Washington made a second addition to its blueline on Tuesday when it inked unrestricted free agent defenseman Matt Niskanen, formerly of the Pittsburgh Penguins, to a seven-year contract worth a total of $40.25 million. The Niskanen deal will carry an annual salary cap hit of $5.75 million. Earlier in the day, the Capitals added Brooks Orpik, Niskanen’s Pittsburgh teammate.
Niskanen has notched 20 or more points four times in his seven seasons in the NHL. He is coming off his best season in the league, a 10-goal, 36-point performance for Pittsburgh in 2013-14.
A first-round draft choice (28th overall) of the Dallas Stars in 2005, Niskanen has totaled 491 career games in the league. Among current Caps defensemen, only Orpik (703) and Mike Green (503) have played in more games in the NHL. Niskanen has amassed 35 goals and 132 assists for 167 points while accumulating 266 penalty minutes.
In his first NHL season with Dallas as a 21-year-old in 2007-08, Niskanen averaged 20:29 per game over 78 contests while totaling seven goals and 26 points. He finished eighth in the balloting for the Calder Trophy that season.
Niskanen upped his offensive numbers as a sophomore, putting up six goals and 35 points in 80 games, despite seeing his ice time dip just below 20 minutes per night. The next two seasons in Dallas were more difficult for the 27-year-old native of Virginia, Minn. Late in the 2010-11 season, he was dealt to the Penguins, a deal in which he was seen as a throw-in. Niskanen’s average ice time dipped to 16:32 in 2010-11 and 17:56 in 2011-12.
Niskanen has rebounded over the last two seasons, bouncing back up to better than a third of a point per game and more than 20 minutes per night in both campaigns. He logged a career high average of 21:18 with the Penguins in 2013-14.
Last week, the Caps added former Penguins assistant coach Todd Reirden, a former NHL defenseman, as an assistant coach here in the District. Reirden worked closely with both Niskanen and Orpik during his four seasons as an assistant with the Pens, and he discussed both former Pittsburgh blueliners during his introductory press conference at Kettler on Monday.
“Matt Niskanen was a different case,” related Reirden. “He came to us in a trade with Dallas. We were able to get James Neal and Matt Niskanen for Alex Goligoski. In that situation, Matt had gone through a couple of difficult years in Dallas. The relationship that I have with him has really grown over the last four years. We came up with a plan when he first walked into my office about how to rebuild his game and get it back to where it was two years ago.
“Certainly Matt has been great to work with this year. He led the National Hockey League defensemen in plus/minus with a plus-33. We went through over 500 man-games of injuries [in Pittsburgh], primarily to our defense last year. He really stepped up and his ability to work with 19-year-old Olli Maatta last year showed a lot about his leadership and his ability to help young players. That’s an element that he had never had in his game, which was the ability to lead and help young players, and I think that’s something that he added to his résumé.
“[He is a] right-hand shot that can play on your first power play, but more so a second power play guy. And he was able to increase his level of quality of competition, which was one of our goals that we worked toward.”
With Tuesday’s additions of Niskanen and Orpik, Washington has added the No. 3 and 4 defensemen from the league’s tenth best defensive team in 2013-14.
The Capitals now have their top four defensemen (Niskanen, Orpik, John Carlson and Karl Alzner) under contract for the next three seasons.