Matt Niskanen among free agent candidates for Capitals

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

With the salary cap ceiling set and the Washington Capitals holding significant room to address their offseason needs, General Manager Brian MacLellan has made clear his top priority.

“Defensemen,” he said Friday, in no uncertain terms. Given his expressed hope that Washington would sign “one, maybe two” free agents, the organization has the space to throw a sizable deal at a blue liner.

According to ESPN.com’s Pierre LeBrun, former Penguins defenseman and unrestricted free agent Matt Niskanen is expected to fetch somewhere around $5 million per season for a “term around five or six years for the puck-mover.” Michael Russo of the Star-Tribune wrote “it appears he could get a seven-year deal in some situations,” while mentioning Minnesota is looking to meet with the local this week. Though it’s unclear where the Capitals would stand on offering a contract of that length, or even whether the interest is reciprocal, league sources have indicated the Capitals have at least expressed interest.

The most enticing thing Washington could offer, money and contract length aside, would be the opportunity for Niskanen to reunite with his positional coach, Todd Reirden. Mere hours after Reirden was fired by Pittsburgh amid a sweeping regime change, he was hired up by MacLellan, expected to help improve a unit that’s endured its share of struggles last season. He is expected to work with the defensemen in Washington, both at even strength and on the penalty kill.

“I wanted something different for me, but also someone on the defensive side of the puck, a coach who’s extremely good,” Coach Barry Trotz said Saturday. “When I went through the interview process, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted Todd to join our staff.”

Himself a Minnesota native who attended the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Niskanen has spent the past three-plus seasons in Pittsburgh after coming over in a midseason trade from Dallas. Last season, he registered 46 points over 81 games with a 53.4 Corsi-for percentage. That said, many of the Pittsburgh forwards he played with also had strong puck possession metrics, raising the question of who exactly was responsible for the high numbers on those lines.

Regardless of who the Capitals decide to pursue before the July 1 free agent signing date, this weekend’s NHL draft – with three trades on Saturday – kept the front office busy. Though the league’s interview window opened last Wednesday, MacLellan said Washington has only interviewed one free agent. He didn’t clarify whether that was only in person or included phone conversations.

“We haven’t been, because we’ve been here,” MacLellan said. “We did interview one guy, then we have a couple planned going forward, yes.

“The next couple days are critical. We have a couple free agents we’ve targeted and we’re going to pursue them.”

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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