Capitals

Quick Links

The 25 Most Important Players for the Caps: No. 6 Matt Niskanen

usatsi_9989172.jpg
USA TODAY Sports

The 25 Most Important Players for the Caps: No. 6 Matt Niskanen

Every player on an NHL team plays a role.Some, of course, play bigger roles than others.

In the coming weeks, Tarik El-Bashir and JJ Regan will rank the 25 most important players in the Caps’ organization, from least to most important, weighing factors such as past production, future potential and intangibles.

Today’s player: No. 6 Matt Niskanen

No one would say Matt Niskanen's is the Caps' best player, but you can sum up just how important he is to the team with one question: What would they do without him?

There are lots of players on the team who it would hurt if Washington lost, but very few are essentially irreplaceable. If Niskanen were to suffer an injury this season, the team really has no player to replace what he brings to the lineup. He is the team's best defensive-player, the anchor on the top pair of a blue line that currently has only five players on it.

There are some defensemen who are labeled "two-way" because they are okay at both ends of the ice, but not great at either. That's not the case for Niskanen. He is a great shutdown defenseman, but with a high offensive upside.

Guess who led the Caps' defensemen in points last season? It wasn't John Carlson. It was Niskanen whose 39 points were two more than Carlson's 37.

The NHL is moving further and further away from the Karl Alzner/Brooks Orpik type of shutdown players. Today's NHL looks to players who are more versatile as their top shutdown players. Niskanen certainly fits the mold.

That brings us back to the original question: What happens if Niskanen goes down with an injury? Most likely Carlson would move up tot he top pair. Dmitry Orlov is capable as a top-pair defenseman, but he struggled with Carlson last season. Who becomes the team's top penalty killer on the blue line? Is there another player the team can depend on to shutdown the other team's top offensive players in key moments?

Niskanen established himself as the team's most important defenseman last year and his position has been further cemented by the loss of Alzner and Nate Schmidt. He is clearly the team's most indispensable player on the blue line.

Check out the full list of the Caps most important players as it comes out here and check out previous player profiles below.

— No. 25 Aaron Ness
— No. 24 Chandler Stephenson
— No. 23 Riley Barber
 No. 22 Pheonix Copley
— No. 21 Devante Smith-Pelly
— No. 20 Taylor Chorney
— No. 19 Nathan Walker

 No. 18 Philipp Grubauer
 No. 17 Christian Djoos

— No. 16 Madison Bowey
— No. 15 Jay Beagle
— No. 14 Brett Connolly
— No. 13 Tom Wilson
— No. 12 Lars Eller
— No. 11 Jakub Vrana
— No. 10 Brooks Orpik
— No. 9 John Carlson
— No. 8 Dmitry Orlov
— No. 7 Andre Burakovsky

Quick Links

Oshie skates but will not travel to Brooklyn with the Caps

Oshie skates but will not travel to Brooklyn with the Caps

T.J. Oshie hit the ice Sunday in Arlington, where he skated on his own for about 30 minutes prior to Caps’ practice.

Oshie has missed the last two games with an upper-body injury that he sustained against San Jose.

RELATED: WHAT WAS NISKANEN DOING SO FAR UP ON HIS GAME-WINNING GOAL?

Sunday’s twirl marked Oshie’s first time on the ice since getting his head crunched against the boards by Joe Thornton on Monday.

A team spokesman said Oshie remains day-to-day and will not travel to Brooklyn with the team. The Caps play at the Islanders on Monday and host the Avalanche on Tuesday.

That means the cap-strapped Caps, who have won four straight games and seven of the past eight, do not currently have an extra forward. According to www.capfriendly.com, the team is $368,000 under the $75 million salary cap ceiling.

Injured players do not speak to the media until they’ve practiced fully with the team. 

MORE CAPITALS: 3 REASONS WHY THE CAPS BEAT THE RANGERS

Quick Links

What the heck was Matt Niskanen doing so far up on his game-winning goal?

What the heck was Matt Niskanen doing so far up on his game-winning goal?

With the score tied at 2 and the seconds ticking away in the third period on Friday, the Capitals needed someone to step up and sneak one past Henrik Lundqvist. With less than four minutes left to go, someone finally delivered.

A long-range shot from Alex Ovechkin was stopped by Lundqvist, but Tom Wilson was able to tip the puck to a teammate sitting on the goal line for the tip-in and the go-ahead goal. That player was…a defenseman?

Yes, the player who was in position to tip the puck past Lundqvist was defenseman Matt Niskanen.

“It’s pretty unusual for me to be there,” Niskanen told reporters after the game.

LISTEN TO THE LATEST CAPITALS EXTRA PODCAST BREAKING DOWN THE CAPS' WIN OVER THE RANGERS

While Niskanen is certainly capable of putting up offensive numbers, he is not a Mike Green type of player who frequently jumps into the offense. So that begs the question, just what the heck was he doing so far up?

The play began with a drive to the net by Wilson.

You can see in the picture that Wilson is behind the net, Backstrom is in the faceoff circle and Alex Ovechkin is near the goal post. Three forwards, all in deep.

The Rangers try to clear the puck, but can’t and it trickles to Christian Djoos who is at the top of the faceoff circle.

Again, you see three forwards low, the defensemen high. Niskanen, who is not on the screen at this point, is on the right side near the blue line.

Rather than kicking the puck back to the offense for the normal cycle we see below the net so frequently from the Caps, Djoos instead glides to his right and passes to Backstrom who is coming up high in the zone as well.

This is what ultimately triggers the scoring play. With Djoos coming to his position and Backstrom covering where Djoos was, Niskanen decides to push forward into the attack.

Backstrom goes the same route Djoos just went moving to the right and Ovechkin continues the cycle as he goes high to the blue line and takes the pass from Backstrom. This is where Ovechkin decides to shoot and Lundqvist, who is dealing with both Wilson and Niskanen in his face, can’t hold onto the shot.

“Backstrom and Ovechkin were coming high so I was running out of space to stand,” Niskanen said. “It's a little rotation play that a lot of teams run now and we've been doing for a couple years now. First time it's worked out for me.”

MORE CAPITALS: 3 REASONS WHY THE CAPS BEAT THE RANGERS

Why don’t we see this more often? Because there is an inherent risk to having your forwards rotate with your defensemen at the blue line over the course of a game. If the Rangers had forced a turnover in that instance and forced a rush up ice, Backstrom and Ovechkin would have found themselves in a position in which they would have to serve as defensemen until Djoos and Niskanen were able to recover.

Notice here, however, the Rangers are not being too aggressive in attacking the puck or pressuring the puck carrier. With uncontested possession, it’s less likely the Caps will give up a turnover that could catch them out of position. Once they do contest the puck, Ovechkin fires the shot on net where Wilson and Niskanen are waiting.

The Caps ran the cycle to perfection and Niskanen was able to sneak into the play and get the goal.

“Obviously, it was a big shift and he was sniffing back door and the puck came to him,” Barry Trotz said. “That was fantastic."