Matt Niskanen: A Case Study in Context


Matt Niskanen, late of the Pittsburgh Penguins, is one of the marquee defensemen expected to go to free agency tomorrow. New Caps beat writer Alex Prewitt covered the buzz around Niskanen in the Post this morning.

A move to Washington would keep Niskanen with his old defensive coach, Todd Reirden, who coached the blueliner in Pittsburgh and can speak knowledgeably about the player to the Caps front office. And at a glance, Niskanen looks like a very strong player.

Let’s check out, which is the best site on the internet next to the Benedict Cumberbatch Name Generator. Last year with Pittsburgh, Niskanen saw 53.4 percent of shot attempts belong to his team during 5v5– a number 7.3 percent better than when he was off the ice. In 2012-13, he had a 51.2 percent shot-attempt percentage, a 3.6 percent improvement compared to when he was on the bench.

That looks fantastic, but hold on a second.

Possession is important. It’s probably the most important thing, but no one considers corsi scores to be the end of the conversation– rather just the opposite. The whole point of my statistical snapshot series last season was to use the numbers as a jumping-off point to discover why some things work and others didn’t. No understanding of hockey is complete without some kind of quantification of shot attempts, but quantification alone is not complete either. That’s why stat geeks look at a lot of different stuff in concert. Linemates, finishing ability, zone starts, team tactics, injuries, and even the “jokes” factor are all vital to knowledge.

For Niskanen, let’s take a look at how he performed when on the ice with different players over the last two seasons. Hockey Analysis does a great job packaging this up. I’ll limit it to skaters who spent more than 300 minutes with him. The first column shows the 5v5 shot-attempt percentage when the players are together. The second column shows what Niskanen does away from that player. The final column is the difference.

Teammate Together Niskanen Alone Difference
 Crosby  58.9  49.6  -9.3
 Maata  53.3  52.2  -1.1
 Kunitz  59.3  49.6  -9.7
 Sutter  47.2  54.0  +6.8
 Malkin  58.7  50.2  -8.5
 Neal  58.2  50.5  -7.7
 Jokinen  55.5  51.6  -3.9
 Dupuis  57.0  51.3  -5.7
 Adams  42.8  54.2  +11.4
 Letang  54.7  52.0  -2.7
 Glass  40.3  54.6  +14.3

Pittsburgh was a notoriously top-heavy team last season, and Niskanen kinda shows that. When playing with dynamos like Crosby, he’s great. When he’s not, he’s mediocre. This isn’t a very sophisticated analysis, but these numbers suggest Niskanen is not actually driving possession and is just a passenger on an unbalanced team.

It’d be a mistake to sign Niskanen. And it’d be a huge mistake to sign Niskanen to the seven-year contract his agent bragged he could get for his client. If whoever ends up signing him expects Niskanen to perform just as he did backing up Sidney Crosby, they will be sorely disappointed. Considering how massive his payday is likely to be, it might end in a buyout.

Maybe it’ll be like Mike Ribeiro, who had good enough surface stats and tangible details to get a mondo contract from Don Maloney in Arizona, before getting promptly bought out once everyone (else) realized he’s just a passenger who looked good only because he was on a power play with Alex Ovechkin for 48 games. Ribs made $5 million last season, paid by a general manager who said, “we haven’t had resources to pay attention to the advanced stats.”

If only he had allocated some resources, Maloney would have saved his club $11.7 million— plus the $5 million they paid him last season. I hope the Caps can avoid a similar mistake. By digging just a little deeper than the basic stats– and it’s about time we consider possession scores to be basic– the Caps will recognize that Niskanen– like Ribeiro– is just a passenger.

UPDATE: Tyler Dellow recommended I compare Niskanen’s WOWY numbers to Brooks Orpik‘s.

image (7)

Orpik fares even poorer than Niskanen. He doesn’t soar nearly as high with the best players, but he doesn’t drop as hard when separated from them. One thing I’d like to point out: despite my argument above that a corsi shouldn’t be the end of the conversation, a free agent defender who can’t muster above a 50.6 when skating with Crosby probably doesn’t deserve more evaluation.

  • standarsh

    I’d be interested to see some of those charts for the caps’ defensemen last season

  • DustinPenncakes

    Now I’m curious as to who you would want the Caps to go after.

  • CSA

    The FA pool is pretty deep all around this year. We are going to have to take a swim at some point, even if it means only getting 2-3 positive years out of 5 year contract. I would rather take a gamble on a defenseman than continually giving handouts to 3rd and 4th line players.

