Last season the 23-year-old saw his point production drop to 15 points, he had a team-worst minus-15 rating and he ended up being a healthy scratch six times.
That followed a rookie season in 2007-08 when he registered 26 points and finished second on the team with a plus-22 rating, and a 2008-09 campaign when he led all Dallas defensemen in scoring with 35 points.
“I was pretty happy with my first two years. I certainly had some spots where I wasn’t that good. But last year, as a whole, I was pretty disappointed with my own play and where the team went as well,” Niskanen said. “It was kind of gut check time for me this summer and coming into camp this year I’ve got to re-establish myself as a better defenseman within the group and in the league.”
Niskanen, a restricted free agent who is still waiting to work out a contract with the Stars, arrived back in the Dallas area this week and is skating with some of his teammates at the Stars’ practice facility in Frisco.
With the Stars missing the playoffs for the second straight season it was a long summer for Niskanen, and he took advantage of it. It’s the first time he’s had an extended offseason since he became an NHL player. He had a short offseason after his rookie year because the Stars went on a deep playoff run. The Stars missed the playoffs in 2008-09, but Niskanen’s season continued well into May because he went to Switzerland and played for Team USA at the World Championship.
There was no extended play for Niskanen this spring and that meant some extra time to workout under the guidance of Stars strength and conditioning coach J.J. McQueen.
“This was a good opportunity for me to get a full summer of work in the gym and focus on some things that I needed to work on,” Niskanen said. “I worked closely with J.J. and had a full summer, a full commitment in the gym. I think that should be a help.”
And what was the goal of that extra time in the gym?
“I wanted to add lean muscle and be in better shape,” Niskanen said. “I worked closely with J.J. and things went well. I am hoping I can translate that into gains on the ice.”
That’s what the Stars are hoping. Coach Marc Crawford said earlier this summer that getting Niskanen back on track is a priority.
“We’ve really put a plan in place for Matt so that he will make the improvements that will allow him to be a little bit more assertive, allow him to be a little bit more aggressive in his game,” said Crawford. “We know he’s got tremendous skill and we’ve seen his abilities. He’s shown the Stars and our fans how good he can be, but you can’t rest on your laurels. You have to keep making improvements and he’s given himself the opportunity to have a real bounce back campaign for us.”
Niskanen said he wants that bounce back campaign to start as soon as the Stars hit the ice for training camp in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island later this month.
“It’s been an all summer focus for me and when camp comes I want to hit the ground running and play well right from the start,” Niskanen said. “The last couple seasons I’ve started myself in a hole. My play wasn’t quite up to par. I want to start going well right from day one of training camp.”