Caps Shell Out Big Dollars But Do Upgrade Team

July 01, 2014 | Ed Frankovic

After being unable to find immediate help via trades at last weekend’s NHL draft, the Washington Capitals turned to the start of the NHL’s free agency period Tuesday to begin addressing some of the holes on their roster. The Caps spent close to $70M in adding defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik plus backup goalie Justin Peters. Both Niskanen and Orpik were members of the Pittsburgh Penguins while Peters is coming over from the Carolina Hurricanes organization.

On the surface, the money and term given to Orpik is quite head scratching. Five years at an average of $5.5M per season for a player who is turning 34 in September is very risky. Typically the production of defensemen start to decline at Orpik’s age so you have to wonder about this move. Niskanen, who is 27, received a seven year deal at an average of $5.75M per season. Peters will count $950,000 against the salary cap the next two seasons.

After these deals, the Capitals are basically up against the $69M salary cap. They’ve drastically improved their defense but the obvious remaining holes are at center, particularly on the second line.

So were these the right moves to make today?

If you look at the last seven Stanley Cup winners, they were mostly built via the draft and trades with some free agent additions playing an important role (Willie Mitchell with the Kings comes to mind). Often you overpay in free agency and there is no doubt the Capitals did on Orpik. Niskanen said he had another offer that was for more money but he chose the Capitals instead, so at his age and price, it wasn’t much of an overpayment, if at all.

Perhaps the Orpik signing along with the addition of former Pens assistant coach Todd Reirden played a part in Niskanen’s decision? I’d have to think so. Not having to play against Alexander Ovechkin seems to be another reason too, based on his post trade interview.

Given the lack of quality on the Caps defense the last few seasons the bottom line is the Caps improved their blue line, by a lot. They now have a top six D of: John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Mike Green, Karl Alzner, Brooks Orpik, and Dmitry Orlov. That’s a tremendous upgrade over last season’s crew and should help them get the puck out of their own end much quicker and improve the Capitals possession statistics. Sure it was a big price to pay and the Orpik deal could come back to bite them quickly if he loses any skating speed, but Brooks brings some physical presence and leadership to a blue line that badly needs those two ingredients. They are sorely needed dimensions that Washington just hasn’t had the last several years on the back line.

So with the Caps now up against the salary cap, is the roster complete?

I tend to think not. There are still holes up the middle at forward and an abundance of wingers. It would seem logical that one or two of them could be moved to get a center with Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, and Marcus Johansson being the most likely candidates. GM Brian MacLellan could also package one of the forwards with a defensemen (Green is a UFA after next season) to get a top 6 center and perhaps a 3rd pair D. Bottom line, these two free agent signings, while putting the Capitals up against the salary cap, gives them more depth and allows them to do more things in the trade market.

It was a steep price to pay today from a dollars standpoint, but there is no denying that the Capitals have improved an area that has been a big problem the last several seasons.

MacLellan and his staff were aggressive on Tuesday, but there is more work to be done to get this team to be a contender again.  Yes, they shelled out lots of dollars, but they’ve put themselves in a position to further improve the team via the trade market with the added defensive depth.

Notes: The Caps re-signed forward Michael Latta to a two way deal on Tuesday…For info on the Caps draft and my thoughts on the team heading into free agency, check out my Tuesday morning on air session with Drew Forrester here.