    Still can’t believe they didn’t ask Laich to take a physical and buy him out for more cap space. He’s far and above my favorite Capital but we really don’t need that contract if he’s not going to produce much of anything but good quotes.

  • Boush

    Just curious as to why Zatkoff’s name appears in the spreadsheet, since he’s a backup goalie. Was someone else’s name supposed to be there?

  • Connor

    So Orpik can’t play here because he slow, old, and is a banger not a puck mover. Niskanen is outstanding but wait a min not really. What is even left to take a shot at? Fayne and Stralman? We have got to take a shot at someone. Playing it safe and being complacent is not going to bring us a cup…

  • Boush

    And looks like you took him out now, so this post is moot!

  • My current hypothesis is that all defensemen are awful and the Caps should just ice six extra forwards.

  • word– removed for goalieness– thanks!

  • No clue!

  • Dan

    Look at the source data. When Crosby is with Niskanen, their CF% is 58.9. When apart, Niskanen drops to 49.6, a fall of 9% as you state. But this is because it is taking the average of all of the rest of the players not named Crosby; of course it will be lower because it has that much more room to fall. The only other “Niskanen CF% when apart” sample that is under 50% is 49.6% without Kunitz. Again, because Kunitz and Niskanen had a 59.6% rating together. Bigger increase = more room to fall when you are averaging that sample out. All this really shows is how good Crosby is, and how bad the Pens bottom-6 is.

  • Connor

    I’ll tell you how to fix this team. Buffalo said they will take salary dumps as they rebuild. It has been rumored that Erskine is headed there on hockey buzz.

    WASH: Erskine, Mojo, Brouwer
    BUF: Chris Stewart

    BUYOUT: Brooks Laich

    SIGN: Matt Niskanen: 6 years: 5.5 million
    SIGN: Brooks Oprik: 3 years 3.0 million

  • Pat Magee

    Christian Erhoff should be our #1 target.

    Bottom line: Anyone but Orpik.

  • 70Caps

    Bleacher report had only ray emery in their list of possible acquisitions for washington when it came to backup goaltenders for holtby. I’m not sure that would turn out so well.

  • sean

    This is how it goes, we talk about getting a top Dman and 2C all preseason. We end up with a couple overpaid guys and don’t resign Grabs. Then we get a veteran goalie for like 5-6m and mess with Holtby’s head all season. I almost forgot to add that we give up some draft picks and our best prospects for guys that only play a year.

  • GraboviMyBozak

    Orpik is probably the best stay at home D there is. Fancy stats isnt everything. He played the top competition all year and was tasked to shutdown top players. You shouldn’t expect him to have good possession numbers.

  • SeminAllOverTheIce

    Its actually a shallow FA pool this year. Prices will be high. No diving please, no lifeguards on duty.

  • j

    Erhoff, Fayne, Gilbert, Robidas – I’d be fine with any of them
    The caps should also look into Patrik Berglund, Nazem Kadri, Richards, and of course Mathieu Perreault

  • SeminAllOverTheIce

    I truly hope that Matty P comment is a joke. If it was, good one. If its not…god help us.

  • GraboviMyBozak

    Grabovskis agent is still negotiating with GMBM so hes not gone yet.

  • tpr04

    Is that out anywhere? I thought BMac said he was too expensive. Could have been posturing publicly, but it didn’t sound like that.

  • GraboviMyBozak

    He said what theyre asking for is prohibitive but theyre still trying to find the best deal.

  • Fletcher22

    I’d take Chris Stewart in a second. Wasn’t Vanek ineffective in Montreal during the playoffs?

    Probably won’t get Niskanen but I’d take a shot at Orpik. Another guy who is hard to play against. This roster needs a shakeup and if you want to be harder to play against you start with those two. Add Wilson to the top six, jettison the hangers on (not Erskine) and go from there. This would mean that GMBM has vision, and based on what I thought was a less than mediocre draft, I’m not sure any of this will happen.

  • SeminAllOverTheIce

    I’d be fine with both Niskanen & Orpik. All depending on contract and terms. Our new D coach seems high on them as well, I like that. Plus they will both bring instant improvement to our soft & porous D.

    I also think keeping Laich is beyond a huge mistake. It’s crippling the org for the next 3 years. We need that $4.5 in cap room.

    We also need to press hard for Stastny. Signing him would be HUGE!

    Please give up on Matty P. Not worth it. Let him stay in Cali. It was nice to see him go as he is one of the most inconsistent players there is (and I was a Semin supporter), and is overrated due to the talent he plays with. Requires help, cant do it on his own.

