Matt Niskanen chooses Caps on first day of free agency

In the days leading up to NHL free agency, well after new Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford made it clear that Matt Niskanen was no longer in his team’s long-term plans, Niskanen started sorting through all of the interest from different teams around the league. He admitted that his “ears perked up” upon learning that some of that interest came from the Washington Capitals. On the eve of free agency, Niskanen said he had whittled down his list of teams to two or three.

“It felt right to me to go to Washington,” he said, noting that he started leaning further in the Capitals direction on the morning of July 1.

The Caps made one of the biggest splashes on the first day of free agency, inking the 27-year-old defenseman to a seven-year, $40.25 million deal. The former Pittsburgh Penguin boasted a career year in 2013-2014, notching 10 goals and 36 assists and posting a plus/minus rating of 33, which topped all NHL defensemen.

Niskanen joins fellow Pittsburgh castoffs Todd Reirden, the Capitals new assistant coach, and Brooks Orpik, a 33-year-old veteran defenseman who the Caps signed to a five-year deal worth $27.5 million. As one might suspect, this is no accident.

“He’s been huge (in helping me grow as a player),” Niskanen said of his relationship with Reirden. “Todd helped me to come up with a plan to become a regular (in the lineup) again.”

That plan was necessary after Niskanen, a former first-round draft pick, struggled in Dallas before being traded to the Penguins in 2011. Initially thought of as the ‘throw-in’ guy in a trade that sent him and James Neal to Pittsburgh for Alex Goligoski, Niskanen blossomed while playing for the Penguins. His breakout came last season, though, as he became the Penguins most consistent and arguably best defenseman as injuries ravished the lineup in Pittsburgh.

While Niskanen clearly has a special relationship with the Caps new assistant, he also is looking forward to playing with Orpik, whom he has been paired with previously. Prior to signing with the Caps on Tuesday, Orpik visited Washington and told his teammate how impressed he was with the organization.

Capitals fans will be pleased that Niskanen, considered a free-agency prize, was not simply influenced by an influx of former Penguins to Washington. After over three seasons playing behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the talent level in Washington, namely that of Caps captain Alex Ovechkin and star center Nicklas Backstrom, makes Niskanen believe that his new organization is as much of a Stanley Cup contender as the team he is leaving.

“I can help those (high skill) guys out,” he said.

As for how he will adjust to being on the flip side of the intense Penguins-Capitals rivalry, Niskanen sees an upside to switching teams.

“Now, I’m glad I don’t have Ovechkin forechecking me…We’ve got a good group here.”