New Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen may have signed with his former team’s rival, but not all of his new surroundings will be foreign to the 27-year-old.
Also coming over from Pittsburgh this offseason were teammate Brooks Orpik – a fellow defenseman – as well as ex-Penguins assistant Todd Reirden. Reirden will be tasked with coaching defense for the Capitals, just as he did in Pittsburgh when Niskanen was under his tutelage.
Niskanen credits the presence of Reirden as a reason he signed with Washington.
“That was a big factor. Familiarity with him, how we work together and what he’s done for my career, building my confidence, helping me become a better player. I want to continue that,” he said.
Niskanen cashed in on the best season of his career with a seven-year, $40.25 million contract with the Caps. The Minnesota-native recorded a career-high 46 points (10 goals, 36 assists) in 81 games with a +33 +/- rating, good for sixth in the NHL.
Despite having a career year, however, Niskanen hopes his best hockey is yet to come. He thinks Reirden is the right teacher to help continue his development.
“Last season wasn’t just a peak,” he said. “I don’t want to be satisfied with that, I want to keep moving forward and I think that Todd is the best guy out there for me individually.“
Niskanen played four years in Pittsburgh and in eight total NHL seasons has faced the Capitals 12 times. He knows Washington’s strengths having competed against them and believes he will fit in nicely.
“I think if I keep moving forward and keep getting better, then I can bring a lot to the team and with the group that we have here, I think it can be a really good fit.
“With my strengths of moving the puck and playing on a power play and defending quick, skating ability and those types of things, I think it will fit really well with this group. Todd will work with me, we’ll do it together and the entire defensive core will get better as a group.“
Niskanen joins a Caps defensive unit that expects significant improvement in 2014-15. Last season Washington was 20th in the NHL in preventing goals (2.79/game) and ranked 27th in shots allowed (33.5/game). Goaltender Braden Holtby simply needs more help keeping opponents off the board.
Niskanen understands the challenge facing the Capitals defensemen and thinks better days are ahead.
“[We’ve] got the pieces. We can put something together and go on a run or two and be together for a while and I’m really excited about that opportunity. The team we have here has an opportunity to win and that’s the most attractive thing.”