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Capitals’ GM MacLellan: Massive free agency contracts ‘addressed perceived needs’

The new Capitals regime made a big splash in free agency. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

After one month of tedious preparation had resulted in $68.9 million of NHL contracts signed within a few hours, Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan walked downstairs at the team’s practice facility and into the locker room, where reporters awaited. “Be nice,” he jokingly said as he approached the podium. “Be nice.”

A seven-year deal worth $40.25 million to Matt Niskanen and a five-year deal worth $27.5 million to Brooks Orpik had left plenty of questions for MacLellan, and he answered all under the umbrella of addressing needs. In his first free agency atop the front office, the calculus was simple: To shore up the defense, add leadership and improve five-on-five play, Washington needed to open its checkbook.

“We had cap room,” MacLellan said. “Ownership gave the green light to get to the cap, and we spent the money where we felt we needed to spend it the most.

“It’s a big commitment by our organization and hopefully the players see the commitment by both ownership and management to address perceived needs that we do have. I’m excited about it and hopefully they are too.”

Three days after setting a franchise record for trades in a single NHL entry draft, the Capitals embarked upon another whirlwind afternoon. First they addressed the less dire of their needs, signing goaltender Justin Peters (two years, $1.9 million) to back up Braden Holtby less than a half-hour past the 12 p.m. start time.

“We talked about that a lot,” MacLellan said. “A lot of it was the right message to Holtby. We want Holtby to be our guy and we want him to be supported by a good backup.”

Then came the influx of former Penguins, first Orpik then Niskanen, teammates for the divisional rivals, reunited in Washington under their positional coach, Todd Reirden.

The Capitals had only interviewed two players at Ketter Iceplex and signed both — Orpik and Peters – but interviewed several more on the telephone. According to MacLellan, Tuesday’s action wasn’t centered on Niskanen, one of the most courted players on the market who said he chose the Capitals over more lucrative offers, but Orpik.

“The total dollars were centered around Brooks,” MacLellan said. “We needed to get him in first because we thought that was our greatest need. We tried to get him to stay as low as possible. We struggled with that fifth year for a while, then we just felt we had to go there because it was getting so competitive on him.”

Niskanen, the puck-moving right-hander, and Orpik, a more defensive-oriented blue-liner, join Mike Green, John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Dmitry Orlov to form what MacLellan called “six really good defensemen.” Both Niskanen and Orpik have partial no-trade clauses for the duration of their contract, meaning they can provide management with lists of desired destinations. But on separate teleconferences with reporters, they offered a desire to be in Washington for the long haul.

MacLellan and first-year Coach Barry Trotz initially see Orpik buttressing either Carlson, with whom Orpik played with on the U.S. Olympic team, or Mike Green. Regardless of what pairing Niskanen draws, he will play on the right side, coming off a career year to face monstrous expectations after signing the highest-valued contract of any free agent this offseason.

“We’ve scouted Matt for a long time too,” MacLellan said. “We had some questions on this is a big year for him, he had a good year, he had a good year two years ago, but Todd Reirden our defense coach had a lot of input on why his game was where it is and why he believed it would stay at this level. So we trusted Todd’s opinion on that.”

MacLellan expressed some remorse that the demands from center Mikhail Grabovski were too restrictive for the Capitals to re-sign him, particularly given Tuesday’s plan to ink two defensemen. The price for Grabovski would almost certainly drop, MacLellan said, and he hoped the Capitals could add another center before preseason dawns.

Some trade options also crossed MacLellan’s desk, but nothing proved alluring enough to bite. According to CapGeek, the Capitals have $1.11 million left in cap space with the new ceiling set at $69 million.

“There was stuff I would’ve liked to have been involved in that I wasn’t,” MacLellan said. “But there’s other areas where I didn’t think it was an upgrade for our team. I thought we could go the free agency route with the two guys we got. I thought that was the better play to make.”

Here is a breakdown of Washington’s signings on Tuesday, with their former destinations in parentheses:

D Matt Niskanen (Pittsburgh): Seven years, $40.25 million, $5.75 million average annual value (AAV).

D Brooks Orpik (Pittsburgh): Five years, $27.5 million, $5.5 million AAV.

G Justin Peters (Carolina): Two years, $1.9 million, $950,000 AAV.

C Michael Latta (Washington): Two years, one-way, $1.15 million, $575,000 AAV.

D Jon Landry (Iowa Wild, AHL): One year, two-way, undisclosed amount.

D Mike Moore (Providence Bruins, AHL): One year, two-way, undisclosed amount.

F Chris Conner (Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre, AHL): One year, two-way, undisclosed amount.

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