“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”
-- Albert Camus
When the puck drops on the 2017-2018 season, Washington Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik will be one of just 10 active defensemen in the NHL to have skated in more than 900 regular season games (he has 901). He will be one of just four active defensemen in the league to have appeared in at least 125 postseason games (he has 125).
To call him the grand old man of the blue line or a player in the autumn of his career is probably something one might only dare at a distance. After all, last year he did dress for 79 games with the Caps and, consistent with his reputation as a physical defenseman, was credited with 181 hits, 11th among the league’s defensemen.
Last season was a return to form of sorts for Orpik, who lost half of the 2015-2016 season to a cracked femur. Not that the extra games mattered much for his offense. The epitome of the “defensive defenseman,” Orpik went the entire season without a goal, the fifth time in 14 seasons (including his six-game introduction to the NHL win 2002-2003 with the Pittsburgh Penguins) he did so and third time in the last five seasons (oddly enough, he had three goals – a career high – in his 41-game season with the Caps in 2015-2016).
Odd Orpik Fact… Brooks Orpik is one of two defensemen in NHL history to appear in at least 900 regular season games and score fewer than 20 career goals (he has 16). Mattias Norstrom played in 903 games and recorded 18 career goals in a 14-year career with three teams that spanned from 1993-1994 through 2007-2008.
Bonus Odd Orpik Fact… Brooks Orpik recorded more than a third of his shots on goal last season (32 of 93) in his last 20 games after missing three games to a lower-body injury in late February.
It is harder to evaluate defensive defensemen than it is two-way or offensive defensemen, if only because offensive numbers are easier to compile and compare. It is the indirect or underlying numbers that might shed some light on Brooks Orpik’s value in his three years with the Caps. Plus-minus has its limitations, but it is a blunt object in terms of seeing if more good things than bad happen with an individual player on the ice. Orpik has seen his plus-minus in three years with the Caps go from plus-5 in 2014-2015 (78 games) to plus-11 in 2015-2016 (41 games) to plus-32 last season. His shot attempts-for percentage followed a similar path, going from 49.64 percent in 2014-2015 to 52.40 percent in 2015-2016 to 52.56 percent last season.
Brooks Orpik was plus-32 for the 2016-2017 season, but that might not have been as good as it looked. He was plus-32 over his first 54 games of the season and “even” over his last 24 games. It got worse in the postseason where he was minus-7 in 13 games (his lowest career plus-minus for a postseason), despite averaging just 15:56 per contest (his lowest average ice time in a postseason since he averaged 15:43 in five playoff games in 2006-2007). He averaged just 10:43 in ice time in the last four games of the second-round series against the Penguins.
Potential Milestones in 2017-2018:
- 200th game as a Capital (currently has 198)
- 200 points (currently has 175)
- Plus-100 (currently plus-80)
The Big Question… Are the miles too many on Brooks Orpik’s odometer?
In his three seasons with the Caps, ice time for Brooks Orpik has become a diminishing measure. In the regular season he averaged 21:48, 19:49, and 17:47 per game, respectively. In the postseason those numbers were 22:17, 21:05, and 15:56, respectively. Even on a blueline that could be breaking in three new regulars, Orpik might be at the point in his career where he is a third-line defenseman. One thing to watch for is how his shorthanded ice time might change. In each of his three seasons in Washington, Orpik averaged more than two minutes of shorthanded ice time per game, and he did so in two of the last three postseasons. He was fourth among Caps defensemen in shorthanded ice time per game last season, but one of those ahead of him – Karl Alzner – has departed. This might be a season in which Dmitry Orlov is called upon to log more penalty killing ice time (he averaged just 14 seconds per game last year). How Orpik fits into this rotation bears watching.
In the end…
When Brooks Orpik signed a five-year/$27.5 million contract in July 2014, it was not particularly well-received. At the time, this was an ominous observation…
“Orpik is 33 years old, and the deal will still be paying him on his 38th birthday. There aren’t too many defensemen that play more than 40 games after the age of 35.”
Going into this season, since the 2005-2006 season, 55 defensemen age 35 or older have appeared in 40 or more games in a season at least twice (Orpik is one of them). Only 33 of that group did it three of more times. That Orpik would try to add his name to that list might be a heavy lift for a player who plays with his edge and who has as many games on his resume as he has.
On the other hand, Orpik is a player who goes to great lengths to protect his asset – his body. If there is a player in the NHL who has prepared diligently for this phase of his career, Orpik might be that player. And given the turnover on the Caps’ blueline from last season to this, his durability and reliable contributions in his own end would seem likely to be important ingredients in whatever success the Caps enjoy this season. It might be autumn of Brooks Orpik’s career, but holding off the winter is what Caps fans will be hoping for.
Projection: 75 games, 1-11-12, plus-23
Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America