Matt Niskanen stood before a Capitals backdrop inside the Capitals’ practice facility on Saturday afternoon, wearing his new Capitals sweater and his new Capitals hat, whisked here after a marriage, a lucrative contract and two weeks of general madness. He had signed for seven years and $40.25 million without even visiting Washington, relying on scouting reports from friends and research conducted himself, so now came the chance to enter this world for real.
“I’ve met a lot of people,” Niskanen said Saturday. General Manager Brian MacLellan, Coach Barry Trotz, owner Ted Leonsis and “a million other people I’ll forget. It’s been really good. It’s one thing that I don’t have to worry about when I come at the end of August.”
Niskanen, 27, and his new wife, Katie, flew into town to seek a new house, and the trip doubled as their first visit to Kettler Capitals Iceplex, smack in the middle of development camp. He had always kept an eye on Washington, primarily because of forward Alex Ovechkin, but now the former Penguins defenseman stood on the other side of the rivalry, signed to address the blue-line problems he saw from afar.
“Just the feel for the direction they were headed and what they’re trying to do, it just felt that this is a really good thing for this organization,” he said. “They’ve got the pieces. We can put something together and go on a run or two and be together for a while and I’m really excited about that opportunity. The team we have here has an opportunity to win and that’s the most attractive thing.”
Vital to that new direction under Trotz, known for the way his Nashville teams developed defensemen, will be revitalizing the position Niskanen inhabits, a spot at which Washington struggled to find consistent production last season. It’s why Trotz plucked assistant Todd Reirden from Pittsburgh, why Reirden helped lure Niskanen and Brooks Orpik to sign with the Capitals, and why Leonsis said he’s never seen more depth on the blue line since buying the team in 1999.
Where Niskanen fits into the equation, coming off a career year as a puck-moving defenseman, remains to be decided over the coming weeks as Trotz and his staff prepare for training camp, but he’s already begun the intra-divisional adjustment process. He had already spoken to several Capitals about the locker room culture while deciding where to sign. His visit here happened to include a meeting with fellow defenseman John Carlson.
Shortly after finalizing his contract, Niskanen also received a call from Ovechkin, the face of the franchise and an on-ice nemesis since Niskanen was traded to Pittsburgh from Dallas in the 2010-11 season. The welcome text messages had been flooding in, but Ovechkin’s effort stood out.
“It was kind of cool to hear his voice and meet him over the phone,” Niskanen said. “Heard a lot of good stories about him and his personality, so I can’t wait to see that every day.”
In playing beside Ovechkin, Niskanen might find an easy adjustment given his time in Pittsburgh with Sidney Crosby (33.2 percent of time on ice, per Behind The Net) and Evgeni Malkin (26.5 percent), star presences in their own right.
“My job and my approach to it is get those guys the puck as fast as you can,” he said. “If we’re on defense playing the rush or in your own zone, get them the puck as fast as you can. You want to have possession, get it out of your end clean, get ‘em the puck in an area they can do something with it.”
As for the duality of a new marriage and a new team within the same weekend?
“Well, this is my first marriage,” he said. “Two weeks in, everything’s going well so far. I guess we’ve made it longer than some. New team, I think, it could be hard, it could go really smooth. I don’t know. I don’t anticipate any problems, but I’m a pretty quiet guy. I’m not going to rustle any feathers coming in here, but I think it’s going to be a really good fit.”
Development camp notes
>> Interviews with Niskanen, Trotz and Leonsis took place during the action, so observations will be limited. It was another high-scoring affair, with the White Team winning both the game (7-4) and the inaugural Future Caps Cup, a trophy given to the victorious side. The White Team’s first goal came 20 seconds into the game, when Riley Barber five-holed goaltender Vitek Vanecek, unassisted on a breakaway. Their second score was a beautiful sequence of passing, from Miles Koules to Brian Pinho to Nathan Walker, who slipped the puck past Taran Kozun.
>> Top prospect Andre Burakovsky lined up at center again on the Red Team’s first line.
“It’s an organizational thing,” Trotz said. “It’s a position where he can use his talents. He sees the ice so well and he’s a very detailed guy.”
Burakovsky said he wasn’t sure whether the Capitals would continue to use him at center this season, though the assumption is that he’ll play in Hershey with an outside shot at logging minutes in Washington.
“They just wanted me to try this,” he said. “They wanted to get me on the puck. It worked out good.”
>> Forward Caleb Herbert (Minnesota-Duluth) got nicked up and missed his second intrasquad scrimmage as a precautionary measure, according to a Capitals spokesman.
>> Barber said he plans to return to college, despite a solid showing at camp and a stint as the United States’ captain at world juniors that impressed the Washington staff. “Going back to Miami [Ohio] for sure,” he said.
>> For more from the week that was, all the blog posts have been compiled here.