They had shared locker rooms and benches and planes and buses for the past four seasons, so when the time came for Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik to sign their free agent contracts, it felt normal that they would share the same emotions, too. “I think we were a little overwhelmed by the whole process,” Orpik would say later, only after their paths converged again, in a different city this time, having deviated for only a couple of hours.
In Pittsburgh, they weren’t linemates too often (only 80:39 minutes of ice time last season) and they played with different styles (Niskanen the puck-mover, Orpik the defensive defenseman), but maybe that made it all the more likely they would both end up signing with Washington on Tuesday afternoon, new blue-liners for their old divisional rivals.
“It would seem odd, wouldn’t it?” Niskanen said. “But in professional sports, everyone’s got a job to do.”
And in professional sports, sometimes players get paid handsomely for their jobs. This is another big reason why Niskanen and Orpik will reunite.
Orpik, around whom general manager Brian MacLellan had structured his free agency plan, agreed first, at $5.5 million per season, for a length of five seasons. Then he left home to work out. Something to cure the anxiety. Before the Penguins front office and coaching staff got wiped out last month, Orpik had never seen himself leaving Pittsburgh, so all those lingering nerves needed to be pumped away. Upon returning to his car, Orpik learned that Niskanen was coming too, scored for the steep price of seven years, $40.25 million, the biggest contract given to a free agent this offseason.
They had vented together about the twists of free agency, without much mention of where the other might go. But when Niskanen’s long-planned wedding took him away on Saturday, and with him the opportunity to visit Washington, Orpik became both an interviewee and an emissary.
“I did a lot of research on what type of people are in the locker room in Washington and got nothing but good feedback from the people I talked to,” Orpik said. “I think when there’s a big change like this, it’s always a little nice to have someone with you, kind of taking that jump. Hoping it’ll make the transition for the two of us a little easier, but like I said I did a lot of asking around on the guys in that locker room and got nothing but good information.”
They had a friend in-house too, their old blue-line coach from Pittsburgh. Todd Reirden had been hired by Washington less than one week earlier and though the Capitals had pegged Orpik and Niskanen long before that, his connections helped. They knew how Reirden coached them, how he helped Niskanen become a lineup regular again, how he leaned on both to help the young players act like pros.
Reirden wasn’t around Tuesday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. He had flown back to Pittsburgh, getting some personal matters in order before developmental camp and the plunge into preseason. But he read the reports and watched the news. Soon, the text messages were flowing in.
“Having played against the Caps as much as we have, we know the roster that they have here and just how close they are, we can continue to improve in some areas and they wanted to be a part of that improvement,” Reirden said.
He will have plenty of areas to address, even with his former Penguins. How to ensure Niskanen’s career year doesn’t become an anomaly, for one. How to help reverse a downward trend in ice time and possession numbers for Orpik, who turns 34 before the season begins and will be 38 by the time his deal expires, for another.
But they are all here now, on the other side of the rivalry, “playing against Sidney Crosby instead of Ovechkin and company,” as Niskanen put it. Orpik offered the best story of Washington’s star forward, because they had concurrent drug tests after the United States-Russia game at the Sochi Olympics, but neither could seem to go on cue.
“So we got to spend a couple hours together,” Orpik said.
Niskanen owes much of his career-high 46 points, 10 goals and 36 assists to the forwards he played alongside. Sidney Crosby was a linemate 33.2 percent of the time and Evgeni Malkin 26.5 percent of the time. With Crosby, their Corsi-for reached 58.3 percent. With Malkin, it was 58.8 percent. Both of their goals-for percentages hovered around 75.
“That’s the effect they have,” Niskanen said. “Alex Ovechkin is going to have that effect too. Nicklas Backstrom is going to have that effect. You’re getting a lot of good players in Washington. I’m excited. I think that’s one of my strength, is I can play with those high-end guys and I can help those guys out.”
“Guys like that aren’t too fun to go up against,” Orpik said.
On Dec. 27, the Capitals will visit the Penguins and Niskanen, Orpik and Reirden will all be back before Pittsburgh fans for the first time. They will fly a different plane and ride a different bus and share a different locker room and sit on a different bench. But they will still be together, perhaps improbably so, after the money and the opportunity and the old coach led them somewhere new.
“We all want to win,” Niskanen said. “Teams make changes and you have to find a new place of work. When you start talking about where you want to be and what you’re looking for and what kind of situation you want to be in, if the Caps call, you have to listen.”