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Capitals sign Niskanen for seven years, Orpik for five

by Adam Vingan

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan identified reinforcing the defense as his most pressing priority. He achieved that Tuesday, signing former Pittsburgh Penguins defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik each to a long-term contract worth more than $67 million combined.

"I know it's a big commitment by ownership," MacLellan said. "We feel we've addressed areas that we felt we needed to address. We needed to shore up our defense, give us some depth, give us some leadership, give us some experience. I think we've accomplished that."

Niskanen, one of the most coveted free agents available after a breakout season, received a seven-year contract worth $40.25 million.

"The better you play in previous years, the expectations go up," Niskanen said. "With a long-term contract and large money, expectations go up. That's reality. I think I'm ready for that challenge."

Orpik signed a five-year, $27.5 million contract.

"The whole situation just felt right," said Orpik, who visited Washington on Sunday and was impressed by coach Barry Trotz's vision for the organization. "It's a group obviously that I guess for the last couple years people think has underachieved, but I've played against that group enough that I know what the potential is for that group."

Washington missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season for the first time since 2007. The Capitals used an NHL-high 14 defensemen, many rookies or minor-league journeymen.

Niskanen, 27, was among the NHL scoring leaders at his position, finishing with a career-high 10 goals and 46 points.

He also significantly tilted the ice in Pittsburgh's favor. His Corsi-for relative was plus-7.3 percent, according to That ranked third among defensemen with at least 62 games played. Washington finished near the bottom of the League in puck-possession at even strength.

Niskanen benefitted by spending most of his even-strength ice time with productive Pittsburgh forwards Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz. The chance to play with equally potent players, Washington forwards Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, was enticing.

"Certainly just playing with those guys [on the Penguins], you're going to be a better player," Niskanen said. "That's the effect that they have. Alex Ovechkin is going to have that effect too. Nicklas Backstrom is going to have that effect. That's one of my strengths, is that I can play with those high-end guys and help those guys out."

Orpik, who turns 34 on Sept. 26, has spent his entire 703-game NHL career with the Penguins, who drafted him No. 18 in 2000. He leaves Pittsburgh as the Penguins leader in games played by a defenseman.

With the Penguins overturning their front office and coaching staff this offseason, Orpik said he felt it was time to move on.

"I've got to be honest, up until this year I really never envisioned myself leaving Pittsburgh," Orpik said. "As everyone knows, a lot has changed there in the last little bit with management, a lot of players going in and out. It really was the perfect time for a change."

The Capitals have lacked the steadying presence Orpik has been to known to provide on the back end, which is what made him Washington's primary target.

"The total dollars were centered around Brooks," MacLellan said when asked how he approached the signings. "We needed to get him in first because we thought that was our greatest need."

Conferring with Trotz, MacLellan imagined a potential shutdown pairing of Orpik and John Carlson. The two skated alongside each other for the United States at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

The addition of Niskanen, a high-priced, offensively inclined defenseman, conjured questions regarding Mike Green, who has struggled to recapture the dynamic form that made him a two-time Norris Trophy finalist.

MacLellan said Green is very much in Washington's plans.

"He's a good player," MacLellan said. "He had a little bit of struggles with injuries last year. He had an OK year. But we're hoping to get him back on track."

The Capitals filled another need Tuesday, signing former Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Justin Peters to a two-year, $1.9 million contract.

MacLellan opted to sign Peters, who has 68 NHL appearances, over a more seasoned backup in order to solidify the Capitals' faith in starter Braden Holtby.

"If you bring in an older, experienced guy, it's going to cost you more money," MacLellan said. "It was going to cost us more money, and it might have been a little more pressure on Holtby. We wanted to send a message to Holtby that he was our No. 1 guy."

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