COMMENTARY | The St. Louis Blues created a bit of a stir earlier this season in re-signing winger Alexander Steen to a three-year contract.
Steen's history of injuries and inconsistent production were apparently of little concern to Blues management after his hot start to the year. The Blues signed their top scorer to a three-year, $17.4 million contract before his season had even reached the halfway point.
Steen will now count $5.8 million against the cap in each of the next three years.
A deal of that kind is prime payroll real estate for one of your team's most productive players at a time when the salary cap is climbing ever higher.
Niskanen has by all accounts been the team's best defenseman this season. Long-term injuries to each of the team's top-four defenders thrust Niskanen and rookie Olli Maatta into the team's top pair for much of the season's first half.
Given the increased ice time and responsibilities, Niskanen thrived, becoming arguably the team's most valuable player behind Sidney Crosby.
That value wasn't always apparent, though.
Dallas selected Niskanen in the first round (28th overall) of the 2005 draft, and he was an NHL regular soon after. In his first full season in 2007-08, Niskanen played on a pairing with top defenseman Sergei Zubov, scoring 26 points and earning a plus-22 rating in 78 games. He'd go on to set career highs in points in 2008-09.
Niskanen struggled thereafter, leading to his departure from Dallas as a perceived "throw-in" to the Neal trade and making him annual offseason trade candidate in Pittsburgh's defensively-stacked system.
Those 2008-09 numbers stand as career bests for Niskanen, but are in peril of falling this year. Niskanen is now within five points of his single-season points mark and is tied with his career-high in goals after just 50 games.
As of Thursday morning, Niskanen leads all Penguins defenders in assists (21), points (28) and total ice time (1192 shifts taken). His plus-minus leads all NHL players at plus-26, and his advanced defensive metrics are the best on the team.
"The Penguins have scored a total of 104 goals at even-strength situations. That ranks fourth in the NHL. Niskanen has been on the ice for 47 of those goals. He is first among all Penguins players, better by 3 than overall scoring leader Sidney Crosby.
Look at it this way: Only two defensemen in the league has been on the ice for more even-strength goals for - Chicago's pairing of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, each with 55.
The Penguins have allowed 94 goals against in all even-strength situations. Niskanen has only been on the ice for 25 of those goals - and that during 800 minutes of ice time.
Niskanen is on the ice for a lot of even-strength goals, but 65 percent have gone to the Penguins. He leads the club in that area, ahead of winger Chris Kunitz (62 percent) and center Evgeni Malkin (54 percent)."
These are eye-popping numbers for Niskanen who, at 27, seems to be rounding into form as an all-around defenseman.
Now, take into account Niskanen's versatility (he moved from the third pairing to the first pairing and didn't miss a beat), durability (has appeared in all 50 games this season and missed just 15 games in the last three years) and quick chemistry with rookie Maatta, and his value to the Penguins seems to increase with every appearance.
Steen needed only a half season of his best play to earn his new contract extension, and that kind of situation already has a precedent in Pittsburgh in the form of James Neal.
Neal, like Niskanen, was met with early struggles upon arriving in Pittsburgh. He turned things around in his first full season, besting his own single-season marks in less than half a season alongside Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz.
By February, Neal had earned a six-year, $30 million contract extension. The deal was the richest of Neal's career and allowed the Penguins to keep a high-ceiling asset away from free agency.
Niskanen's present situation is almost identical.
Like Neal and Steen before him, Niskanen seems to be rounding into form after being drafted high and struggling early in his career. Now the team has a chance to lock him up, betting that his current success is a better indicator of future value than of past problems.
They could let the season play out to decide what to do with Niskanen. However, his asking price seems to be increasing as his play improves, and he is, at the moment, insulated against outside pressures that come at the trade deadline and during free agency.
Neal was at least partially shielded by his restricted free agent status -- Niskanen will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, should he get that far.
Niskanen has been very good, but is hardly indispensable in Pittsburgh's defensively-stacked organization. Even if the team loses veteran regulars like Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin and Deryk Engelland in the coming years (all will be free agents in the next two years), the team showed its ability to replace them from within the system during their outlandish injury rash from November through early January.
However, if he can be re-signed at the right price, Niskanen has proven he has a place in Pittsburgh's defensive corps.
Niskanen has previously expressed his desire to remain in Pittsburgh. At the outset of this season, he told the Tribune-Review's Josh Yohe of his desire to remain with the Penguins.
"I'm not going to bring it up with them. I don't think that's my place," Niskanen said. "But if they would come to me at some point down the road, I would have a lot of interest in staying here."
After the kind of work Niskanen has put in over the last two seasons, that point down the road ought to arrive soon.
James Conley is a Penguins contributor for Yahoo Sports and an Editor at SB Nation's Pensburgh. Shower him with your praise and adulation on Twitter at @Slew_James.
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