the most important thing, if you those two guys on the roster, you like to think you always have a chance. A lot of things have to come together. You’ve got to play well at the right time. Like I said earlier, it’s really hard to win. But if you have those two on your team, you’ve got a chance. Winning is really important."
"Obviously there’s a business side but the hockey fit is really important and the coach search is part of the hockey fit. How is he going to use you? How is he going to run the team? Maybe the coach comes in and he hates my rotten guts. That’s not a good situation to be in. Being a free agent, everyone thinks top-dollar this or years this. But to me, it’s the power to chose and you look for the right hockey fit and what’s best for your career and see where you have a chance to win. That’s definitely what I’m looking at more. I certainly hope it works [with the Penguins] but for the first time in my career, I get a chance to see what the fit is going to be like."
Defensemen such as Montreal's Andre Markov (three years/$5.75 million salary cap hit) and Philadelphia's Andrew MacDonald (six years/$5 million salary cap hit) have signed contract extensions in recent weeks. Do you pay attention to signings for the sake of comparisons to your situation?
"I bet my agent does… I know what’s happening around the league and the situation that I’m in here that’s probably going to unfold the next week or two. That’s really isn’t the most important thing. Whether I get this amount or that amount, my lifestyle isn’t going to change that much. I’d be lying if I said there isn’t a business side to it. There is. We’re all human. To me, I’m probably going to get more years that I’ve ever had in my career so you want to make sure you get it right."
Does length of a deal have more importance than money?
"It’s hard to say exactly until you start hearing what teams are offering. I don’t have a set dollar amount or set years in my head but I think in a black and white way to answer your question, I’d say yeah."
You finished 11th in voting for the Norris Trophy with 36 points...
Yeah. You finished ahead of guys like Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall and Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban who won the award last year. If you were told a year ago, you would be in that company, what would your reaction be?
"I would have laughed. Let’s call a spade a spade. I think generally those guys are better players over a consistency of years. But I had a good year. That’s something to be proud of. I’m really happy with the year I had. But to answer your question, a year ago… no. I didn’t think it was going to go down like that. Obviously, a lot of things fell into place for me this year. The challenge for me is the repeat of that. Not just goals and assists but the level of play."
How do you assess your time in Pittsburgh thus far? As you said, you were a throw-in to a trade. Since then, there have been doubts on your place on this roster for various reasons.
"I come in the first year and things are new. I’m learning a new system. I’m learning a ton of new details of the game that I hadn’t really seen yet or hadn’t quite picked up on yet. That first spring was getting used to things. Had a pretty good camp [at the start of the 2011-12 season]. Earned a regular spot on the roster and started playing well. What I’ve tried to do and what Todd really helped me was how do we get this a little bit better today or this week or this season. I really do think I’ve done that. I’ve gotten more and more responsibility through four seasons there. There certainly was some pretty uneasy times mostly with trade deadlines and offseasons as far if you’re still going to be there. I think there always is on a team that’s trying to win. That part was a little uneasy but I still liked it in Pittsburgh. I had four years to get my career back on track and up to the level where I thought I could be. Now I believe I am. I have more responsibility. Hopefully we can get things cleared up and try to get something done so I can stay and try to continue that."
(Photo: Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)