Big contracts to bring scrutiny, pressure for new Capitals defensemen Niskanen, Orpik


Matt Niskanen, left in a file photo, commanded a deal worth $40.25 million. Brooks Orpik signed for $27.5 million. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson, File)

There was a brief pause while Brooks Orpik digested the query, asked over a teleconference Tuesday afternoon. The defenseman was being introduced as the Caps’ newest free agent signing, at the eye-popping price of five years, $27.5 million, so a reporter asked Orpik to explain why, exactly, he was worth that much.

“Why am I worth that?” Orpik wondered aloud. “Uhh…that’s probably a better question for the people who give out the contracts. I think my body of work speaks for itself.”

That exact question lingered on many minds Tuesday, when Washington handed Orpik a contract of that magnitude, then one-upped itself with a seven-year, $40.25-million deal to Orpik’s former teammate in Pittsburgh, Matt Niskanen. General manager Brian MacLellan had spent most of the day upstairs at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, shuttling into the offices of team president Dick Patrick and owner Ted Leonsis, seeking confirmation that he could, indeed, hand out the first- and third-biggest deals of July 1.

I know it’s a big commitment by ownership,” MacLellan said, and investing a dozen total years into two players turned more than a few heads. NHL Network named the Orpik deal the worst signing of this free agency period. Yahoo! listed the Capitals among its “losers.” So did The Score.

No pressure.

“Certainly the better you play in previous years, expectations go up,” Niskanen said. “With a long-term contract and larger money, expectations go up. That’s reality.”

“The exact dollar amount, no matter who you are, someone’s going to think you were overpaid or underpaid or you got just what you want,” Orpik said. “I don’t think that’s for the player to worry about. I think obviously they like what you’ve done in the past.”

The bigger burden might fall onto Orpik, a 33-year-old veteran who had spent his entire career in Pittsburgh. His intangibles are no secret, praised for leadership and tutelage with young defensemen, but Orpik’s ice time has declined for three straight seasons and his advanced metrics leave something to be desired. (“Brooks Orpik was a bad signing for the Capitals and here’s why” is a pretty firm headline from colleague Neil Greenberg, who gets into the nitty gritty of his stats, and ESPN’s Scott Burnside called the deal “just plain cuckoo.”)

According to CapGeek, the Capitals frontloaded Orpik’s deal, handing him $6.5 million for 2014-15, $5.5 million for the three ensuing seasons and $4.5 million for the final year, by which point Orpik will be 38 years old and closing in on retirement. And since 2011-12, he has incurred a reported 14 injuries, all but one listed as day-to-day.

“In terms of the age, the age for me really isn’t a huge factor,” Orpik said. “I think if you talk to anyone who played with me knows how well I take care of myself nutrition-wise and diet-wise. I’m sure whether you’re 22 or 33, anytime you give out a long contract there’s always some type of risk with injury.”

It was a strange spot for Orpik, asked to defend a contract plopped onto his doorstep. He requested a fifth year, and after some hesitance the Capitals obliged. He also received a limited no-trade clause for the full length and. Later, MacLellan said Washington structured its Tuesday activity around securing Orpik, because the team felt it foremost needed a defensive defenseman.

Orpik said he chose the Capitals over an unnamed Western Conference team. Niskanen left at least one richer deal on the table, likely because of the comfort Washington offered in assistant coach Todd Reirden. Detroit had reportedly offered Niskanen a seven-year deal worth $38.5 million. For him, the challenge will be justifying the dollar amount after a career season, particularly if his power play ice time (55.4 percent for Pittsburgh in 2013-14) reduces and his shooting percentage (10.1 percent in five-on-five situations) declines.

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

Both became the beneficiaries of a concerted Capitals effort to open their wallets and pay, with all the scrutiny sure to follow soon behind, until the results offer judgment in one direction or another.

“Whatever that number may be, you just come in and you just keep doing what you’ve been doing,” Orpik said. “You don’t try to live up to a certain number or try to apply any more pressure on yourself just because it’s a new contract. There’s a reason they gave it to you.”

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