On July 1, as NHL teams prepared for what would ultimately be a record free-agent spending spree, Matt Niskanen was arguably the most sought after player in the league.
Last season, the 27-year-old defenseman thrived on the added responsibility that came his way after the Penguins’ blue line was ravaged by injuries, setting personal bests in goals (10), assists (36) and ice time (21:17). “[He] was exceptional in terms of not only point-getting and power-play and offensive production, but [also] counting on him to be steady defensively,” says former Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma. “He’s a player you can use in all situations.”
Niskanen’s career season made him too expensive for the Penguins to keep and enticed several potential suitors to clamor for his services. After sifting through countless offers with his agent, Neil Sheehy, Niskanen agreed to a seven-year, $40.25 million contract with the Capitals. Of the unprecedented half a billion dollars offered to nearly 100 players on the opening day of free agency, no deal was more lucrative.
Exorbitant defense spending isn’t unusual in the nation’s capital, and Washington spent a whopping $67.75 million to shore up its blueline. The same day that the club signed Niskanen, it also reached an agreement with Brooks Orpik, his former Penguins teammate, for five years and $27.5 million. "We feel we've addressed areas that we felt we needed to address,” general manager Brian MacLellan says. “We needed to shore up our defense, give us some depth, give us some leadership, give us some experience. I think we've accomplished that."
It was money that Washington had to pay. The Capitals’ defense was horrible last season, when it often resembled a minor-league unit in both makeup and performance. Of the league-leading 14 defensemen who dressed for Washington in 2013–14, half entered the season with fewer than 30 games of NHL experience. Only nine teams surrendered more goals per game than the Capitals (2.79), and just three allowed more shots per game (33.5).
The blueline wasn’t the only part of the club that underwent a makeover. MacLellan is new to his job, too. The assistant to longtime GM George McPhee, he was promoted last spring when the organization fired McPhee and coach Adam Oates after Washington—plagued not only by lackadaisical and uninspiring defensive play, but also by anemic even-strength offense and poor puck possession—missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007. The firings were the result of a two-week organizational investigation that determined, among other things, that McPhee had routinely failed to address defensive shortcomings during his 17 years as GM.
The same day that the Capitals promoted MacLellan, they also hired former Predators coach Barry Trotz to replace Oates behind the bench. In 15 years as the coach in Nashville, Trotz’s name became synonymous with structure, discipline and sound defense. He may be Washington’s fourth coach in less than three years, but he is nevertheless expected to return the team to ranks of Stanley Cup contenders.
Aware that the game has become more specialized, Trotz wanted a former defenseman to oversee his blue line, and he ultimately turned to the man who helped Niskanen raise his game with the Penguins: Todd Reirden, a veteran of 183 NHL games over five seasons, who had been a Pittsburgh assistant since 2010. Reirden was one of several Penguins coaches in limbo last spring following Pittsburgh’s unceremonious exit from the postseason, when the team dismissed GM Ray Shero in May.
Reirden is meticulous in his preparation and forthright in his instruction. He creates ever-changing plans for each of his players, and he prides himself on both developing younger players and refining the skills of older ones. “I think the thing that guys in Pittsburgh respected the most about him was that he was completely fair to every individual,” Orpik says. “He lets you know exactly where you stand and he’s really, really helpful in trying to help you with the things you need to get better. He gives every guy just as much attention and time.”
Trotz had been thinking about hiring somebody else to coach his defense, but he changed his mind after he phoned Reirden from British Columbia and the two men spoke at length, exchanging defensive philosophies. “The passion and the detail and the amount of rapport that we ended up having on that first phone conversation, it was really good,” Trotz says. “I can’t remember the timeframe of how long we talked, but it was pretty lengthy for a long-distance phone call. When I got off the phone, it was funny—my wife can concur with this— when I got off the phone, I said to her, ‘I know this is the right guy to hire. I need to hire this guy.’ ”
The Capitals hired Reirden on the same day that Pittsburgh fired him, on June 25—his 43rd birthday—just hours after the Penguins replaced coach Dan Bylsma with Mike Johnston. With Reirden on board, Trotz told MacLellan, “I know this is the guy. I know he’ll fit in perfectly. He’s exactly what we need.”
