Pens Losses Become Capitals Gains

A Blueline Makeover: The Capitals Sign Former Penguins Defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen

Matt Niskanen

Matt Niskanen set a new career high scoring his 10th goal of the season on Sunday. (Icon SMI)

If you can’t beat them, sign them?  The Washington Capitals were a busy club at the start of the NHL Free Agency period.  Yesterday, they signed two guys that they are very familiar with in a familiar rivalry.  Former Penguins defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen have signed long term deals with the Washington Capitals.

Most Capitals fans probably would not want to sign any players from a major rival like Pittsburgh.  The aggressive moves made today by new Capitals GM Brian MacLellan are a sign of good things to come.  For the first time in a long time, the Capitals actually have “DEPTH” on their blueline.

Let’s take a look at the revamped blueline that now includes the two former Pittsburgh Penguins:

Brooks Orpik: Defenseman; 33 years old

Brooks is your typical stay-at-home blue collar defenseman.  The 33-year old San Francisco, CA native is known for his physical play and shot blocking capabilities.  The former 2000 1st round pick of the Penguins provides a veteran presence and a Stanley Cup ring to the locker room.  Orpik is a former US Olympian and a Silver Medal winner.  The Washington Capitals signed him to a 5-year, $27.5M contract on July 1.

How will he help the Capitals?  He is a 20-25 minute defenseman who can go up against the opponent’s top lines.  Brooks is not afraid to lay the body and get in the opponent’s face.  He can help create some open space for his defensive partner.  For a guy like Mike Green, the addition of Brooks Orpik is huge.  Orpik will not push the play up the ice, but he can provide a steady defensive presence for a guy like Mike Green who does like to push the pace and the puck up the ice.  Orpik is a gritty defenseman who does not mind blocking shots too.  His presence will be most felt on the Capitals penalty killing unit, which has been very inconsistent through the years.  Intangibles and leadership are two things that are tough to teach, and Orpik’s package comes with both of those qualities.

Matt Niskanen: Defenseman; 27 years old

Matt is a two-way defenseman who excels with quality skating.  The 27-year old Virginia, MN native is a 2005 1st round pick of the Dallas Stars.  He had a career season with the Penguins in 2013-2014 with career highs in goals (10) and points (46).  He was one of the most sought after free agents in this NHL Free Agency Period.  The Washington Capitals signed him to a 7-year, $40.25M contract on July 1.

How will he help the Capitals?  He is another 20-25 minute defenseman who can go up against the opponent’s top lines.  While he does not have the same physical element that Brooks Orpik has, he makes up for his lack of physicality with good skating and puck movement.  He filled in very well on the Penguins powerplay when Kris Letang went out of the lineup with his stroke.  Niskanen can be used in all situations and is not afraid to lay a big hit every now and then.

Were the Signings Good?

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Brian MacLellan has begun his tenure as Capitals GM in an aggressive manner.  He addressed some significant holes on the Capitals blueline that has haunted the club for several years.

It was a steep price to pay, but this position has been neglected by the club for a long time.  The last time the Capitals drafted a defenseman in the 1st round of an NHL Draft was back in 2008 when they drafted John Carlson.

If the Capitals would have paid more attention to the blueline in recent years, they probably would have not had to pay out the big bucks in free agency today.

Brooks Orpik’s 5-year deal and $5.5M cap hit are both high figures.  However, he provides a couple of things the Capitals have lacked on their blueline in several years: leadership and sandpaper.  Orpik provides a solid presence on the backend.  He is rugged and tough to play against.  He can clear the crease well and he plays with an edge.  One could say he plays like a jerk.  There is some truth to that.  But in order to be a successful franchise, one has to have a jerk or two.  The Capitals have some good defensemen in Carlson, Green, and Alzner, but they are all nice guys with little sandpaper.  Orpik’s blue collar work ethic should rub off in a positive way for the other Capitals blueliners.  Orpik has played against these guys for many years and he knows what his new teammates are capable of.

Matt Niskanen’s 7-year deal and $5.75M cap hit are also both high figures.  However, his two-way game is something that is highly coveted around the NHL.  Niskanen can be used in all situations and will be one of the best Capitals skaters on the blueline.  He can be used up and down the defensive pairings and he provides another right-handed shot, which is also coveted.  Niskanen is a blueliner who excels in most areas of the game, which is something the Capitals defensive core lacks.

The moves made by the Capitals on July 1 were excellent moves.  The Capitals filled some major holes in the defensive aspect of their organization.  While the moves may not be the most popular among the fanbase, the Capitals can finally say they have “depth” on their blueline.  What better way to try and stick it to a division rival by signing their players?  If there is one key thing Orpik and Niskanen can provide the Capitals, it is intel on how to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Orpik and Niskanen will know the weaknesses of the Penguins players.  They will both play motivated and they will want to prove their doubters wrong about their rich new contracts.  Orpik and Niskanen provide things the Capitals have lacked for years.  They will both provide a winning attitude for the Capitals lineup.  The Capitals are big winners in the NHL Free Agency Period because they addressed some big holes.

Thanks for tuning in!

George Foussekis

George Foussekis

I am from Virginia. I am covering the Washington Capitals for The Hockey Writers. I love to write and I am a huge sports fanatic - especially hockey. Follow me on Twitter: @Canucksfin56
George Foussekis
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One Comment

  1. As a Pens fan it’s a bit funny to me hearing Caps fans talk about how Orpik
    “clears the crease”. Not anymore he doesn’t. What you can expect to see is opposing forwards plant their flag right in front of the net and camp out there uncontested whenever Orpik is on the ice. And look for a lot of goals to be scored against from that area. The Pens gave up a ton of goals right in front of the net whenever Orpik was on the ice. See the charts posted here:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fancy-stats/wp/2014/07/02/brooks-orpik-was-a-bad-signing-for-the-capitals-and-heres-why/

    And there are some other not-so-happy stats in that piece as well. Trust me, Brooks Orpik was no “loss”. He’s already lost a step and now you’d have about as much success just using an orange plastic Pylon, and it would cost less. He may be vocal, but these days he does most of his talking in the press criticizing his teammates, often times when he was the worst guy on the ice. If that equates to “leadership”……..okay.

    Niskanen would’ve been nice to keep as a 2nd liner, as that’s all he is. Solid, but not an elite 1st line defenseman. In no way was he worth the dollars Washington was willing to roll out. Expect his numbers to come crashing back down to Earth next season. He’ll make you better, as the bar was set pretty low.

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