For his first go-round as a general manager in the wild world of NHL free agency, new Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan had to fill some holes on a shaky defensive unit in order to get his team back in the discussion as one of the Eastern Conference's top teams.
And so, MacLellan turned to the Caps' biggest rivals to poach a pair of defensemen, handing out big-time contracts July 1 to former Penguins defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen -- moves MacLellan said had been paramount, despite the high price the team had to pay.
"We felt we've addressed the areas that we needed to address, mainly our five-on-five play," MacLellan said at a press conference July 1. "We needed to shore up our defense, give us some depth, give us some experience, and I think we accomplished that."
The Capitals had some money to play with heading into free agency -- with approximately $13 million in cap space -- and they weren't shy about spending it, giving Orpik a five-year, $27.5 million deal and Niskanen a seven-year contract worth $40.25 million.
Those were the two headline deals on a busy day for the Capitals, who also signed former Carolina goaltender Justin Peters, signed another Penguin in right winger Chris Conner, re-signed center Michael Latta, and gave two-way contracts to AHL players Jon Landry and Mike Moore.
"Hopefully the players see the commitment by ownership and management to address perceived needs that we do have," MacLellan said. "I'm excited about it."
Orpik, a two-time Olympian, was high on the Capitals' list of targets, and the team had a formal visit with him, showing him the facilities and scheduling meetings with management in order to sell him on joining Washington.
"I go to be honest -- up until this year, I didn't envision myself leaving Pittsburgh," said Orpik, who was drafted by the Penguins in 2000 and spent his entire career there. "But a lot has changed there in the last little bit. It was the perfect time for a change.
"I went down to Washington on Sunday, and met with the coaches, GM and Ted Leonsis. It was the combination of a lot of things, but the whole thing just felt right. When I met with [head coach] Barry [Trotz] and heard what his plan and vision was, it was kind of a no-brainer."
A handful of teams was courting Niskanen, and when the Capitals signed Orpik, it seemed as if they might have priced themselves out of the market for Niskanen. But Orpik may have helped recruit his former teammate to Washington by telling him about his visit.
"I talked to Brooks, and what I really wanted to talk to him about was his visit," Niskanen said. "He said he was impressed with the people and the facilities. He said he got a good feel from Barry Trotz, Brian MacLellan -- got a good feel of what they are trying to do and the direction they are headed. That's good to hear."
Niskanen, who started his career in Dallas, set career highs in points (46), goals (10), assists (36), games played (81) and game-winning goals (six) during the 2013-14 season. He led all NHL defensemen in plus/minus (+33) and was named Pittsburgh's Defensive Player of the Year. He also recorded a career-high nine points (two goals, seven assists), led the team with six power-play points and was first among team defensemen with 29 hits during 13 playoff games.
"We were looking to add a good two-way guy, a right-shot guy," MacLellan said. "We went through what was available, and we checked in with all the agents and the players. We've scouted Matt for a long time. We had some questions, but [assistant coach] Todd Reirden had a lot of input on why his game is where it is and why he believed it would stay at that level. So we trusted Todd's opinion."
Both Orpik and Niskanen said they didn't feel any pressure in justifying their new contracts, saying the money wouldn't change what they wanted to accomplish on the ice.
"I think my body of work speaks for itself," Orpik said. "Anytime you give out a long-term contract, there's some sort of risk. You just have to keep doing what you're doing and don't try to live up to a certain number."
"The better you play in previous years, expectations go up," Niskanen said. "And with a long-term contract, expectations go up. That's reality. I think I'm ready for that challenge. I had a good year -- it was definitely a breakout year -- and now the challenge for me is to try and keep moving forward."
MacLellan knows about pressure, but after snagging blue-liners that could be difference makers for his team, he can start to relax.
"I like our defense," MacLellan said. "We have six really good defensemen. We have a good balance now. We're going to let it play out and see how we're doing. We've added two new guys, and I think it might take a little time to get the chemistry going, but we're comfortable where we're at right now."