"Honestly yeah," said Brett Hull, the Stars Co-General Manager. "We weren’t expecting him to be on our big club right away. We thought for sure he would need, just how much we didn’t know, but definitely some seasoning in Iowa but he came out right from the get-go and proved he was an NHL-ready guy."
But perhaps the person who was most surprised was Niskanen himself.
"Well, even I was a little bit surprised," admitted Niskanen. "You know I just wasn’t sure what was going to happen it was my first camp. A lot of unknowns headed into that camp but it’s been just a blast this year."
But since making the Stars out of training camp, the Virginia, Minnesota native has proven he belongs to be there. Niskanen ranks second among rookie defensemen in goals (6), third in assists (16) and fourth in points (22).
But Niskanen hasn’t just set himself apart among other rookie defensemen, he’s also proven to be among the team’s leaders in plus/minus (+13) a tribute to how reliable he has been this season. Niskanen’s steady play has earned him high praise from the Stars top executives.
"Playing defense at the NHL [level] is the hardest position to be put in baptism under fire," said Hull. "Learning reads and what not and to be able to do what he’s done thus far and to be honest we were always expecting that little bit of drop off and it hasn’t come and I don’t think it ever will. He’s a very intelligent player I was just talking to our Assistant Coach Ulf Dahlen about that. There’s things that people do out there where you can see how smart they are and for a young defenseman to bring the forechecker to you and then move it to your partner as opposed to moving it before they’ve committed just little things that that he does so well just him maturing and getting bigger, stronger that’s where he’s going to grow the most."
Throughout the season, Niskanen has been paired with veteran defensemen. Before the All-Star Break, the Stars first-round 2005 draft pick was paired with Sergei Zubov and now with Zubov out of the line-up with an injury he’s being paired with Mattias Norstrom.
"[Norstrom’s] a great, great defender and a real leader. We talk all the time about little plays and how to beat forechecks and how to defend certain three on twos and all kinds of little situations like that during the game. He’s real vocal and been a member of the league for a long time and what a great guy to learn from.
"I was also paired with Sergei Zubov who is a little bit of a different kind of player so I learned quite a bit from him the first half of the season so I’ve been pretty lucky to be paired with those types of veterans. What a great way for me to learn as a young guy."
At 6′ and 194 pounds, Niskanen himself believes that the area he can improve most will be his strength.
"Definitely as the games go along there’s things you notice that you might have a little bit of a weakness area but you’ve got to learn to play to your strengths and kind of stay in those situations. But definitely, and this something I have to take care of in the summer, just the strength factor. I’m pretty young and I’ve got a little bit of a ways to fill out and get stronger and fill out into my body but that’s for this summer otherwise it’s just getting that game experience and learning how to play at this level on a consistent basis."
But perhaps, the biggest thing that stands out about Niskanen is his personality. He has a likeable, wide-eyed enthusiasm about him that has allowed him to learn from the veterans around him as well as to enjoy his first taste of NHL life.
Just how likeable the 21-year-old is was evidenced by a very special practical joke that was played on the rookie by his veteran teammates.
The veterans stole the blueliner’s Pontiac Sunfire and pimped out the ride.
"Yeah, it was quite the practical joke to say the least," laughed Niskanen. "It was really funny. We were out in New York and came back they had stolen the car and brought it to pimp my ride or whatever it was pretty doggone funny it was really cool that the guys would do that for me as the new guy. It was just a good ice breaker and everybody got a good laugh out of it. But I still have the car and I don’t really want to give it up but I might end up giving it to charity — that wouldn’t be a bad way to go either."
And while it’s clear that Niskanen hasn’t had any trouble fitting in with the team and taking a joke, the Stars brass hope that the American will have special appeal to Dallas hockey fans.
"I hope so," said Hull. "We need to get back and get our grassroots fans back in the game and when you have guys like Chris Chelios, Mike Modano, Brian Leetch, Mike Richter players like that – Scott Gomez, Chris Drury, Matt Niskanen today. Having those players representing USA and who are born in the USA really helps that."