WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- When the Penguins acquired defenseman Matt Niskanen from Dallas in the James Neal-Alex Goligoski trade in 2011, it looked as if he might be something of a reclamation project.
A talented young player, he had shown he was capable of contributing at the NHL level before his confidence appeared to have been shredded by then-Stars coach Marc Crawford. Penguins general manager Ray Shero, who made certain Niskanen was included in the deal, didn't look at him quite that way, though.
He didn't see a defenseman who was damaged goods, who might be too much of a gamble to really count on. Instead, he looked at Niskanen as a strong candidate to fill the very role he has so far this season.
"One of the reasons Ray Shero had Matt Niskanen in the deal was his ability to play on the left side and play upward of 20 minutes," said Penguins assistant coach Todd Reirden, who oversees their defensemen.
So, as the Penguins prepare to face Ottawa at 5:08 p.m. today at Scotiabank Place, Niskanen is playing opposite fellow right-handed shot Kris Letang on one of their top two pairings and logging an average of 21 minutes and 12 seconds of ice time.
And looking quite good in the process.
Niskanen doesn't object to playing the left side -- he has done it, off and on, since high school -- and said he doesn't mind adjusting his game a bit to mesh with Letang's.
Niskanen's skills aside, Letang is the big-time offensive talent on the pairing. That means Niskanen is charged with tending to the defensive zone when Letang acts on an opportunity to get involved in the offense.
"I have to recognize that he's going to be up the ice quite a bit," Niskanen said. "Recognize that he might make a play in some situations where another guy might just make the safe play off the [boards].
"For me, it's just always be ready and look for open ice to support him. Be there for him when he's involved in the attack a lot, be there to back him up in those situations."
Niskanen's production -- a goal and two assists in four games -- is solid, and he doesn't believe his statistics are unduly suppressed by working with Letang.
"In some cases, maybe I wouldn't [join] the rush, because he's beaten me to it already, but that's OK," Niskanen said. "We can just read off each other and, when the hole's there, one of us should be jumping [into] it."
And there are times when Niskanen's offense benefits from the partnership. As a right-hander on the left point, he is in position to shoot without having to stop the puck when Letang gives him a cross-ice feed. That happened several times in the Penguins' 6-3 win at Madison Square Garden a week ago, and one shot eluded New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist for the Penguins' third goal.
"I've gotten some nice shots off because of him," Niskanen said.
He and Letang have eight shots each, tying for fourth on the team behind James Neal, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Heading into training camp in 2011, many had serious doubts about whether Niskanen would remain with this team, let alone be a significant part of it. He often struggled after being acquired from Dallas and had sunk to the bottom of the Penguins' depth chart when camp began. He entered the preseason as a likely spare part.
But Niskanen settled in nicely and validated Shero's belief in him by playing at a consistently high level all season. It was, Niskanen said, all a matter of being comfortable and confident, and the difficult early months he spent with the Penguins helped to lay a foundation for the success that has followed.
"I came in after the trade and I think I grasped the concept of what we wanted to do," Niskanen said. "It just took me some experience to get better at it. I made some mistakes that first spring when I got here, and those lessons are hard-learned, but I took them with me and came back knowing exactly what I had to do in camp last year. My game has really come a long ways, starting at that point."
So far, that the coaching staff decided he was the best option to pair with Letang, the biggest talent on their blue line.
"We saw an escalation in his game last year where he should be given the opportunity to play in the top four," Reirden said. "We were trying to figure the best way to do it, and, looking back on the success he had playing with [Sergei] Zubov in Dallas ... it is something we thought would work well."
A week into the season, it has.
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter @MolinariPG.