Rookie Niskanen is an early riser

DEREK VAN DIEST, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:38 AM ET

Matt Niskanen was not expected to make the jump this early.

The rookie defenceman for the Dallas Stars was pegged to play a year, maybe two, in the minors before getting called up to the National Hockey League.

But very much like Edmonton Oilers defenceman Tom Gilbert, Niskanen has been a revelation to his team.

"He's had to play like a veteran very early in his career," said Stars head coach Dave Tippett. "He's been a very solid player for us. He was a surprise out of training camp. We had some injuries at training camp and he got more of an opportunity than we were looking to give him early. But he took advantage of that and now he's turned into a very good player."

Niskanen, 21, was selected by the Stars in the first round - 28th overall - of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. The Virginia, Minn., native spent the previous two seasons with the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

He also played in Iowa late last season after signing a three-year deal with the Stars in March.

'A FUN RIDE'

"I didn't expect to make the club right out of camp," Niskanen said. "But it's been such a fun ride so far. I'm just enjoying myself every day. The season has gone pretty well, I've been pretty happy with it. There have certainly have been a few games where I haven't been up to par, but as a whole, I've been very happy with how the season has gone so far."

With five goals and 14 assists in 54 games this season, Niskanen is second in rookie scoring for defencemen behind Tobias Enstrom of the Atlanta Thrashers, who has three goals and 27 assists. Gilbert is third with 18 points, but leads the way with eight goals.

"My goal was to make the team this year," Niskanen said. "I thought maybe there was an outside chance. To be perfectly honest, I expected to go down to the American Hockey League my first year. But a couple of injuries opened a window for me. I had a pretty good camp, I was able to slide in and I did pretty well from the start."

Apart from his offensive contribution from the blue line - second only to Sergei Zubov's four goals and 31 assists - Niskanen has proven to be dependable in all situations.

He's second on the team with a plus-13 rating, tied with captain Brenden Morrow and just one behind leading scorer Mike Ribeiro.

For a majority of the season Niskanen had been partnered with Zubov, which will usually do wonders for anybody's plus-minus rating.

"You learn so much playing with him," Niskanen said. "He's not overly vocal, but he helps me out in certain situations. You learn so much playing with him, just picking up the little things that he does.

"You learn so much every day just by watching him. It's a great opportunity for me to learn from a guy like that."

Niskanen started the season averaging under 15 minutes of ice time a night. Now he's up to just under 20 minutes.

But with Zubov out of the lineup with a foot injury and Philippe Boucher on the shelf with a bad shoulder, Niskanen has played over 25 minutes recently.

"We don't have any choice, but to play him a lot," Tippett said. "People get minutes because they deserve minutes, especially young players. Young players you just don't put on the ice. They have to be capable of doing that job and he's shown that he's capable. With young players you're going to get hiccups every now and then, but he a guy that's come in and played really solid hockey for us."

FIRST-TEAM ALL-STAR

Niskanen was highly-touted coming out of college. He was a first-team all-star at Minnesota-Duluth and represented the United States at the 2006 World Junior Championships.

Just recently, Niskanen took part in the Young Stars game during the NHL All-Star weekend.

"At the beginning of the season I started out playing real simple," he said. "The first 10 games or so, I wanted to keep it real basic, I didn't want to make any mistakes. As the season has been rolling around, I'm getting more confident, I'm getting more opportunities in different situations and I've been able to do a little more and play more of the style that I have in the past and gradually getting to be a more well-rounded defenceman."

Having found a spot in the lineup, it's unlikely Niskanen will end up in the minors this season. He's one of eight players who have played every game for the Stars this year.

"You never want to get too arrogant," he said. "I'm still a rookie, I'm still a young guy and by no means am I a staple of this team yet. But I think I'm starting to earn more people's trust, I'm starting to feel like I'm part of the group and I feel pretty confident that I can stay here as long as I keep up my end of the bargain."


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