Niskanen knows his future might be elsewhere

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Matt Niskanen knows the numbers.

More important, he understands what they might mean for his future with the Penguins.

He's aware that the Penguins, who will open training camp next Wednesday, are roughly $1.1 million over the NHL's salary-cap ceiling of $64.3 million for the 2013-14 season.

He also realizes that their projected 23-man roster -- and it's far from certain they'll carry that many -- includes seven defensemen who would have to clear waivers and an eighth, Simon Despres, who is waiver-exempt, but who seems virtually certain to secure steady work in the NHL this winter.

It's no surprise, then, that Niskanen has been a fixture in trade speculation since the Penguins signed free-agent defenseman Rob Scuderi two months ago.

"I know the situation we're in, being over the cap," Niskanen said after an informal workout Monday at the Ice Castle in Castle Shannon. "It's pretty evident that Ray [Shero, the general manager] has to make a decision. Someone who probably otherwise is a regular on our roster [will be traded]."

Adding Scuderi bolstered what already was the Penguins' strongest and deepest position. With promising young defensemen such as Derrick Pouliot, Olli Maatta, Scott Harrington and Brian Dumoulin, among others, in the pipeline, the Penguins figure to be set on their blue line for years to come.

Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but that is why, with about a month before the Penguins must become cap-compliant, it seems likely and logical that they will do so by trading a veteran defenseman.

Which is where Niskanen comes in.

Or, quite possibly, goes out.

And not only because paring his cap hit of $2.3 million would get the Penguins under the cap and give Shero the cushion he likes to have going into a season.

No, Niskanen, 26, is a prominent trade candidate, at least in part, because he is a valuable commodity: A capable, right-handed defenseman whose salary is commensurate with what he can contribute.

Although he projects on the No. 3 pairing with the Penguins, he might be able to fill a top-four role on other clubs. Consequently, if Shero concludes that shopping Niskanen is the right move, there should be no shortage of interest.

That wasn't necessarily the case in February 2011, when the Penguins acquired Niskanen and winger James Neal from Dallas for defenseman Alex Goligoski.

Niskanen, a first-round draft choice in 2005, had gotten a good start as a pro, but his performance level -- and confidence -- plunged under then-Stars coach Marc Crawford, and the move to the Penguins might have happened just in time to save his career.

"I had a good first two seasons in Dallas, then I kind of hit rock-bottom there," Niskanen said. "My career was at a crossroads, right around when the trade happened. It turned out to be the best thing for me."

Not immediately, however. Niskanen struggled through most of the rest of the 2010-11 season, and was far from certain of having a spot on the NHL roster when he reported to training camp two years ago.

He started that preseason strong, however, and hasn't slowed since.

"I got it going the right way in my first full training camp here," he said. "I went from a player who was wondering if he was going to be able to stick around in the league for much longer to [where] I think I'm a reliable, everyday defenseman.

"Top-four, top-five, given the situation on certain teams. It's rejuvenated my career, and I can't be more thankful to [assistant coach] Todd Reirden and the staff for helping me get back into it."

Although NHL contracts are guaranteed, spots on specific NHL rosters are not. That fundamental truth is not lost on Niskanen, and that has helped him to avoid agonizing over his uncertain future here.

"I'm not worried about it, or anything," he said. "I've just prepared as though I'm going to be here when the regular season starts, and I'm working toward that. But I understand that Ray has to make a decision.

"There probably are times when you think about it more, and it's kind of tough. Especially when I really love being here, and I think I can help.

"Over the last year or so, you've kind of had that thought, 'Well, this might not last forever.' That's just reality for veteran role players."

NOTE -- Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz, Craig Adams, Tanner Glass, Joe Vitale and Robert Bortuzzo were among the 22 pros, prospects and locals who participated in the 90-minute session at the Ice Castle.


Dave Molinari: and Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published September 3, 2013 4:15 AM


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