All right, kids. Let's start looking ahead to Free Agency as the grace period to begin negotiating with UFAs begins in under 2 weeks. Let's start with defense because ours is kind of bad and we should look to amend that this summer. Let's start out East.
#2 / Defense / Pittsburgh Penguins
2013 Cap Hit: $2,300,000
With the absence of Kris Letang this past season, Matt Niskanen was given more responsibility in the Penguins lineup than ever before. Niskanen responded by following through on the promise that made him a first round pick of the Dallas Stars in 2005. As an excellent skater, Niskanen would certainly fit the bill on the Avalanche blueline as the team is always acquiring great skaters and hoping to mold them into defenders. He also offers a sound shot from the point and a solid first pass. Playing the up-tempo kind of hockey the Avs play would allow Niskanen to play to his greatest strengths and his ability to get the puck out of his own zone to start the break the other way is something that was exposed as a glaring weakness for the Avs in the playoff series loss to the Wild. While he did have by far his most prolific season on offense, Niskanen was hardly a one-trick pony. He was given more responsibility on the defensive end than ever before in his career and he capitalized on his opportunities. While he didn't face the toughest competition on a consistent basis, he was a significantly positive possession player by every metric, both advanced and not. He logged just over 21 minutes a night to lead the Pens, with nearly 3 minutes per night logged on the power play.
The defensive part of the game has always been the biggest buggaboo for the offensively-minded Niskanen and these concerns remain as valid as ever. While he produced his most impactful season as a two-way player this past season, the Pens coaching staff clearly didn't trust Niskanen as much as other guys on the blueline in key defensive situations as he finished dead last out of Pens defenders in short-handed time, finishing with just under 58 minutes of SH time on the season, or 42 seconds per game. Speaking of power play time, another area of concern for Niskanen is his propensity for taking penalties. He led the Pens with 23 minor penalties this season, also a top 30 mark among defensemen across the league. Even with Letang missing, Niskanen still was given nothing more than a 2nd pairing defender's quality of competition minutes. On a less statistically based note, Niskanen's tendency to run around in his own zone often gets him in trouble and he occasionally loses his composure when plays break down and he's unable to play through the chaos in a manageable fashion.
With Niskanen coming off a career year, his expiring 2-year, $4.6M deal is mere peanuts to what he's going to receive on the open market. A quality comparable should be the 6-year, $33M (5.5 AAV) contract signed by Matt Carle with the Tampa Bay Lighting. Both players are offensively-minded players who are going to produce on the power play and provide steady, albeit unspectacular defense. However, because of the rising salary cap and the weak market, Niskanen finds himself alone at the top of the UFA blueline board. Should teams who require defensive upgrades with plenty of money to spend, such as Detroit, a bidding war could reasonably break out and push his numbers into the territory that prices Colorado out of it.
Why It Works:
He plays defense at a higher level than Nate Guenin so it works out wonderfully. The Avalanche are weak defensively in all situations and simply need more talent on hand. Niskanen would provide the offense to protect against any regression by Johnson or Barrie next season and he's solid enough defensively to be an instant upgrade over the flotsam the Avs have in their 3rd pairing and beyond. He's not an overly physical guy but he hits enough that we wouldn't be reverting back to the Go Go PMD Avs days (where art thou, Cummers?) and plays a solid two-way game to provide a legitimate boost to our blueline.
While Niskanen is easily the best combination of overall talent and age, he's also going to be a carrying around him the kind of price tag that causes this Avs management team sticker shock. There are enough teams with cash to burn looking for defenders in this market that he's going to price himself out of Colorado's realistic price range if he does indeed get the Matt-Carle type deal I'm expecting. If he were to get a more Jason Garrison-esque contract, 6-years, $27.6M for $4.6 AAV, then I would be all about that deal. At that price, the Avs would be getting an excellent deal, which is why it won't happen. Also, Niskanen is a right-handed shot, which is great because his fit in Colorado would mean the removal of Nate Guenin from the regular lineup (high fives all around!) but it would also cut into the minutes of two best guys on the Avs blueline right now in EJ and Barrie. There are too many similarities between Niskanen and the guys we already have succeeding to go breaking the bank. At a reasonable price, thumbs up. At free agent price? Thanks, but no thanks. There are always quality defenders to be had for better deals than Niskanen will see. Check back in the coming days for previews of those guys!