  • j

    True he’s probably our best option. I wonder what the figure Maclellan is looking for is

  • j

    I would argue Mark Fayne is. He faces tough competition as well and still breaks even in CF%. He can also move the puck.

  • Sarah

    Brett Leonhardt: way better backup goalie, doesn’t assault people. Take that, Bleacher Report!

  • Connor

    Why would that be a joke? Perreault went to the west, had a career year (18G, 25A) against tougher competition and he played 2C. He will be a steal, his qualifying offer was only 1 mill, bring him back home where GMGM unfairly ran him out.




  • GMBM will get a lot of respect from me if he can close the Grabo deal.

  • Connor

    Matty P goes to the west, has a career year. But we shouldn’t think about bringing him back??

  • There aren’t a lot of players earning $1.1M that are better than Matty. He’s a perfect example of an undervalued bottom-six forward.

  • Sarah

    Also, discussion of Orpik and Niskanen could lead to a recurrence of ads for Sidney Crosby jerseys. Please, no more!

  • Hooch


  • Yeah, I think that’s fair– but it also shows that Niskanen isn’t the one with his hand on the wheel.

  • Sarah

    #DuctTape fixes everything.

  • gesundheit

  • GrnEggsNHam

    Ryan Johansen may be available as an RFA. I would cancel my wedding and purchase season tickets lol.

  • JH

    Our ability to get into the playoffs and go deep is not dependent on MattyP. It may be dependent on signing Grabo or getting a suitable replacement 2C. And it will certainly be dependent on proper utilization of existing team talent and bolstering of the D corps.

    Notwithstanding the fancystats, I believe Niskanen/Orpik would cause improvement to Washington’s current defense. It would take pressure off Green, Alzner and Carlson to have those two on D. In CONTEXT it would seem to make sense. The Caps become a team that is tough to play against. And that’s what you want – a team other teams dread playing. Orpik also is another grown-up in the locker room.

  • Fletcher22

    He is not ideal on a team with two other skilled/soft centers. Anaheim has Getzlaf and Kesler as their top two now, so Matty P slots nicely into the 3C spot. The Caps need to get bigger and add some grit down the middle. Even Latta is a tad on the smallish size but plays much bigger than he is.

  • Fletcher22

    He may be a 4c actually, I forgot about Koivu.

  • standarsh

    Ehrhoff is my #1 too

  • Wheeler

    Crosby CF w/ Niskanen: 58.9
    Crosby CF w/o Niskanen: 51.9

    Kunitz CF w/ Niskanen: 59.3
    Kunitz CF w/o Niskanen: 50.4

    Sutter CF w/ Niskanen: 47.2
    Sutter CF w/o Niskanen: 41.0

    Malkin CF w/ Niskanen: 58.7
    Malkin CF w/o Niskanen: 51.1

    Neal CF w/ Niskanen: 58.2
    Neal CF w/o Niskanen: 51.1

    Adams CF w/ Niskanen: 42.8
    Adams CF w/o Niskanen: 41.0

    Glass CF w/ Niskanen: 40.3
    Glass CF w/o Niskanen: 40.8

    Vitale CF w/ Niskanen: 45.8
    Vitale CF w/o Niskanen: 42.2

    So players saw their CF% improve when Niskanen was on the ice, but he only had a marginal improvement on the bottom-six guys who were, frankly, awful.

    How is that not a positive thing? And how is it more relevant that Crosby elevated Niskanen’s CF, but not that Niskanen raised Crosby’s as well?

  • It’s not as simple as good/bad. It’s more like you calibrate where on the spectrum– between the extremes of Crosby and Glass– you would locate Niskanen. The answer seems to be nearer to Glass than Crosby.

  • SeminAllOverTheIce

    Nope not a chance. He was typical Matty P over there. On and off, game in game out. He was a healthy scratch a few times as well. Also played with much better talent. Again, he is benefits from talented linemates numbers wise.

  • SeminAllOverTheIce

    LOL Matty P at 2C? Ok….next

  • SeminAllOverTheIce

    Bottom six, I agree. But Caps wouldnt use him as bottom six, they would try to use him in top 6. Having said that, I prefer our current bottom 6 over him.

  • Eric Jones

    Also, let’s not forget that Niskanen lost a fight against Crosby

  • Ben Reed

    Thank you Wheeler – this is a critical point. These stats can be interpreted in circular ways because of the chicken-egg problem.

