The Washington Capitals have agreed to terms with their second former Penguins defenseman on Tuesday, the first day of free agency, signing Matt Niskanen to a seven-year deal worth $40.25 million at an annual cap hit of $5.75 million.
“We are very excited that Matt Niskanen has chosen to sign with Washington,” general manager Brian MacLellan said in a statement. “At 27 years of age, he is just entering his prime for a defenseman. We feel he will be a staple on our blueline for many years to come. We have stated all along that upgrading the defense was our top priority this offseason and we feel we accomplished our goal with our signings today.”
One of the best available unrestricted free agents left, Niskanen had a host of initial suitors to choose from, including Colorado, Tampa Bay, Dallas and Minnesota, though his contract demands reportedly priced most of those teams out of the running. But not the Capitals.
The hiring of former Penguins assistant coach Todd Reirden, who worked with the blue line in Pittsburgh, has immediately helped them address an area of need with two faces familiar to him. In a recent telephone interview, Niskanen’s agent, Neil Sheehy, said it was “no secret” that Reirden and Niskanen had bonded with the Penguins.
“The relationship I have with him has really grown over the last four years,” Reirden said Monday. “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 … He really stepped up. 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. Again, that’s an element that he had never had in his game, which was the ability to lead and help young players. I think that’s something he added to his resume. [A] right-hand shot who can play on your first power play, but more so a second power play guy. He was able to increase his level of quality of competition, which again was one of our goals. ”
Niskanen posted strong possession numbers last season, with a 53.4 percent Corsi-for, a measurement of puck possession, and a Corsi-for relative of plus-7.3. He played in 81 games for the Penguins, notching 46 points on 10 goals and 36 assists.
Given his role as a puck-moving defenseman, it’s possible that the Capitals could begin fielding trade calls for the rights to Mike Green, a similar-style blue-liner whose contract expires after 2014-15. Washington could perhaps find a suitor among those teams priced out by Niskanen’s demands.
Niskanen joins Brooks Orpik, who signed a five-year, $27.5-million deal on Tuesday, and former Carolina goaltender Justin Peters (two years, $1.9 million) as Washington’s free agent haul on the market’s first open day. Signing Niskanen pushes the Capitals up against the salary cap ceiling, set last week at $69 million. According to CapGeek, the Niskanen deal leaves Washington with less than $1 million in space.