As Matt Niskanen took the podium at the Capitals’ exit day, he was less than satisfied, blunt and disappointed as he spoke about an unexpected early exit.
“Realistically, it doesn’t sting as bad as some in the past, but nobody feels good today,” Niskanen said. “This is a crappy day. I think we all believe that we could have, should have done better than we did. That’s disappointing.”
The 32-year-old blueliner’s season didn’t exactly go as planned. He finished with eight goals and 25 points in 80 games during the regular season, his lowest scoring total in six years’ time. Additionally, he was a minus-3 and struggled defensively on the second pairing alongside Dmitry Orlov.
Through the first half of the year, Niskanen’s woes on defense spoke volumes; not only did he accumulate a minus-10 rating, which included him being a minus-11 in the month of December. Additionally, he finished the year with 73 giveaways and just 40 takeaways, and put up a relative corsi percentage of -3.2, showing his struggles with puck possession.
And in light of his performance, Niskanen wasn’t afraid to hold himself accountable.
“I would say the first 50 games overall not as good as I have played in the past,” Niskanen said. “Certainly better later than early in the year. I think I played closer to my usual level the later the season went on. That was when I was most competitive and best execution and all that good stuff. I was my best later in the year, closer to playoffs and in the playoffs.”
In regards to the year, however, Niskanen didn’t attribute the team’s play to any kind of Cup hangover, let alone hurdles faced through the regular season. However, he did admit that it isn’t that easy to win in this league, even if you won last year.
“It’s not like we can just say, ‘Oh, I’m going to have the same bite again.’ It’s not like we weren’t trying,” Niskanen said. “I think guys tried as hard as they could, but we didn’t get to that level again for whatever reason. It certainly wasn’t intentional. Guys had every intention of playing as well or better than we ever have.”
Now, with the Caps facing tight cap space and a number of free agents to address, they need to dump salary. This, in turn, has made Niskanen the center of trade rumors, given his lackluster performance and $5.75 million cap hit.
Additionally, Washington does have a number of defensemen such as Jonas Siegenthaler and Tyler Lewington waiting in the wings and looking as if they’re ready to make the jump, which makes Niskanen even more susceptible to trade.
However, as he and the team move forward, they will look to regain the vigor they had in 2017-18 and aim to return to their Cup-winning caliber of play.
“That’s the challenge. How do we get to that level of compete and execution again? It comes down to a number of factors, but the biggest thing that you can control is how bad do you want it,” Niskanen said. “We’ll try to be better there next year.”