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 totaling more than $65 million.
“We needed to shore up our defense, give us some depth, give us some leadership, give us some experience,” MacLellan said. “And I think we’ve accomplished that today.”
The 27-year-old Niskanen, the more offensive-minded of the pair of defensemen joining the Capitals, got a $40.25 million, seven-year contract, which he called “a very big commitment … for a very substantial amount of money.”
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 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 center Michael Latta to a $1.15 million, two-year contract.
Going forward, MacLellan indicated he plans to keep defenseman Mike Green (“He had an OK year; we’re hoping to get him back on track,” he said) and would like to add another center.
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.
“Todd helps young defensemen get better,” said Niskanen, who got married Saturday and said Orpik passed along information from his visit with the Capitals.
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 defensemen with a plus-33 rating last season, when he set career highs with 10 goals and 36 assists. The 6-foot, 209-pound defenseman 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.
“He’s a defensive defenseman. He’s a shot blocker. He hits. He’s strong in front of the net. He clears the crease. He does all those intangible things, plus the leadership side,” MacLellan said. “Plus, he makes the guy beside him a little better, too.”
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 he wasn’t told how he’ll be used with the Capitals, but MacLellan made clear that Peters is No. 2 to Braden Holtby.
“We want Holtby to be our guy, and we want him to be supported by a good backup. Peters is a good backup, in our minds, and he has some upside, too,” MacLellan said. “We wanted to send a message to Holtby that he’s our No. 1 guy.”
AP Sports Writer Joseph White contributed to this report.
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