    Also, in response to this: “Pittsburgh was a notoriously top-heavy team last season, and Niskanen kinda shows that. When playing with dynamos like Crosby, he’s great. When he’s not, he’s mediocre. ”

    It doesn’t follow that he is a mere passenger. First of all, this quote is misleading because it suggests Niskanen had it easy. But Niskanen played with the crappy Pens more often than the great teammates at evens, and still generated positive possession. (His QoT Rel was 7th lowest on Pens, at -2.9%). Second of all, everyone’s stats are boosted when they play with great players. Looping back to Wheeler’s point, how do we know who was really “boosting” whom, though?

  • Guest

    I was under the impression that to buy out a player you had to put them on waivers first – did that not happen with Erhoff? If not how come? (maybe I’m just straight up wrong) and if so why didn’t anyone claim him?!

  • Wheeler

    “It’s more like you calibrate where on the spectrum– between the
    extremes of Crosby and Glass– you would locate Niskanen. The answer
    seems to be nearer to Glass than Crosby.”

    Tanner Glass actually drives his teammates’ possession numbers down when they’re with him. Niskanen actually improves the possession numbers of everyone he plays with.

    I really don’t see where you’re drawing the conclusion that he’s useless. I can see “not 6m/7 years good” but he had a net positive effect on the CF% of nearly every forward he played with (except for Tanner Glass, where his effect was negligible). And it’s not just last year–it’s pretty much every year before that, back to his time in Dallas.

  • Larry E. Ramey

    Erhoff (or Cambell) and Grabo. MAKE THIS HAPPEN

  • Searle

    Another great read guys. Could you do one of these for Erhoff as he seems to be the top target? Obviously he doesn’t get to play with anyone close to Crosby but would still be an interesting one!

  • Searle

    I’ve heard talk of Legwand being associated with Caps on other forums, you guys heard anything?

  • Eric Schulz

    Skilled doesn’t necessarily equal soft. Ovechkin has a lot of skill… Matty P is so effective because he goes to the high traffic areas, and makes plays. He doesn’t dish out punishment, but he’s by no means soft. Also, I’d love to have him as our 3rd C, and he could definitely be our 2nd C at times if we wanted to load our top line (Ovechkin – Backstrom – Grabovski).

  • ChrisN

    need some more Grabo first!!

  • CapNMac

    Completely ridiculous. They specifically said it had to be a veteran that Holtby felt comfortable with. Does that sound like Emery?

  • Bilal

    tbh, I wouldn’t mind Niskanen as long as the price is right. No way ever, would I want him for 7 years at the 6 Million people are saying he could get. I would only pay him AROUND 5 at MAX. and Not at all for 7 years. But of course someone will offer him that much money so I doubt we’ll get him (though Todd Reirden is trying to make a bid for him to come here). I really like Ehrhoff though.

  • Fletcher22

    Ovie is a freak of nature in the same way Lindros was. That’s not the debate. What it boils down to for me is I want roster turnover and to be a hard to play against. The roster is stale, and has been for a while. All due respect to Matty P, I don’t want retreads. That takes no vision.

  • I’m not tracking the rumors. Maybe Fedor has heard something though.

  • I think you’re onto something here, and my spectrum comment was not as articulate as I wanted.

    I think one of the most important points is the difficulty of isolating passenger/driver stuff. I don’t deny that lots of player play better with him, but by the same token the big drops he sees with lesser plays imply that he is not the one driving possession.

    So I guess it’s not me saying he’s bad/good at puck possession so much as it’s me saying that it doesn’t appear he’s the reason possession scores are changing. (Though I do have suspicions about his possession skills; that’s not the thrust of my argument.)

    I could be convinced otherwise though, and I admit this is a really basic analysis. If you have more ideas, throw em at me.

  • BPThomas

    Whelp, thats good enough for me. No Niskanen for me.

  • Graham Dumas
  • Sarah

    Yeah, you’re not gonna get Chara in the trunk of a standard size car

  • Mary

    Can we get Matty back? Please, please, please!

  • JenniferH

    Honestly, I’m not even letting my brain go there because the pain of it not happening would be too painful.

  • GMGMNeverBreaks

    Peter, I love your posts, but I’m really confused. I should say that I don’t really know how to tease out who’s *driving* possession, but I wonder if you’re using the wrong numbers here. If you want to know the effect other players have on Niskanen’s CF%, you should look at the numbers you present in your post. If you want to know the effect Niskanen has on other players’ CF%, you should look at the numbers Wheeler presents. Isn’t the latter what you want to look at in determining whether Niskanen drives possession?

