Niskanen, Orpik determined to prove contract critics wrong for Caps

Greg Wyshynski
Capitals
Orpik

The Washington Capitals handed defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen $60.30 million in free-agent money, but the biggest beneficiaries of these contracts may be the North American carpentry industry, who spent most of Tuesday repairing floors that had been damaged by thousands of dropping jaws... 

Both played for the Capitals’ frequent tormentors the Pittsburgh Penguins – Orpik, 33, had played 11 seasons there while Niskanen, 27, was there for four seasons. Orpik, a stay-at-home-defenseman and one of the NHL’s most notorious hitters, inked a 5-year, $27-million deal with the Capitals; Niskanen, a puck-moving defender who had a career year in 2013-14, signed a 7-year, $40.25-million contract that was the longest deal handed out on Day 1 of free agency.

“It’s a big commitment by our organization,” said GM Brian MacLellan. “I’m excited about it. I hope they are too.”

Was Orpik worth that deal?

The defenseman laughs at the query. “That’s probably a better question for the people who gave out the contract,” Orpik said.

"No matter who you are, someone’s going to think you were overpaid or underpaid or got what you deserved.”

Was Niskanen worth that deal?

“The better you play in previous years, expectations go up," said Niskanen. "The larger the money, the expectations go up. I think I’m ready for that challenge. I played top four minutes about 80 percent of the year last year,” said Niskanen, who set a career high in points (36) and goals (10) while getting the injured Kris Letang’s minutes for most of the season.

“I had a breakout year last year. And now the challenge for me is how to move forward and get better. It’s something Todd and I have talked about.”

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“Todd” is Washington assistant coach Todd Reirden, the third Penguins exile welcomed to the Capitals recently. He coached the defense in Pittsburgh under Dan Bylsma before getting swept out in their regime change. He found a home with new Capitals coach Barry Trotz and, somewhat conveniently, now has two of his former defensemen wearing red, white and blue next season.

“These players were targeted well before I got the job,” he proclaimed. “I was watching just like you guys have.”

Orpik said Reirden’s hiring was a factor in his decision, but Niskanen nearly describes the coach as a father figure. “He’s been huge. Four seasons ago, I got traded from Dallas to Pittsburgh, and my career wasn’t in a good spot. Todd helped me come up with a plan to become a regular again, and we would build from there,” said Niskanen.

“From Day 1, he was honest with me. Wanted me to get better. Extra video sessions. Extra time after practice. He built my confidence back up.”

Niskanen was a hotly recruited player early in the free agent process, but said some of the larger money deals his agent Neil Sheehy – a former Capital himself – anticipated didn’t come through. He said the Capitals’ offer was only beaten by one other contract, allegedly a 7-year, $42-million deal from the Detroit Red Wings.

He said he made about 16 phone calls with this agent on Tuesday as the offers rolled in. “It was kind of cool to see,” he said.

The last four days have been surreal for Niskanen. Over the weekend, he got married, scheduling the date 15 months earlier. "I didn’t anticipate it being this big of a weekend for me. About a month ago, it clicked that this might be a pretty big week for me,” he said.

Because of his nuptials, he didn’t get a chance to visit the Capitals in Washington. So he depended on the scouting report from someone who did: Brooks Orpik, who traveled to D.C. on Saturday.

“When I met with Barry [Trotz] and saw what his vision was, it was kind of a no-brainer,” said Orpik.

So he relayed that information to Niskanen in two phone calls on Monday night and Tuesday morning. Even if he didn’t really see it as a recruiting call.

“I think we were both just a little overwhelmed at the time. It was good just to vent,” said Orpik.

“I don’t want to take the credit for [his signing]. But it hopefully provided some good information.”

Niskanen said it helped influence him. “I woke up this morning, and I didn’t know where I was going. I was leaning towards Washington,” he said.

“In the end, it felt right to go to Wash.”

That’s not a phrase you hear many big name free agents saying about the Washington Capitals. That was the case for years under GM George McPhee; yet in MacLellan’s first summer at the helm, he landed two significant UFAs.

Another anomaly, given the team’s history: Bringing in a player like Orpik, a veteran defensive defenseman with a Stanley Cup ring.

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“We’ve liked Brooks for a long time. We need that style of player,” said MacLellan. “The young guys look up to him. When a young guy plays with Brooks, he seems to play better.

Orpik believes two things about the Washington Capitals: That they’ve underachieved, but that they eventually might not.

“The whole situation just felt right. I’ve played against the group enough. I know what the potential is for that group. How hard it can be to play against them,” he said.

One of the players that was hardest on the Penguins was Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals star against whom Orpik was frequently matched. “I think we’ll both be happy about it because we tend to beat on each other pretty good,” said Orpik.

He actually forged a friendship off the ice with Ovechkin under rather peculiar circumstances when both were in Sochi.

“I got to know him pretty well at the Olympics,” said Orpik. “We did drug testing together after the U.S./Russia game. Neither of us could pee at the time, so we got to spend a couple of hours together.”

(No doubt a stream of conscious conversation…)

Niskanen and Orpik didn’t come cheap. They didn’t come without criticism and expectations. But they come to Washington to join a mentor in his quest to revamp their defense, and to help the Capitals do what the Penguins were so adept at preventing them from doing.

“They’re not far away from winning,” said Orpik.