Moving swiftly to give Alex Ovechkin help at the defensive end while raiding a rival, new Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan signed Pittsburgh Penguins free agents Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik on Tuesday to deals totalling more than $65-million.
The 27-year-old Niskanen, the more offensive-minded of the pair of defencemen joining the Capitals, got a $40.25-million, seven-year contract.
“It’s a very big commitment from Washington. That’s no small thing. You’re talking a seven-year commitment for a very substantial amount of money,” said Niskanen, who got married Saturday. “I’m excited for that challenge.”
The 33-year-old Orpik, more of a stay-at-home blueliner who had spent his entire career with the Penguins, was given a $27.5-million, five-year package.
“I’ve got to be honest: Up until this year, I never really envisioned myself leaving Pittsburgh. As everyone knows, there’s been a lot of changes there. It really was a perfect time,” Orpik said. “The past year, there was such strong expectations for the team, both internally and externally, and I think we had a really tough time handling those expectations.”
The Capitals got off to a fast start on the first day of NHL free agency, also adding Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Justin Peters on a $1.9-million, two-year deal, while re-signing centre Michael Latta to a $1.15 million, two-year contract.
Last season, three-time NHL MVP Ovechkin and the Capitals missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years, leading ownership to make changes. George McPhee’s contract was not renewed after he spent 17 seasons as the team’s GM, while Adam Oates was fired with a year left on his three-season deal.
MacLellan was promoted from assistant general manager to replace McPhee, while Barry Trotz was hired as the new coach.
Washington also has added assistant coach Todd Reirden, who was hired by the Capitals after the Penguins fired him last week.
“He’s been huge,” Niskanen said. “Todd helps young defencemen get better.”
And in one more Penguins-to-Capitals transaction Tuesday, Washington signed right wing Chris Conner to a one-year, two-way contract. He has 22 goals and 28 assists in 178 NHL games, including 19 with Pittsburgh last season.
As for all those people moving from Pittsburgh — which also recently changed its GM and coach — to Washington, Niskanen said: “It would seem odd, wouldn’t it? But it’s professional sports. ... If the Caps call, you’ve got to listen.”
Speaking about the Capitals, Orpik said: “I’ve played against that group enough to know what the potential of that group can be. ... I think they needed some direction, and I think Barry will provide that.”
Niskanen, 27, led NHL defencemen with a plus-33 rating last season, when he set career highs with 10 goals and 36 assists. The 6-foot, 209-pound defenceman has 35 goals, 132 assists and 266 penalty minutes in 491 career NHL games for Pittsburgh and Dallas.
The 6-foot-2, 219-pound Orpik has 13 goals, 119 assists and 734 penalty minutes in 703 career games. He is a two-time U.S. Olympian and was an alternate captain for the Penguins since 2008.
The 27-year-old Peters went 7-9-4 with a 2.50 goals-against average and a .919 save percentage for the Carolina Hurricanes last season.
“When the head coach on the team looks you in the eye and tell you he wants you to be there, that goes a long way,” Peters said.
He said that he wasn’t told how he’ll be used with the Capitals — strictly as a No. 2 behind Braden Holtby, or splitting time in the top goalie spot — but added that he thinks it will “work itself out.”