Numbers Game: Capitals spend big on defensive upgrades

Scott Cullen

7/2/2014 11:57:16 AM

The Washington Capitals overhauled their defence, by paying huge money to a pair of former Pittsburgh Penguins.

Numbers Game breaks down the signings of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik.

The Capitals Get: D Matt Niskanen and D Brooks Orpik.

Niskanen, 27, picked a terrific time to have the best year of his career, scoring a career-best 10 goals and 46 points while playing a career-high 21:18 per game. He was also a career-best plus-33, which is all well and good, but he was one of six regular defencemen (minimum 62 games played) to have a combined on-ice save percentage and on-ice shooting percentage (PDO) at 5-on-5 of 103.0 or better.

An on-ice shooting percentage over 10.0% is difficult for any defenceman to sustain, but Niskanen's 10.32% was the third-best of his career; basically, it's the kind of good fortune that shouldn't be expected, but it's not out of the realm of possibility from season to season for Niskanen. Where the puck luck really stuck with Niskanen last year, was that he also had a .928 on-ice save percentage during 5-on-5 play, so getting favourable percentages at both ends of the ice during the same year contributed to that strong plus-minus.

That shouldn't diminish the evaluation of Niskanen entirely, though, because he has consistently been on the right side of the puck possession ledger, and that makes him an asset to any team that acquires him. While Niskanen hasn't typically played hard minutes, and in some years has been excessively sheltered, he's likely to face more difficult matchups now that he's the highest-priced defenceman on the Capitals' roster.

Signed for seven years and $40.25-million, Niskanen landed the biggest free agent contract of the year. There was probably an element of paying for the good fortune that Niskanen experienced last year, and it is a gamble that Niskanen is going to be able to live up to the money involved in that contract, but if a team is going to swing for the fences on a free agent defenceman, doing so on a guy with consistently strong possession numbers is at least a reasonable foundation on which to make that investment.

Which brings us to Brooks Orpik, a 33-year-old who has made his bones as a physical, hard-hitting defenceman, registering more than 200 hits in five of the past seven seasons.

The unfortunate part, however, is that Orpik in position to hit so much -- particularly in recent years -- because his team doesn't have the puck as often when he's on the ice and the problem with a defensive defenceman who is already on the wrong end of the possession game is that he's certainly not likely to get better as he gets older. For example, in the 2013-2014 season, there were seven defencemen that were over 35 and scored fewer than 20 points (as Orpik has in every season of his career, except one).

It's an okay list, some useful players, but six of the seven were 35 or 36. Orpik is signed through his age 38 season and the only -- the only -- NHL defenceman that played more than 60 games without scoring more than 20 points last season was Tampa Bay's Sami Salo, who has never played the kind of physical, banging style that characterizes Orpik's game, in part because Salo was always hurt anyway. This doesn't offer much encouragement that the Capitals won't have massive regrets about the Orpik signing; the only question is how soon will those regrets occur?

Can he give the Capitals a couple of solid years, maybe facing lower-calibre of competition than he did in Pittsburgh? That's probably the best hope, but it's a longshot that the last two, maybe even three years, won't have the Capitals paying big money for a spare part on their blueline.

Orpik is signed for five years, at a cap hit of $5.5-million per season. Big money, long term.

Pittsburgh anticipated that they would lose both Niskanen and Orpik and, in addition to having an opening or two for some prospects, they also signed Christian Ehrhoff to add stability to their defence. 

It's entirely understandable for the Capitals to make a move to upgrade their defence. They allowed 33.5 shots per game, ranking 27th in the league, last season, so the defence needed to get better.

Ultimately, the Capitals are better today after adding Niskanen and Orpik, but that should never be up for debate when committing close to $11-million annually to two players. What has to matter is how much better they are, whether the money spent is worth it and what the fall-out will be. The Capitals don't have to make any moves --- they are under the $69-million salary cap -- but they have $28,762,500 committed to their defence, according to Cap Geek.

The only teams spending in that neighbourhood for their defence are Philadelphia and Tampa Bay, who have Chris Pronger and Mattias Ohlund, respectively, on long-term injured reserve. St. Louis and Chicago are spending in the $24-million-to-$25-million on their respective bluelines right now, so it's hard to imagine that the Capitals maintain the status quo, leaving a hole at second line centre while sticking with the most expensive defence corps in the league.

We will see what other moves the Capitals have in mind this summer but, right now, it appears that they spent a lot of money to get better in the short-term; signing deals that appear to have more downside risk because of the long terms involved.

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