- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 1, 2014

After missing the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in seven years, the Capitals entered the summer with obvious holes on the roster and a desperate need to fill them quickly.

Washington took a step toward solving its weaknesses by signing free agent defenseman Matt Niskanen to a seven-year, $40.25 million contract and his former Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Brooks Orpik to a five-year deal worth $27.5 million.

The Caps also signed veteran goalie Justin Peters to a two-year contract worth $1.9 million.

Niskanen is the big prize. He scored 10 goals last season for the Pittsburgh Penguins and finished with 46 points. A seven-year NHL veteran, Niskanen is still just 27. He began his career with the Dallas Stars, who chose him in the first round of the 2005 draft. His goals and assists (36) last season were both career highs.

But he is also a right-side defenseman, a position already occupied by John Carlson and Mike Green. Carlson is signed to a long-term contract. Green, however, is a free agent after this coming season. He will make $6.25 million this year.

“It’s a big commitment from Washington. That’s no small thing, Niskanen said. “You start talking a seven-year commitment for a pretty substantial amount of money, I’m very grateful for that opportunity and excited for that challenge to be that guy.”

Niskanen also played a heavy role on the power play for the Penguins, where he totaled 15 points. That is a role where Green saw less time on ice with the top unit last season. That job went to Carlson.

“We were looking at adding a good two-way guy, a right-shot guy and we went through what was available,” said Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan. “Todd Reirden, our defense coach [formerly with Pittsburgh] had a lot of input on why his game is where it is and why he believed it would stay at that level. We trusted Todd’s opinion on that.”

Orpik, 33, has played 703 NHL games, all of them for the Penguins. He still averaged over 21 minutes per game last season, but was no longer a top-pairing defenseman in Pittsburgh. Orpik’s salary-cap hit with the Penguins was $3.75 million, but he used the open market to garner a pay raise.

Given Orpik’s age and number of games played, the deal is a risk for MacLellan. But Orpik is a left-side defenseman, a tough character with the size and strength at 6-foot-2, 219 pounds to clear opposing forwards from the crease.

Skating isn’t a strength anymore, however, and he fared better with a puck-moving defenseman like Penguins teammate Paul Martin. In that case, pairing him with Carlson, Green or Niskanen would help. Orpik did have two goals and 11 assists last season.

But Orpik’s contract is long for a player with lots of mileage over a long career thanks to a physical style of play. It is a deal that MacLellan felt comfortable with given his team’s desperate need for help on the left side.

For now, Karl Alzner is the experienced veteran at that spot. He generally works with Carlson. The organization is still high on Dmitry Orlov, a young player with upside just coming into his own. But otherwise there is little depth on the left side of the blueline.

Veteran John Erskine struggled to recover from knee surgery last summer and was often left out of the lineup by former coach Adam Oates. Washington needed help and paid heavily for it with Orpik.

Peters, 27, is a career backup goalie, though he has done well in that role with the Carolina Hurricanes playing behind Cam Ward. Peters started 20 games last season and posted a .919 save percentage for Carolina. His goals-against average was 2.50. He has always had success against Washington with a career save percentage of .938 and a 1.67 goals-against average.

The acquisition of Peters solidifies Braden Holtby, 24, as the organization’s No. 1 goalie going forward. Holtby struggled at times last season trying to play a less aggressive style under Oates.

“A lot of it was just sending the right message to Holtby that we believe in him,” MacLellan said of the Peters signing.

The move also allows prospect Phillip Grubauer, 22, to remain with AHL Hershey with recalls expected if injury strikes. Grubauer has appeared in 19 games for the Caps over the last two seasons. A revamped roster now has them thinking contention again.

“I set myself up this year with a pretty good year, so I wanted to go to a place where I knew I could be in a good spot and have a chance to win for an extended period of time,” Niskanen said. “I really found that with the Caps. I’m excited for that opportunity and I hope to stay for the duration.”

• Brian McNally can be reached at bmcnally@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide