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2019-20 Player Review: Matt Niskanen

His lone season with the Flyers should be considered a success.

New York Islanders v Philadelphia Flyers - Game Five Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Philadelphia Flyers had a lot of questions about their defense and penalty kill heading into the 2019-20 season. One way general manager Chuck Fletcher addressed these two issues was by adding Matt Niskanen from the Washington Capitals, who played an integral role on both of these improved aspects of the Orange and Black. The d-man had a couple of poor seasons with the Washington Capitals before heading slightly north to Pennsylvania, but you couldn’t have guessed it by the way he provided a steadying presence with Ivan Provorov to give Philly some confidence while they were in their own end of the ice. His play from last year exceeded expectations and his decision to retire last month has left some questions for the 2020-21 roster, so let’s dig right into it.

By The Numbers

Basic Stats

Games Played Goals Assists Points PIMs Shots On Goal Shooting Percentage
Games Played Goals Assists Points PIMs Shots On Goal Shooting Percentage
68 8 25 33 29 126 6.3

Although it’s not the main thing you look for in a defenseman who focuses more on protecting their own net, Niskanen’s production was pretty good in 2019-20. He matched his total of eight goals from 2018-19 but did so playing in 12 less games and managed to produce eight more points than he did in his final campaign with the Washington Capitals. Niskanen’s eight goals and 33 points were the second-most on Philly’s blue line in 2019-20 behind Ivan Provorov’s 13 goals and 36 points. On top of that the Orange and Black benefitted from Niskanen’s discipline and shooting luck last season. The 28th overall pick in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft recorded 29 penalty minutes in 2019-20, his fewest in a season that wasn’t shortened due to a lockout since he sat for 18 in 2009-10 with the Dallas Stars. Despite the fact his 232 shot attempts in all situations was his lowest in a season not shortened by a lockout since 2010-11, Niskanen’s 126 shots on goal last year weren’t painfully low and it didn’t hurt that his 6.3 shooting percentage was his highest conversion rate since he shot 7.1 his rookie season in 2007-08 with Dallas.

5v5 Individual Stats

Goals/60 Points/60 Shot Attempts/60 Expected Goals/60
Goals/60 Points/60 Shot Attempts/60 Expected Goals/60
0.11 0.92 9.82 0.16

Thanks to four of his eight goals and nine of his 25 assists coming on the man advantage, Niskanen’s 5-on-5 individual production rates won’t blow you away. His 0.11 goals-per-60 was not only the lowest among the seven Flyers’ rearguards that saw regular playing time last season but it’s also his lowest lamp-lighting rate since 2015-16. His 0.92 points-per-60 was an improvement from his mark of 0.8 in 2018-19, but Niskanen still found himself fifth on Philly’s blue line with that rate of production and fifth with 0.16 individual Expected Goals-per-60 at even strength. Part of the reason why he may have found himself near the bottom of these categories is because he wasn’t necessarily looking to score with each one of his shots but instead create chances for forwards crashing the net. Niskanen’s 9.82 shot attempts-per-60 at 5-on-5 was an improvement from his 2018-19 mark of 9.4 but generally below how much he’s been able to throw the puck towards the opponents’ nets over his career. With that said his 0.92 rebounds created-per-60 rate indicate his ability to just get shots to the net and hope for help, as he finished third in the category league wide behind only Brent Burns and Shea Theodore out of the 66 blue liners who saw 1,100 5-on-5 minutes or more. For a d-man who is known more for his work in the defensive zone it makes sense that Niskanen thrived in this area.

5v5 On-Ice Stats

Corsi-For % Corsi-For % RelTM Expected Goals-For % Expected Goals-For % RelTM Goals-For % PDO
Corsi-For % Corsi-For % RelTM Expected Goals-For % Expected Goals-For % RelTM Goals-For % PDO
52.2 1.92 53.93 5.09 54.55 100.1

Despite back-to-back seasons with poor puck possession numbers before his arrival to Philly Niskanen drove play in his lone campaign with the Orange and Black. Not only did the Minnesota native post above a 50 Corsi-For percentage, 50 Fenwick-For percentage, 50 Shots-For percentage, and 50 xGF% for the first time since 2016-17 he managed to lead all Flyers’ defensemen in these categories last season. Niskanen’s 54.55 Goals-For percentage didn’t lead the team, as he finished behind both Robert Hagg (62.26 GF%) and Phil Myers (60.53), but there’s nothing wrong with your club producing 54 of the 99 goals you were on the ice for at 5-on-5. There’s also nothing wrong with giving Provorov a solid partner at 5-on-5, as the 2015 first-round pick posted a CF%, FF%, and xGF% above 50 for the duration of a season for the first time in his four-year career. In fact Provorov and Niskanen were one of the better defensive tandems across the league in 2019-20 as their 933 minutes together at 5-on-5 was second only to the Edmonton Oilers’ pair of Darnell Nurse and Ethan Bear. Out of the 21 d-men pairs that saw 650 minutes or more at 5-on-5 last season Provorov-Niskanen finished sixth with a 52.14 CF%, fourth with a 54.19 SF%, eighth with a 52.41 xGF%, and eighth with a 53.2 GF%.

Three Burning Questions

Did this player live up to expectations this season?
Yup. There were some concerns about the 33-year-old when he joined the club back in the summer of 2019, but he quickly quieted questions surrounding his on-ice value within the first few weeks of the season. The Flyers improved their ability to limit the quantity and quality of opponents’ offensive chances in 2019-20. A big part of why they were able to do that was Niskanen’s role on the top pair and being an integral part of an improved penalty kill. He also passed the eye test with an ability to slow things down for composed zone exits and a knack for breaking up odd-man rushes when Provorov was caught pinching. Niskanen’s postseason performance was less than stellar (especially his suspension in Game 6 of the first round against the Montreal Canadiens), but there was evidently a lot on his mind thanks to COVID and his uncertainty about being a part of the team in 2020-21.

What do we expect from this player next season?
I’m thinking not much. In all honesty though if he had stayed for another season, and looking at how poorly he played in the bubble with the expectation that a good chunk if not all of the unique 2020-21 campaign would have been played in similar circumstances, it’s fair to question how well Niskanen would have performed. However that’s a pretty unfair conclusion to draw for a rearguard who was clearly nearing the end of the road and did all you could have asked for last season. There’s now a concern as to how the Flyers’ will fill his absence on the blue line, which should highlight just how Niskanen has already had an impact on the 2020-21 Flyers.

What would we like to see this player improve on?
Yeah, this is another question that doesn’t really apply to Niskanen, but again it will be interesting to see how Alain Vigneault and company handle the hole he’ll leave behind on defense. Erik Gustafsson is a fine defenseman, but he can’t be expected to slot into the role Niskanen just fulfilled. That said it’s most likely him, Myers, and Braun taking up the majority of the time on Philly’s right side of the defense next year. Braun, Kevin Hayes, and Carter Hart also deserve a lot of recognition for vastly improving the team’s penalty kill, but the loss of Niskanen may cause the unit to stumble slightly in 2020-21. His departure may mean more ice time for Travis Sanheim or Robert Hagg at 4-on-5 which isn’t the end of the world, but it may not be the smoothest of transitions.

*Stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick,, Hockey-Reference, and Evolving Hockey.