Bond Between Matt Niskanen, Todd Reirden to Continue With Capitals

As defenseman Matt Niskanen and agent Neil Sheehy began to wade through the lucrative offers being presented by several interested teams, they whittled down the list of potential landing spots using various criteria.

Among the critical factors was coaching. Niskanen had heard nothing but good things about Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz. But it was a familiar voice, that of recently hired assistant coach Todd Reirden, that proved particularly enticing.

"It's well-documented that Matt has a great relationship with Reirden, so that will certainly be part of his consideration," Sheehy said in a phone interview two days before the market opened.

Washington had targeted Niskanen, late of the Pittsburgh Penguins, long before Reirden joined the Capitals on June 25 -- within several hours of being fired by Pittsburgh after four seasons. Yet it was Reirden's guidance that in part allowed Niskanen to blossom into the most sought-after player in free agency at his position.

Their relationship -- which Niskanen once credited with saving his career -- will continue with the Capitals, who signed the defenseman to a seven-year, $40.25 million contract July 1.

"Todd Reirden had a lot of input on why his game was where it is and why he believed it would stay at this level," general manager Brian MacLellan said. "So we trusted Todd's opinion on that."

After a career season in which Niskanen set personal bests for goals (10), points (46), ice time per game (21:18) and plus-minus (plus-33, best among NHL defensemen), the 27-year-old is prepared to validate his long-term contract with Reirden's continued assistance. 

"I had a good year. It definitely was a breakout year," Niskanen said last week. "Now the challenge for me is to try keep moving forward.

"That's one thing me and Todd have talked about since the first day I met him: How do you get just a little bit better today? How do you get a little bit better this week, this season? That's the process we go through and I'm going to look forward to working with him some more and continuing to get better and help the team win games and improve individually."

Niskanen arrived in Pittsburgh in February 2011, a throw-in in a trade with the Dallas Stars centered around high-scoring forward James Neal.

A first-round pick in 2005, Niskanen displayed some offensive pop in his first two seasons with the Stars in 2007 and 2008, but his production and ice time (when he was not a healthy scratch) noticeably dwindled in the season-plus prior to the trade.

"My career was not in a good spot at that point," Niskanen recalled.

Niskanen and Reirden worked together to formulate a plan that would allow the former to rebuild his game. Extra video sessions and individual instruction after practices soon followed, as did a swelling of Niskanen's confidence.

"He just helped build my confidence back up," Niskanen said. "He's been a big part of why I'm at where I am today as a player and in this position."

Last season, Niskanen was thrust into a more prominent role as the Penguins were decimated by injuries, leading the NHL with 513 man-games lost. With defensemen Kris Letang and Paul Martin each spending a significant portion of the season on injured reserve, Pittsburgh's coaching staff entrusted Niskanen with more responsibility.

His power-play ice time ballooned as he became even more active in the offense, while also being tested against the opposition's top players.

By season's end, Niskanen factored into nearly 40 percent of the Penguins' 5-on-5 goals when he was on the ice.

"His confidence reached an all-time high with the attitude he went over the boards with every shift," Reirden said. " Everything was a new challenge for him, a new opportunity."

To Reirden, just as noticeable as Niskanen's increased production was how he mentored his inexperienced counterparts with aplomb, particularly frequent defensive partner and rookie Olli Maatta

"That's an element that he had never had in his game, which was the ability to lead and help young players," Reirden said. "I think that's something he added to his resume.

"I think he really relished that opportunity, taking on a little bit more of a leadership role. It really kind of all came together and certainly his numbers speak for themselves."

The Capitals hope that Reirden can have the same profound effect on the rest of their defensive corps, often a source of derision last season.

Niskanen, having reaped the benefits himself, is certain that Reirden can positively influence his new teammates.

"Todd helps young defensemen get better," Niskanen said. "He works on details extensively, builds your confidence. He tries to get the most out of everybody that he works with."

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