Niskanen says he's 'ready for that challenge'

Niskanen says he's 'ready for that challenge'
July 3, 2014, 11:30 am
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(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s safe to say that Matt Niskanen will never experience anything quite like the four days that led to him becoming a Washington Capital.

His extended weekend began on Saturday when he married his local sweetheart, Katie Garrick, near the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth, Minn.

The next night, he spoke with Penguins teammate an occasional defense partner Brooks Orpik, who on Sunday visited Washington and met with team owner Ted Leonsis, general manager Brian MacLellan and head coach Barry Trotz to see if the Capitals would be the right organization for him to complete his NHL career.

And then came free-agent Tuesday, a whirlwind of activity that featured at least 15 phone calls between Niskanen and his agent, Neil Sheehy, who was orchestrating the bidding war for the services of the 27-year-old native of Virginia, Minn.

The result, of course, was Niskanen signing the longest and richest contract of the NHL offseason – seven years and $40.25 million.

[RELATED Former Capitals center Mikhail Grabovski signs with Islanders]

Here are some excerpts from Niskanen’s phone conference with reporters detailing his big day and the expectations that come with his lucrative deal:

On the emotional roller coaster of getting married and changing jobs in a matter of days:

When I got engaged, we scheduled a date 15 months ago. I didn’t anticipate it being this big of a weekend for me over a year ago. A month or so ago it clicked that this could be a pretty crazy weekend when my agent told me what kind of interest there would be. It was obviously very fun, getting married on Saturday and a nerve-racking couple days.

On the conversation he had with Brooks Orpik Monday night:

He said he was really impressed with the people, the facilities. He got a really good feel from Barry Trotz, Brian MacLellan. He just got a really good feel for what they’re trying to do and the direction they’re headed.

On what ultimately led to his signing with the Capitals:   

The new big day, I think, is the five days before July 1. My agent got a lot of calls. Hearing the Caps come up, my ears perked up right away. At the end, it felt right to go to Washington. I heard nothing but great things about Barry Trotz and the way things are going there and the fit with my strengths as a player and what they have already. I thought it was a really good thing.

On the swing of emotions on Tuesday:

I woke up and didn’t know. I kind of had a gut feeling I was leaning toward Wash. The more I thought about it, it felt right. [Other free agent] deals were coming through to my agent and he was presenting them to me.

On if he left more money from another NHL team on the table:

There was one slightly more. My agent said other teams could have gone higher. To me, I wanted to find the hockey fit. I’m happy they wanted me.

On having the financial security of a seven-year contract:

It’s a very big commitment from Wash for a pretty substantial amount of money. That’s no small thing. I’m grateful for that opportunity and excited for that challenge, to be that player. I wanted to go to a place where I knew I could be in a good spot and have a chance to win for an extended period of time and I think I really found that with the Caps. I hope to stay for the duration.

On the expectations that come with such a big contract:

Certainly, the better you play in previous years expectations go up. With a long-term contract and large money, expectations go up. That’s reality. I think I’m ready for that challenge. I’ve played essentially top-four minutes for 80 percent of the year last year. I had a lot of responsibility and at times I was the oldest defenseman by far on our team and our team had a lot of success. I had a good year [career-highs of 10 goals, 46 points, plus-33]. It definitely was a breakout year, and now the challenge for me  is to try to keep moving forward. That’s one thing me and Todd [Reirden] talked about, how do you get a little better this week, this season. I look forward to working with him some more.

On the influence Reirden had on his career in four yeas together in Pittsburgh:

He’s been huge. Four seasons ago, when I was traded from Dallas with James Neal to Pittsburgh for Alex Goligoski, my career was not at a good spot at that point. Todd helped me come up with a plan to become a regular in the lineup again and we would build from there. From Day 1 he’s been honest with me, wanted me to get better and helped me along the way with extra video sessions and extra time after practice. He helped build my confidence back up and he’s been a big part of why I’m at where I am today. I’ve said this all along. Todd helps young defensemen get better. He works on details extensively, builds confidence, and tries to get the most out of everybody that he works with.

On going from playing with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to playing with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom:

That’s one of my strengths, getting pucks around the net so forwards can finish off rebounds and tips. As we’ve seen the last couple years you’ve got to have to have high-end talent to win and the Caps definitely have that. … I’m glad I don’t have Ovechkin forechecking me and dragging me into the glass. I’m glad I’m on his side and I can pass him the puck and all the forwards, really. I’m excited about the forward group. You’ve got some size and skill and guys that can skate. It’s going to be a good challenge facing the Penguins.