Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?”
― Robert Frost
Thirteen seasons, 822 regular season games, 112 postseason games , ten trips to the playoffs, two trips to the Stanley Cup finals, one Stanley Cup. Since he played his first full season in the NHL in the 2003-2004 season, only a dozen defensemen have appeared in more regular season games, and only ten defensemen have appeared in more postseason games. But when the 2015-2016 season ended, Orpik was in the top 15 on another list. He was the 13th oldest defenseman in the NHL.
Orpik’s 13th season in the NHL was unusual for its brevity. The 41 games he played was the fewest he played in any season since he appeared in six games for the Pittsburgh Penguins in his first year in the NHL, in 2002-2003. He missed 40 games to a cracked femur. Then, in the playoffs, he missed three games as the result of a hit he took from Ryan White in the first round against the Philadelphia Flyers, then he missed three more games in the second round against the Pittsburgh Penguins for his hit on Penguin defenseman Olli Maatta.
At the highest level, Orpik’s absence did not reflect well on his presence in the lineup. In the regular season, the Caps were 26-11-4 with Orpik in the lineup, 30-7-4 in his absence. The club did better with Orpik in the postseason lineup, though, going 4-2 when he was in the lineup, 2-4 when he was not.
His three goals in 41 games did not make him a Bobby Orr as an offensive defenseman, but the 0.07 goals per game was a career best, more than doubling his previous per-game goal scoring high (0.03 goals-per-game with Pittsburgh in 2005-2006).
Brooks Orpik was the only defenseman in the league appearing in at least half of his team’s games who averaged at least 3.0 hits and at least 2.5 blocked shots per game. He also had his personal best season of Corsi-for at 5-on-5, posting a 52.55 percent mark, a substantial improvement over the 49.64 percent mark he recorded for the Caps in 2014-2015 and second-best among Capitals defensemen last season (numbers from Corsica.hockey). Only once in 41 games did he post a plus-minus worse than a minus-1 (it was a doozy – a minus-4 in a 5-2 loss to the New York Rangers on November 3rd). And there was an odd fact about his presence in the lineup. The Caps did not lose a game in regulation in which he skated more than 21 minutes (12-0-3).
Quality of competition seemed to be an issue for Orpik this season. In 11 regular season games against Eastern Conference playoff qualifiers he did not have a point and was a minus-5. Add in his performance in six playoff games, and it is no points and a minus-8 in 17 games against playoff-qualifying teams. And, for a player whose contributions tend to the more physical and defensive side of the ledger, it did not seem to matter much. In games in which Orpik recorded four or more hits, the Caps were 11-4-2, 15-7-2 when he recorded fewer than four hits. Washington was 10-4-2 when Orpik recorded three or more blocked shots, 11-7-2 when he had fewer than three blocked shots.
The Big Question… Can Brooks Orpik be the physical and emotional anchor of the defense?
When Brooks Orpik was signed to a five-year/$27.5 million contract on July 1, 2014, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said, “We feel Brooks’ leadership and experience will greatly enhance our defense for years to come. Brooks plays tough minutes against the opposition’s best players.” Assistant coach Todd Reirden said, “His maturity, he’s won Stanley Cup, he’s been a part of good defensive team and his leadership I think would be a great fit for any team. I’d like it to be here as well.” He was a player with more than 700 regular season games on his resume and two trips to the Stanley Cup finals, winning once. And, he was durable, never having appeared in fewer than 60 games in a full season in his career, save for the six game cup-o’-coffee he got as a first year player.
However, his appearing in only 41 regular season games last season due to a serious leg injury, then missing three playoff games due to a head injury in the postseason, when combined with his age (36 on Opening Night) raises the question of whether he can be that night-in, night-out anchor of stable and dependable defensive play this season he was counted on being when that contract was signed. This could be an important issue for the Capitals, whose talent on the blue line drops off rather precipitously after the top-six and is not especially deep after their top-seven.
In the end…
The 2015-2016 season might be the best opportunity for the Capitals to win a Stanley Cup for a while. They have the mix of skill and grit, of youth and experience, to make that a possibility. For Brooks Orpik, it could be his last career opportunity to win a Stanley Cup. Looming over this season for him is the possibility that he would be exposed in the expansion draft when the new Las Vegas entry in the NHL begins to assemble its roster.
On this team, he could very well be given third-pair minutes, depending on how the Caps choose to use Dmitry Orlov. It would provide some relief from stiffer competition, and the fewer minutes (based on last year’s 5-on-5 ice time among Caps defensemen, perhaps 1-2 minutes per game) could leave Orpik perhaps just a bit fresher in the spring. In any case, for at least one more season, Brooks Orpik will be doing no bowing to or accepting of his career winding down.
Projection: 60 games, 1-7-8, plus-10
Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America