“Vitality shows in not only the ability to persist but the ability to start over.”
-- F. Scott Fitzgerald
Brooks Orpik spent 14 years in association with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Drafted 18th overall out of Boston College in the 2000 entry draft by the Pens, Orpik spent another year with the Eagles, then joined the Penguin organization. He made his way through the Pittsburgh development system, spending two seasons with their AHL farm club in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (with the occasional call-up to the big club), sticking for good with Pittsburgh in the 2003-2004 season. He played in 703 regular season and 92 playoff games for the Penguins, appearing in two Stanley Cup finals, winning once, and putting together one of the more entertaining shifts in recent Stanley Cup finals history:
All of that came to an end on July 1st, when Orpik signed a five-year/$27.5 million contract with the Washington Capitals. At the time, the deal was widely viewed as a gross overpayment for an aging defenseman. Orpik dismissed those opinions, making the point that “Washington, I think they know me well enough, so they know what they’re getting.”
Well, what are the Caps getting? Let’s take a look…
Physical play. Since the 2004-2005 lockout, Orpik has never ranked lower than 12th in hits. Four times he finished second, and in 2008-2009 he led the league.
Playing within the rules. Orpik has been suspended twice in his career, once in 2003 (one game) and once in 2006 (three games), the latter the more noteworthy of them for having hit Carolina Hurricanes forward Erik Cole from behind, sending him into the boards and breaking two vertebrae. That happened to be the last season in which Orpik recorded more than 100 penalty minutes in a season. In eight seaosns since then, however, he has averaged 71 penalty minutes per 82 games. Eighteen defensemen have recorded more penalty minutes than Orpik (481) in that span, including John Erskine (529) in 204 fewer games. For a physical defenseman, this does not seem like an extreme level of time spent in the penalty box.
Durability. In ten full seasons Orpik has appeared in 70 or more games seven times, and he appeared in 46 of 48 games in the abbreviated 2012-2013 season. Even last season, when he missed ten games, eight of those games were the result of a concussions suffered when Boston Bruins forward Shawn Thornton skated up from behind Orpik, kicked his skates out from under him as Orpik was jawing with Gregory Campbell, then threw two punches at Orpik when he was on his back.
Penalty Killing. Orpik finished first or second in average shorthanded ice time for the Penguins in each of the last five seasons, leading Pittsburgh in the last two years.
What the Caps might not be getting is…
Offense. Orpik does not shoot a lot (0.68 shots/game over his career) and is not particularly efficient with the shots he does take (2.7 shooting percentage). Here is your odd Orpik offensive number: 0. In 703 regular season games in his career, he has not had a game winning goal. Only one defenseman has played as many or more games than Orpik over the past ten seasons and has a lower average points per game: Nick Schultz (0.17 points per game in 753 games to 0.19 in 697 games for Orpik).
Consistent good judgment. Although he has managed his total penalty minutes relatively well, he does seem to have a lingering tendency to take penalties at inopportune times, and his high hit volumes have a flip side of being in other than the best defensive position when lining one up.
Fearless’ Take… Orpik has at least 200 games of regular season game experience (703 games) on any Capitals defenseman (Mike Green: 503). His 92 games of post-season experience is at least 35 more than any other Capitals defenseman (Green: 57). The Caps have guys who can move the puck – Green, John Carlson, Matt Niskanen. What they’ve lacked is a dependable presence who can move guys out of harm’s way in the defensive zone. Orpik provides that. Think of him as the defensive version of Mike Knuble, a guy with experience who knows his game and plays it.
He’s 34 years old, he isn’t very fleet of foot, he isn’t a great puck handler. He has all those games under his belt and almost 16,000 minutes of regular season and playoff hockey on his resume. How much does he have left in the tank?
The Big Question… Is Brooks Orpik’s value as a stopper on this team or as mentor?
Well, he won’t lack for opportunities for either. The Capitals have lacked a reliable defensive presence with a physical edge in their own zone probably since Brendan Witt was in his prime with the club. The Capitals still have a relatively young group of defensemen. Mike Green is 28, Matt Niskanen is 27, Karl Alzner is 26, John Carlson is 24, and Dmitry Orlov is 23. It is reasonable to think that Orpik is going to fill both the role of steady defensive zone influence and as an example to the still young quintet of defensemen the Caps will (or would like to) put on the ice night in and night out.
In the end…
There was no lack of commentary on the wisdom of giving Brooks Orpik a five-year contract worth $25 million. But that is the business side of the operation. It is important to separate the player’s contract from the player’s performance on the ice, and with respect to the latter to concern oneself with the here and now, not year five of the deal. Even if Orpik plays third pair minutes, he provides the Capitals an upgrade over what they had playing the position last season. The Caps have enough depth in puck movers; Orpik provides the sturdy defensive play that has been missing.
After spending eleven seasons with one club, 14 in one organization, one wonders what the transition to a new city and a new club might be like, especially when that new start is with one of his old team’s most hated rivals. On the other hand, it might be just the tonic to revitalize Brooks Orpik’s game and provide the Caps with some of the things they lacked last season in coming up just short of a playoff berth.
Projection: 72 games, 2-9-11, even
Photo: Martin Rose/Getty Images