The reclamation project
Matt Niskanen arrived in Pittsburgh defeated.
The Stars’ first-round pick in 2005, he had begun his career with promising rookie and sophomore seasons, playing himself into Calder Trophy consideration in ’07–08, and leading the team’s defensemen with 35 points the following year.
Yet Niskanen struggled to meet the heightened expectations generated by the strong start to his career—he was –15 and had only 15 points in 74 games in 2009–10. So when Dallas traded him and sniper James Neal to the Penguins for defenseman Alex Goligoski on Feb. 21, 2011, Niskanen was viewed as a throw-in. “My confidence was shot,” he says. “I was not an effective player.”
Niskanen’s uncertainty was immediately apparent to Reirden, who was then in his first season as a Pittsburgh assistant following his offseason promotion from the team’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton AHL affiliate. “[He] had a tough time looking me in the eye,” Reirden says, recalling his first meeting with Niskanen. “Just in terms of how he carried himself, his self-esteem you could see was hurt.”
The two began to formulate a plan for how Niskanen could return to being a productive player. “The importance of when you go on the ice of having a plan on the ice and making sure that everyone understands what that plan is and having everybody accountable to that plan is something that I’ve always thought was important for defensemen,” Reirden says. “I think it’s something that’s allowed players sometimes that weren’t as skilled to look a lot more comfortable and confident than sometimes they actually were.”
Reirden’s plan began with highlighting Niskanen’s strengths—especially his skating ability and his offensive instincts—and restoring his confidence by giving him sheltered minutes against easier competition. “He told me, ‘You’ve got to put in the work, but this is what I’m going to do to help you get back to where you should be,’” says Niskanen. “He was in my corner from the first day that I walked through the doors.”
Under Reirden’s tutelage, Niskanen blossomed into one of the NHL’s premiere all-around defensemen. He received postseason All-Star consideration for the first time in his career, and he finished 11th in the voting for the Norris Trophy. “Todd Reirden is exceptional at mapping out a foundation for a player—how you need to play, how you can play and improve your play,” Bylsma says. “Matt is evidence of that.”
The Capitals’ scouting staff had already identified Niskanen and Orpik as players to target before Reirden joined the organization less than a week before the beginning of the free-agent signing period, but it’s no coincidence that he has been reunited with his two former players.
Niskanen gives Washington with a third righthanded defenseman—along with Mike Green and John Carlson—who is capable of providing explosive offense. In Orpik, the Capitals hope that they now have what MacLellan has called their “greatest need”: a blueliner who can punish opponents who try to camp out in front of the crease.
Washington now has a mobile and highly skilled corps of defensemen who can join the attack and get pucks onto the sticks of the team’s dynamic forwards, led by three-time Hart Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin. Under Trotz last season, the Predators led the league with 52 goals scored by defensemen. He has hopes of replicating that type of offensive production this year in the nation’s capital.
“Playing fast is being able to execute out of the zone,” Trotz says. “If we can execute high on our breakouts, that’ll really lend well to playing a quick transition game. With the level of skill that our forwards have and the level of skill of some of the defense getting up in the play, we should be more productive.”
Trotz says that his potential defense pairings will be Orpik and Carlson, Alzner and Niskanen and Green and youngster Dmitry Orlov. The coach cautions, however, that it is likely to be a fluid situation, with the defensemen interchanging as circumstances dictate.
At the very least, with Trotz and Reirden setting the tone, there is finally some much needed stability on the blue line.
“What is exciting is that we have the depth now,” Niskanen says. “[It’s] a pretty good group. I don’t think we’re going to have one guy that’s going to play 27 or 30 minutes. We’re going to have a pretty good committee back there. We’ve got a good mix of players too. We have different things that we can all bring.”