Former Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen held a conference call today to discuss his signing with the Capitals. Here is the transcript:
What was the process of choosing the Capitals?
"The new big thing I think is the five-day [free agent interview] period before July 1 where you can see what interest is out there. My agent got a lot of calls. It was kind of cool to see and hear what teams were interested. Hearing the [Capitals] come up, my ears perked up right away. It got down to last night and today, I was seriously looking at two or three teams … It felt right to me go to [Washington]. Talking to [former Penguins assistant coach] Todd Reirden, I heard nothing but good things about Barry Trotz and the way things are going there and just the fit with my strengths as a player and what they have there already, I just thought it was a really good thing."
What was today like?
"I woke up this morning and I didn’t know where I was going. I kind of had a gut feeling and I was leaning towards [Washington] and just the more and more I thought about it, it just felt. I was going through a little bit of that process probably the first hour as the actually deals were coming to my agent and he was getting them up to me. Once we decided, there were more discussing to iron out more details of the contract and whatnot so that took a little bit of time. I exchanged 15 or 16 phone calls with [agent] Neil Sheehy today. … Obviously I’ve very, very luck and excited for a new team."
How key has Capitals assistant coach Todd Reirden been to your success in Pittsburgh?
"He’s been huge. Four seasons ago, I get traded from Dallas along with James Neal to Pittsburgh. My career was not in a good spot at that point. Todd helped me come up with a plan to become a regular again, and we would build from there. … a regular in the lineup. Helped me along the way. Extra video sessions, extra time after practice, talked with me. He just helped build my confidence back up and he’s been a big part of why I’m at where I am today as a player and in this position. I said this all along. Todd helps young defensemen get better. He works on details extensively. He tries to get the most out of everybody he works with."
Where were any other larger offers?
"There was one that was slightly more. … I think potentially a few other teams by the way they were talking the past five days leading today, they were thinking of going higher if they could. They legally can’t offer anything [during the free agency interview period] but just the way the discussions were going, my agent said he got that feeling that other teams could have went higher. But to me, I wanted to find the best hockey fit. The things I described earlier as the reason I picked Washington. I’m glad they wanted me and I think it worked out well."
What's it like going switching sides in the Penguins-Capitals rivalry?
"It’s quite the change. Between the [Capitals] and Flyers, being in Pittsburgh, those are the two biggest teams that you play. … Now I’m glad I don’t have [Capitals captain/forward Alex] Ovechkin forechecking me, driving me into the glass. Now I’m on his side and I get to pass him the puck. All the forwards really. We have a good group with the forward group. We’ve got size and skill and can skate. It’s going to be a challenge playing against the Penguins. They’re always going to be with the players that they have there. It’s a fun rivalry and I’m excited to be on the other side now."
How much communication did you have with former Penguins/new Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik on joining the Capitals?
"I talked to Brooks yesterday evening and really what I wanted to talk about was his visit. He didn’t get into specifics. He said he was just really impressed with the people, the facilities. He said he really got a good feel from [head coach] Barry Trotz, [general manager] Brian MacLellan. We both know Todd really well obviously. He got a really good feel for what they’re trying to do, the direction that they’re headed and the people that are around, he got a really good feel. He said he was really impressed and he felt really good about [Washington]. That got my attention. It was really good to hear. I was interested already before I heard that. That was a good thing for me to talk to [Orpik]."
What are the expectations that come with a contract like this?
"Certainly, the better you play in previous years, the expectations go up. With a long-term contract and large money, the expectations go up. That’s reality. I think I’m ready for that challenge. I played essentially top-four minutes 80 percent of the year last year. Had a lot of responsibility at times where I was the oldest defenseman by far on our team and our team had a lot of success. I’m really excited for that challenge. I had a good year, it definitely was a breakout year. Now the challenge for me is to try keep moving forward. That was one thing me and Todd had talked about the first day I met him. How do you get just a little bit better today? How do you get better this week, this season? That’s kind of the process that we go through and I’m going to look forward to working with him some more and try to continue to get better and help the team where it needs and improve individually."
At what point did it seem like a return to the Penguins wasn't likely?
"I don’t remember the exact day. Shortly after [general manager Jim Rutherford] was hired, just based on the info Neil Sheehy relayed to me on what their thoughts were, what their feelings were, it just didn’t seem like it was going to be a fit anymore. It seemed like the team was going a different direction. Obviously, the business-side of it, things were tight with their cap issues there. Once you hear that, you didn’t want to entirely rule them out but I was prepared and excited to get to this day."
You acknowledged that playing with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin had a positive boost on your career. Do you suspect the same could happen with Ovechkin?
"Certainly. Playing with Sid and Malkin … that culture there, that winning attitude…. those are all contagious things and just playing with those guys you’re going to be a better player. That’s the effect they have. Alex Ovechkin is going to have that effect too. [Capitals forward] Nicklas Backstrom is going to have that effect. They’ve got a lot of good players in [Washington]. So I’m excited. I think that’s one of my strengths, is that I can play with those high-end guys and I can help those guys out. I’m probably going to get some probably pretty good looks to shoot the puck and guys who can finish off for me. That’s one of my strength is getting pucks off to the net so forwards can finish off rebounds tips, those things. You see the playoffs the last few years, you’ve’ got to have some high-end talent to win and the Capitals definitely have that."
What was this weekend like with your wedding Saturday and free agency looming?
"When I got engaged, we scheduled the date about 15 months ago. I didn’t anticipate it being this big of a weekend for me over a year ago. About a month ago or so, I thought this could be a pretty big weekend when my agent started about what interest there might be and so obviously it was a fun day getting married on Saturday and kind of a nerve-wracking but exciting couple of days leading up today."
Do you prefer the left or the right side?
"As far as playing one side or the other, I have played both. Over the course of my career, I’d say it’s half and half. I played on the left a good portion of my time in Pittsburgh and also a lot of my rookie year in Dallas. There’s advantages to playing the left side from one-timing pucks and getting shots off quickly and getting your stick in the middle of the ice. I played the right more the last two years in Dallas. I’m comfortable with that. Either side is fined."
How much have you played with Orpik on a defensive pairing?
"I have played briefly off and on with Brooks. [Brooks] is a good guy to pay with. You know exactly where he’s going to be all the time. He plays his position. He’s a vocal guy on the ice. I think a good compliment to a guy like [Capitals defenseman Mike] Green or myself or [Capitals defenseman John] Carlson. He’s very steady. Does his job. Makes a good outlet pass. He can move pretty well for a bigger, physical guy. Make a good partner for anyone. Those are things he brings. We’ll see how this shakes out in camp I guess."
How important was the length of the contract?
"Oh, it’s a big commitment. A very big commitment from [Washington]. That’s no small thing. You’re talking a seven-year commitment for a pretty substantial amount of money. I’m grateful for that opportunity and excited for that challenge to be that player. As far as the stability that’s obviously awesome. I set myself up with a pretty good year. I wanted to go to a place where I knew I could be in a good spot and have a chance win for an extended period of time and I think I really found that with the [Capitals]. I’m excited for the opportunity and hope to stay for the duration."
Is it odd for three members of the Penguins to be joining the Capitals?
"It would seem odd wouldn’t it? But in professional sports everyone’s got a job to do. The three guys – myself, Brooks and Todd – we all want to win. We all want to win. Teams make changes and you’ve got to find a new place to work. When you start talking about where you want to be and what you’re looking for and what situation you want to be in, if the [Capitals] call, you’ve got to listen. That’s something I was very excited about. A big reason why all of us wanted to come here."