When I mentioned earlier that I learned the lesson of patience from watching Loui Eriksson's development, I was directly referencing Matt Niskanen.
Like many of you, I see the mistakes and the nervousness, and I wonder if Niskanen will fulfill his potential or not. After all, the Stars have taken defensemen like John Erskine, Martin Vagner, Johan Fransson and Richard Jackman with early picks and have seen it not work out. There are times I watch Niskanen, and think it's not going to work out...at least not in Dallas.
But the more I talk to scouts and coaches, the more I hear that Niskanen will definitely work out and they he will definitely be an important player on the team. So...I await that transformation.
I will tell you this, Niskanen seems extremely determined this summer. He has a pretty big frame, as he is every bit of the 6-0 they list him. However, he has never seemed like a muscular or strong person, and that seems to affect his ability to work players in front of the net and win battles along the boards. So the coaches and trainers have given him the task of getting stronger and bigger this summer, and he seems to be embracing that chore.
You look at someone like Sergei Zubov, and he doesn't don't strike you as strong or physical, but Zubov was muscular, had both lower body and upper body strength and was surprisingly good along the boards. He used his stick more than his body, but he also used his strength and leverage when needed. That is something Niskanen must do if he hopes to continue to improve.
The other thing he must do is get some confidence and use his skills.
Those who have seen him in college say he displayed great skill there, including running a solid power play. He also had a really nice playoff run in Iowa three years ago when he had two goals and five assists in 16 games in the AHL playoffs.
Those things (to me, again) seem more subtle with Niskanen. His scouting reports say he is a great skater with great instincts, and that is probably what scouts tell me when they talk about him.
Here are two reports when he came out of college.
``One of the most prolific all-around athletes to come out of Iron Range in recently memory.... Has a great awareness and vision on the ice that you don't often see in high school players. His acceleration and passing ability jumped out immediately in this game. He seems to be a step ahead with his vision/decision making which gives him a good passing game. "
"Kid can flat out fly with long, powerful stride and smooth acceleration. Strong and balanced on skates. Terrifically skilled defenseman with dynamic offensive tools... Projection: Top 3 defenseman. Style compares to: Brent Sopel."
Red Line Report
Me, I'm not really sure where Niskanen will land when he finally reaches his potential. He's only 22 (he'll turn 23 on Dec. 6), so he obviously is still at the very early stages of his development. Yet, in watching players like Trevor Daley or Ivan Vishnevskiy, it's easy (to me, at least) to see the something special that will make them a top-level defenseman. Maybe it's speed, maybe it's a big shot, maybe it's simple the ability to get in and out of traffic.
If Niskanen can find that level of skill and use it on a regular basis, he might become a No. 1 defenseman. But I see him more in the mold of Darryl Sydor, a complementary defenseman who plays very well with a No. 1 defenseman. Niskanen was smart enough to play off and keep up with Sergei Zubov in his rookie year, so that is something we know he can do.
And to be quite fair, Sydor has had an outstanding career in which he has been a member of two Stanley Cup champions and has earned the respect of the league for his courage and intelligence, so Niskanen would do very well if he can match that kind of career.
It will be interesting to watch Niskanen's development under the new coaching staff. Les Jackson still is here to keep everyone patient, but I honestly believe the new guys are going to push Niskanen hard and raise the expectations of his game.
We'll see how he responds.