Heading into the offseason, Matt Niskanen admitted his future with the Pittsburgh Penguins was up in the air. Apparently, he wasn't kidding.
Niskanen agreed to a seven-year, $40.25 million deal with the Washington Capitals on Tuesday, taking one of the most coveted defensemen off the market. The 27-year-old Virginia native is coming off the best season of his career, scoring a career-high 46 points while emerging as an excellent two-way threat.
The Capitals confirmed the news in a release on the team site:
“We are very excited that Matt Niskanen has chosen to sign with Washington,” said MacLellan. “At 27 years of age, he is just entering his prime for a defenseman. We feel he will be a staple on our blueline for many years to come. We have stated all along that upgrading the defense was our top priority this offseason and we feel we accomplished our goal with our signings today.”
Chris Johnston of Rogers Sportsnet had more on Niskanen's deal with Washington:
The emergence was a long time coming for Niskanen, who came over from Dallas as part of the James Neal trade in 2011. Neal was the prize in that blockbuster, and for a while it looked like Niskanen would be the forgotten piece. His first two full seasons in Pittsburgh were largely forgettable, as he scored 35 points combined while languishing on lesser lines.
One breakout season later, and the entire trajectory of Niskanen's career has changed. The Penguins probably could have had him at a bargain had he hit the free-agent market a year prior. His sterling 2013-14 campaign instead put the organization at a crossroads.
Pittsburgh came into the offseason already scraping for cap room. The Penguins have a top-heavy roster filled with high-priced stars, ones who are making it increasingly difficult to build meaningful depth. With the organization flushing out previous management and replacing them with general manager Jim Rutherford and head coach Barry Trotz, guys like Niskanen represented one of its most difficult early decisions.
Signing Niskanen would cost a premium and limit the Penguins' ability to reshape the roster. Pittsburgh, a conference finalist in 2012-13 and a Stanley Cup favorite before last season, was eliminated by the New York Rangers after a seven-game Eastern Conference semifinal. Getting back in the Cup picture isn't going to be exceedingly difficult, but the Pens have a deep stable of young defensemen champing at the bit for their opportunity.
“He had a good year and I’m trying to figure that out,” Rutherford told reporters in June. “That’s not going to be easy, but certainly with the year he had we’d like to take a look at it.”
Niskanen had his own decision to make.
Given the contract-year spike in performance, he and his representation knew coming into the summer he'd be a hot commodity. At age 27, he's in the middle of his prime and won't begin to decline in the duration of the deal. Teams have been in hot pursuit of him throughout the process—mostly at prices Pittsburgh couldn't feasibly match.
The decision essentially came down to the best paycheck or staying in Pittsburgh for a lesser salary. Niskanen chose the former.
Now, it will be up to him to make the most out of his situation. The Capitals cannot afford for Niskanen to regress into the player he was before 2013-14. In fact, they will probably need him to be better than he was last season.
It's an interesting gamble, but it's one both sides had to make.
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