Just about everyone figured there would be ferocious competition for jobs and ice time on the Penguins defense in this training camp.
Almost no one -- not outside of the organization, anyway -- expected Matt Niskanen to be part of it.
Oh, there was no question he would get an opportunity to hold onto his spot on the NHL roster, if only because teams are not eager to pay guys $1.75 million to work in the American Hockey League.
But based on the quality of the other returning defensemen, along with that of the guys trying to carve out a niche at this level, there was reason to suspect that Niskanen would not be much more than an afterthought.
- Game: Penguins at Chicago Blackhawks in a preseason game.
- When: 8:30 p.m. Friday.
- TV: None locally.
No. 7, at very best. With an anvil.
Had the Penguins opened the regular season Oct. 6 in Vancouver with Alexandre Picard or Robert Bortuzzo or Brian Strait holding the place that belonged to Niskanen after he was acquired from Dallas in the James Neal-Alex Goligoski trade, well, few would have expected the repercussions to be epic.
That was the prevailing wisdom a few weeks back. Today, it is nearly inconceivable that Niskanen will not be in the mix when the games begin to count a week from now.
For while he sputtered and struggled after having a fairly strong start with the Penguins earlier this year, Niskanen has had an excellent preseason.
"It looks like he did a lot of work this summer," said assistant coach Todd Reirden, who oversees the defensemen. "He looks more powerful, in terms of his skating stride. He's shooting the puck better than he did last year.
"He left at the end of last year, knowing that he'd come back this year and that it would be a competitive situation for him. He showed up in good shape and has played well so far."
Well enough to qualify as one of the most pleasant surprises in this camp, and Niskanen punctuated his solid performance by burying a shot behind Los Angeles goalie Jonathan Bernier in the eighth round of a shootout to give the Penguins a 3-2 preseason victory Tuesday in Kansas City.
He also got a goal in the exhibition opener against Detroit, hammering in a slap shot from the top of the slot. No less impressive was a defensive play he made later in the game, throwing himself in front of Red Wings forward Logan Pyett to thwart a shot attempt that could have kept a dangerous sequence alive.
OK, so Niskanen probably is not making a run at cracking the top four -- those spots belong to Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek when they are healthy -- but he surely has kept himself in the coaching staff's plans.
"I think it's gone pretty well," Niskanen said. "I feel strong, physically, and conditioning-wise, I feel like I'm in good shape. I'm feeling good on the ice, and the exhibition games have gone fairly well."
Niskanen comes across as soft-spoken, a trait sometimes linked, correctly or otherwise, to a lack of fire. That would explain why some people's expectations for him were so modest before camp. His work has proven that he can respond to a challenge and reinforced the suspicion that confidence is a more significant component of his game than any Penguin since Erik Christensen.
Although a belief in one's ability is critical in almost any line of work, Niskanen's productivity seems to have an especially strong connection to his confidence level. And, at this point, Niskanen has to be feeling pretty good about himself.
"That's a big part of my game, the mental part," he said. "I'm confident and comfortable with what we're trying to do here.
"When things are going well, they seem to really be going well for me. It's kind of a mental battle to stay even-keeled and stay on the positive side of things, so you can continue to improve on the things you want to improve on, and thrive on your strengths."
If Niskanen can find a way to do that on a regular basis, there likely will not be any more speculation about whether he has a meaningful future here.
"That consistent effort that we need every night from him is something that he's very capable of doing," Reirden said. "And something he's intent on showing us."
NOTE -- The Penguins reduced their roster to 32 Wednesday by sending forwards Eric Tangradi, Nick Johnson, Ryan Craig and Colin McDonald and goalies Brad Thiessen and Scott Munroe to their minor league team in Wilkes-Barre, and defenseman Scott Harrington to London in the Ontario Hockey League. Johnson, Craig, McDonald and Munroe will have to clear waivers.
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter @MolinariPG First Published September 29, 2011 4:00 AM