    You’d expect a possession-driver to improve the possession metrics of other players when he plays with them (i.e. everyone from Crosby to Glass plays better with him than without him). You’d expect a passenger to have no effect on the possession metrics of other players when he plays with them (i.e. everyone from Crosby to Glass plays the same with him as without him). You’d expect dead weight to have a negative effect on the possession metrics of other players when he plays with them (i.e. everyone from Crosby to Glass plays worse with him than without him).

    The numbers Wheeler presents show whether he improves others’ possession metrics, has no effect, or undermines them. Your numbers just show that Niskanen has good possession metrics with Pittsburgh’s top-two lines and poor possession metrics with Pittsburgh’s top-two lines. If that’s the case, then Wheeler’s numbers show *convicingly* that Niskanen drives possession and is not simply a passenger.

  • johnnymorte

    We should have taken Nikitin at 4.5 mil. Orpik over Niskanen any day of the week, but we should be hunting Legwand. This is the piece this team needs.

  • Owen Johnson

    Johnson and Greiss are both goalies.

  • S’all good. I’m willing to concede I could be wrong here, but this is all about isolation. We can’t do single variable replacement in hockey, so what we’re seeing isn’t *merely* the difference in Niskanen alone vs Niskanen with Glass (for example) vs Glass alone.

    Because when those players weren’t playing with Niskanen, they were instead playing with *even worse* defenders on a thoroughly injured and depleted Pittsburgh D-corps.

    I excluded Wheeler’s numbers from my report to avoid going on this tangent, but I obviously made a mistake there. And Wheeler is certainly right that players did better with Nisk than they did without– though I’d argue that’s only because Niskanen is better than Orpik and Scuderi.

    Niskanen was a relatively good defenseman for Pittsburgh. He’s a good defenseman overall. But his relative corsi score is not alone an indication that he “drives play” to the extent that his imminent contract tomorrow might imply. His WOWY numbers suggest that.

    Thanks for being on the ball about this, though I do think my underlying point still stands.

  • resign grabo u idiot maclellan

    i hear montreal wants to get rid of gorges. at only 3.9 million, why brouwer is still on this roster i have no clue. 3.9 is a lot cheaper than niskanen will be and gorges is a legitimate stay-at-home defenseman. it seems like an obvious trade, and then we can keep grabovski because we all know iron man wont stay healthy.

  • irockthered

    I think NMCs have something to do with it, as in a player can decline to go on waivers if he has one, or something like that…

  • CappyTal

    Vanek’s team mates were actually preferring to skate into someone, lose puck and take a dive rather than pass to him. Just a terrible fit team wise.

  • GMGMNeverBreaks

    Thanks for the response! You’re completely right, we sadly can’t do single variable replacement with the stats we have. I also agree that jumps in possession numbers for forwards will be more dramatic (though I doubt entirely) due to the poor quality of Pittsburgh’s other defensemen who drag them down when Niskanen’s not on the ice.

    The same applies, however, to Niskanen’s possession numbers depending on the forward line he’s playing with. Your numbers certainly show that Niskanen did better with Pitt’s top-six than its bottom-six – but a bunch of us are arguing that’s only because Crosby, Malkin, et al, are better than Glass and Adams, et al.

    Doesn’t all this just demonstrate the need for epistemic humility in this case? Sure, as Wheeler’s numbers show, basically everyone played better with Niskanen, but (granting your point, though I’m unsure I wholly endorse it) that’s because they were playing with the rest of Pittsburgh’s defensive corps during that time. Your numbers show that Niskanen had great stats with the top-six and underwhelming stats with the bottom-six, but that’s because there’s a drastic difference in skill between those two groups.

    Given all this, do we really have enough to justify the claim that “it’d be a mistake to sign Niskanen”? Maybe insofar as a team would sign him solely under the pretense that he drives possession (because his WOWY numbers are inflated by the poor play of the rest of Pittsburgh’s defensive corps), but his presence and play on the ice with Crosby and Malkin contributed (whether you want to cash that out as driving, facilitating, or merely not f’ing up) to their having a 58.9 and 58.7 CF% respectively. Playing *that* well with a team’s top-six is a non-negligible reason to want a guy on your team (though only at the right price and term).

  • I think you did a better job explaining that than I did.

    I still think it’d be a mistake to Niskanen BECAUSE the contract he’ll command will be massive, informed primarily by his play with Sidney, which I don’t think this is a good indicator of how he’ll play in the future.

    Thanks for the convo.