Matt Niskanen may have spent the past four seasons with the rival Pittsburgh Penguins, but that didn’t stop the 27-year-old defenseman from admiring the Capitals from afar.
“My whole career, I’ve kind of kept an eye on the Caps because of [Alex] Ovechkin,” Niskanen said at his introductory press conference at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “It’s just a fun team to watch and has been for a long time.”
Niskanen signed a seven-year, $40.25 million deal with the Capitals on July 1 and spent four days in northern Virginia this week, familiarizing himself with the area and finding a new home.
The visit also offered Niskanen a chance to meet head coach Barry Trotz and learn more about where he may fit in the team’s plans moving forward.
“The feel that I got,” Niskanen said of his meeting with Trotz, “is that everyone should be excited to come to work- we’ve got a job to do but it shouldn’t feel like a job. Playing wise- [it’s about] accountability; two-way play, be aggressive with the puck, get the puck back as fast you can defensively and go on the attack and use your skill.
“He’s really sharp with the way he talks and how he’s going to deal with players. I’m really excited to work with him, he has a lot of experience and I’m going to learn a lot from Barry.”
Niskanen had career-highs across the board last season with 10 goals and 46 points in 81 games with Pittsburgh. He was also tops among all NHL defensemen with a plus-33 rating and led Penguins blue liners with 15 power play points.
He admits that donning a Capitals sweater after four years wearing Penguins’ black and gold is “different” but added that “it’s going to feel real good fast.” His new teammates are also easing the transition.
“I've really appreciated a couple of text messages from the guys after I signed,” he said. “Welcome texts, everyone was very supportive, there to answer any questions about the area or getting set up…. Ovechkin even called me, it was kind of cool to hear his voice and meet him over the phone. Heard a lot of good stories about him and his personality, so I can't wait to see that every day.”
The Capitals are also looking forward to adding Niskanen to the mix, along with his former Penguins teammate Brooks Orpik, who signed a five-year $27.5 million deal on July 1. Washington dressed a league-high 14 defensemen last season, nine of which had fewer than 140 games of NHL experience.
“Defensively, we just needed more depth,” said Capitals majority owner Ted Leonsis. “We needed people to eat up minutes. Right now, I think this is the deepest defensive corps that we've had since I've owned the team. We have a lot of depth and we needed that just to settle things down in the back. We certainly needed help on our penalty kill. And I think the better, more experienced the defense is, the better the goaltending is. I think they go hand-in-hand.”
Niskanen will spend the remainder of the summer preparing for a late August move to the D.C. area. It has been a busy few weeks for the Minnesota native whose wedding was held the final weekend of June. In a lighter moment at his press conference, Niskanen was asked what he anticipates being the bigger challenge- a new marriage or joining a new team.
"Well, this is my first marriage,” he said. “Two weeks in, everything's going well so far. I guess we've made it longer than some…. New team, I think could be hard [or] it could go really smooth. I don't anticipate any problems, but I'm a pretty quiet guy. I'm not going to rustle any feathers coming in here, but I think it's going to be a really good fit.”