Caps aggressive in first day of free agency

Brian MacLellan’s first day of free agency as GM of the Caps was anything but quiet. MacLellan handed out over $69 million on July 1st, more than any other GM in the league. MacLellan said his priorities were to bring in a veteran goaltender and to bolster the Capitals defense. While the effectiveness of the moves is up for debate, MacLellan certainly made moves that he feels addressed his priorities.

Justin Peters

Justin Peters comes to the Caps from the Carolina Hurricanes to serve as the backup to Braden Holtby. MacLellan was very clear in stating that he wanted to bring in a goalie that sent the message to Holtby that he is the Caps number one guy and that the organization believes in him.  This is refreshing to hear after the disastrous way Adam Oates handled Holtby and the effect it had on him. While it remains to be seen how new coach Barry Trotz handles his goalies in Washington, the fact that the organization is doubling down on Holtby as their guy is a step in the right direction.

Last season, Peters played in 21 games for the Hurricanes and posted a 7-9-4 record. Peters’ 5 on 5 save % of 92.3 ranked 33rd among goalies with 21 or more games played.  According to Rob Vollman, Peters faced the second toughest competition last season of all the goalies that were available as unrestricted free agents. The money on this deal makes sense as well, as Peters annual salary for the 2 year deal is $950,000, which currently ranks 48th among all NHL goalies.

Brooks Orpik

So that’s where we’re starting from. Not only did the Caps sign the one guy I singled out to avoid, they signed him to an absolutely insane 5 year, $27.5 million dollar deal. Brooks Orpik will be 34 before the season starts. While this deal may not kill the Caps immediately, the thought that in a couple years the Caps will have a defender on the wrong side of 35 taking up $5.5 million in cap space is troubling, to put it mildly. Yes, Brooks Orpik fits the bill of a “tough” and “hard-nosed” defenseman that many Caps fans have long called for. However, Brooks Orpik has never been a positive possession player in his career, meaning his team has always been out shot over the course of a season while he’s been on the ice. However, to be fair to Orpik, some context on these numbers is helpful. For example, this past season, Orpik started more shifts in the defensive zone than any other Penguins defender who played in at least half of the team’s games. Orpik also faced the toughest competition among this same group of Penguins D, and finished 26th overall among all NHL defenseman in terms of quality of competition faced. So, while Orpik’s team struggles with puck possession while he’s on the ice, some of this, at least from this past season, can be attributed to the fact that Orpik is given tough assignments.

There were a couple things MacLellan said about the Orpik signing that were troubling.

“The total dollars were centered around Brooks” (Alex Prewitt, Washington Post)

The fact that the Caps’ entire off-season plan revolved around a 34 year old defender, and giving said defender a 5 year deal with an expensive cap hit, is very troubling in terms of what it says about the vision of the Caps new management. In addition, the fact that Mikhail Grabovski (or any adequate second line center) was not in any way the focus of the “total dollars,” (thus far), is cause for even more alarm about MacLellan’s vision as GM.

I’ll skip over the fact that he used the phrase “the corsi.” Could coming to Washington and playing with an offensive, puck-carrying defender help Orpik’s possession numbers? Hmm, if only the Penguins had such a player like, I don’t know, Kris Letang. Over the past 3 seasons, Orpik has played with the offensive-minded Letang for 496:46 (less than 40 minutes of this time comes from this past season, due mostly to Letang missing significant time because of injury). When on the ice together, Orpik and Letang saw 49.5% of shots go in the Penguins favor. Perhaps MacLellan has a point, because Orpik’s shot for % when separated from Letang drops to 48%. But a stronger case could be made that Orpik will weigh down an offensive defender because Letang saw his shots for % jump to 53.4% when separated from Orpik.  I could go on and on. Bottom line, I think this is a terrible contract for the wrong player, a double-whammy. Orpik could provide decent (but overpriced) play for the Caps for a couple of years, but there will be many people, myself included, in line to say “I told you so” when he is bought out in the Summer of 2017.

Matt Niskanen

Not long after landing Orpik the Caps landed another ex-Penguin by signing Matt Niskanen to a 7 year, $40.25 million deal. The inherent risk in any 7 year deal is cause for concern, but apparently Niskanen is the player the Caps identified as worth this type of deal, so while the deal is risky, it’s not outright ridiculous like the Orpik contact. Niskanen posted impressive offensive numbers this past year with 10 goals and 31 assists in 81 games, after never topping 6 goals or 29 assists in a season since entering the league in 2007. Some of this rise in production can be attributed to the increased opportunity Niskanen received due to Letang missing so much of the year. Niskanen was on the ice for 55.4% of the Penguins power play time this past year after never topping 39.8% during his time in Pittsburgh. It will be interesting to see how the Caps divvy up their PP time among their defense this season, but it’s likely that Niskanen’s PP time will decrease in Washington. This is one factor that will likely lead to a decrease in Niskanen’s offensive numbers this season. Another factor in this is that the Penguins shot 10.3% with Niskanen on the ice this past year, while stopping 93%, for a PDO (combined on-ice shooting and save %) of 103.1, that is almost certain to regress closer to 100.0, no matter how well Niskanen plays. In short, don’t evaluate this deal solely based off of the offensive numbers Niskanen puts up next season. For reasons not within his control, they are almost certain to drop, even if he is playing well. 

Niskanen, as opposed to Orpik, has very strong possession numbers. He has consistently, over the course of his career, seen his team have more shots for than against when he’s on the ice.  This past season, Niskanen saw 53.3% of unblocked shot attempts in all 5-on-5 situations go in his team’s favor when he was on the ice. This would not only lead the Caps’ defense, it would lead the Caps’ team. The Pens saw 6.3% more of these shot attempts go in their favor with Niskanen on the ice than without him, which is also better than any Caps’ defender performed, relative to their team.

Brian MacLellan was anything but dull or quiet on his first day of free agency as an NHL GM. He got nice value in a backup goalie with Peters, signed Orpik to an absolute monstrosity of a contract, and signed Niskanen to a risky deal, but one that improved the Caps’ defense corps. He also made what could prove to be a major blunder in letting Grabovski walk, but I’ll withhold judgement on that to see if the 2C situation improves. The aggressive approach proved for an interesting day, but the shrewdness of said aggression is questionable, especially as it pertains to Orpik.

About Pat Holden

Pat writes regularly about hockey on Brooks Laichyear and Russian Machine Never Breaks. His work has also appeared on ESPN.com and The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pfholden

Posted on July 2, 2014, in hockey, NHL, Washington Capitals and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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