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High Nisk, Low Reward

Taking a look at a precipitous decline in performance from one of the Capitals’ stalwart defenders, and what may be causing it.

Washington Capitals v New York Islanders Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Twenty-four games into the 2018-19 campaign, and Matt Niskanen is, to put it lightly, having a tough go of things.

To wit, of all skaters who have seen 400 minutes or greater of ice time, only one player has a worse shot share percentage than Matt Niskanen’s 42.3%, and using the same ice time caveat, only three skaters have a worse goal share percentage than Nisky’s 37.5%. Those players are Josh Manson, Erik Gudbranson, Darnell Nurse, and Jaccob Slavin. None of those players have the same pedigree as Niskanen, and all of them play for teams whose team-level metrics can explain away some of the performance.

To account for that, we take a look at all skaters, and their shot and goal shares relative to that of their teams, and see where Nisky falls. It’s not pretty.

Niskanen can be found all the way in the bottom left hand corner, which indicates, more or less, that of big-minute players in the NHL this season, his performance has been the worst when accounting for the quality of the team each player is on. But it’s alarming, because this isn’t at all indicative of how Niskanen has performed throughout his career.

Here we look at the same metrics, but filter down to just Niskanen.

Bottom line: until this year Niskanen’s teams have consistently had a better goal share with him on the ice than off, and they’ve more or less netted out even in shot share, maybe with a slight advantage when he’s on the ice. This year’s numbers resemble nothing of the sort.

So what gives? Obviously something had to have changed, right? We can take a look at zone start ratio and quality of both teammates and competition to get an idea. While all of these metrics should be taken with a judicious measure of salt, they’re fine to glance at for any stark changes.

The percentage of zone starts that Niskanen receives in the offensive zone has taken somewhat of a nosedive this year, but that’s still not enough to explain the drastic difference in his performance. None of the other measures are very interesting, either.

One point of interest, however, may be when Niskanen injured his hand way back in October 2017 against the New Jersey Devils. He returned about a month later, but why don’t we check out how his rolling possession numbers have been affected in the time since?

Uh oh. You can see that Niskanen’s performance and his hand injury are alarmingly coinciding. You hate to speculate about something like this, but there’s something pretty clearly not right with a guy who’s meant to be one of the Caps’ top blueliners. It’s up to the team to make sure they’re doing everything in their power to properly manage their assets, and while there’s no reason to think they aren’t doing precisely that, maybe a critical follow-up visit with the team hand doctor is in order - because Niskanen’s current level of play with his current quantity of ice time is going to slowly bleed the Capitals for as long as it lasts.