With the Capitals’ 2015-16 season now in the rearview mirror, we begin our player-by-player analysis through their numerical roster.
No. 2 Matt Niskanen
Age: 29 (turns 30 on Dec. 6)
Penalty minutes: 38
Time on ice: 24:39
Playoff stats: 12 games, 0 goals, 3 assists, plus-3, 6 PIM, 26:32
Contract status: 5 years remaining on 7-year, $40.25 million contract ($5.75 cap hit)
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When the Capitals gathered at Kettler two days after their season-ending 4-3 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins no one looked more heartbroken than Matt Niskanen.
“This is the most hurt I’ve been in my career,” Niskanen said following the Caps’ six-game defeat to his former team. “You don’t know how often opportunities are going to come along where you had this kind of team. You don’t. Things happen, rosters change. Momentum changes.
“I’ve been on some teams where because of the people on your team you think you always have a chance, but this sure felt like the year. It hurts right now, I don’t have a perfect answer on why it didn’t come about and why it didn’t happen for us.
“Having said that, I’m not a general manager or anything but I think we’re set up pretty well to go at it again. That’s the positive in all this. I think we went after it this year and guys left it out there. I think we showed that in the way Game 6 unfolded (rebounding from a 3-0 deficit to force overtime). We had every excuse in Game 6 to pack in the tent and boy, we didn’t. Just like we did all year, we laid it all on the line in the third period and gave ourselves a chance to win that game. But man it hurts. It hurts that it didn’t happen for us.”
From a personal standpoint, Niskanen said he went into the season wanting to improve on his point totals from last season, when he recorded four goals and 27 assists in his first season with the Caps.
“I beat my total by one point – an empty-net goal in the first game,” Niskanen said with a smile. “That didn’t develop like I had planned or hoped and I think part of that is that my role kind of changed. As the year developed Karl and I took on a bigger responsibility as far as minutes and who we were playing against.
“I think that somewhat changed my focus on what I was going to try to bring. The team was really playing well so I wasn’t going to start adding unnecessary offensive risk to my game based on my role on the team and how we were playing. I think my overall game and defensively, I made big strides this year based on the amount of minutes I played this year, penalty kill, and playing against top guys. My overall game was probably my best season. So that’s positive.
“Having said that if I can keep moving forward I’d like to bring some more offense next year. That’s going to be my challenge. Can I get 5, 8, 10 more points somewhere? How do I do that? Talking with some of the coaches, that’s going to be my goal. I don’t think I’m a play that’s going to get 60 points. I don’t think that’s in the cards for me, but I think I can be a really effective player and maybe add some more (offense).”
Niskanen’s role this season increased because of injuries to defensemen John Carlson, who missed 26 games, and Brooks Orpik, who missed 41. His ice time jumped from a career-high 22:21 to 24:39 and that climbed even higher in the playoffs when he averaged 26:32 a night alongside Karl Alzner.
It will be interesting to see if Caps assistant coach Todd Reirden keeps Niskanen and Alzner together again next season or if he reunites the pair of Alzner and Carlson, possibly moving Nate Schmidt or Dmitry Orlov onto a unit with Niskanen.
“Karl and I had a lot of responsibility this year, especially in some of those times (during injuries to Carlson and Orpik,” he said. “I’m really proud of the team and in the defensive group and how some of the guys played in those moments. Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, (Taylor) Chorney had a really good year. In the beginning of the year those guys weren’t slotted to play that much probably. So it was an opportunity and I thought they showcased really well.”
Niskanen said he also tried to be more of a locker room leader this season, something that he admits does not come naturally.
“People who have been around probably know that I’m not a rah-rah person,” he said. “That’s probably not going to change, but I did get out of my skin a few times this year where I felt the need to say a few things in the locker room. Nothing dramatic or anything, but I thought as a group we were pretty good in that regard.
“Guys were saying the right things. I thought we had really good focus and I think that showed with not having a losing streak all season really. I thought we always had good response and I think that’s a reflection of guys taking responsibility and accountability of how we played and how we bring it all the time. I thought we had really good focus and I think I was a part of that. The biggest thing is the product you put on the ice and this was a pretty good product this year. I think we felt really good about the work we were doing and the potential this team had. Man, we were in a good spot. It didn’t work out, though.”
If anything, Niskanen said he thought the Caps lost their edge in Game 2 when they had a chance to take a 2-0 series lead on the Pens at Verizon Center.
“I said this after the (final) game,” Niskanen said. “It’s almost amazing how fast things can just slip and we’re behind in the series trying to play catch-up. That’s hockey. I don’t think you can just talk about things and protect yourself against every circumstance, but there’s probably a little lesson there. Game 2, maybe we weren’t; as urgent as we could have been. You never know what situation in a series could be a turning point, so you better be on your toes at all times.
“Having said that, this year as a whole and in the playoffs I thought we were pretty urgent. I thought we brought it much better than we had in the past. At times it was championship-type level, the urgency we played with. I think we got a lot better in that regard but there were a few moments where maybe we could have been better.
“I guess the only good thing is we’re set up pretty well to go at it again next year. It sucks and I can’t believe we’re talking about this right now because that sounds like a losers’ mentality -- ‘Well, we’ll get ‘em next year’ – but that’s really all you can do at this point.
“I’m pretty proud of the guys and I wouldn’t change anything about our approach and our attitude and the work we put in this year. We can play better in a few areas, of course, but as far as our approach and our attitude I thought it was outstanding this year. We went after it and we’ll continue to head in that direction.”
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