“Still round the corner there may wait, a new road or a secret gate.”
-- J. R. R. Tolkien
When the 2017-2018 season came to its happy end, the business side of the sport made its unsentimental presence felt among the Washington Capitals. Barely two weeks after the Capitals won their first Stanley Cup in team history, the Caps traded Brooks Orpik – “Batya” to some of his teammates -- to the Colorado Avalanche with backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer for a second round pick in the 2018 Entry Draft. More than the pick (the Caps would take Kody Clark, son of former NHL’er Wendel Clark), the trade freed the Caps from the last season of Orpik’s $5.5 million cap hit. The Avalanche bought out that final year of Orpik’s contract the following day, making Orpik an unrestricted free agent. The long and winding path from Washington to Denver had one more turn, bringing Orpik back to Washington one month later on a one-year/$1.5 million contract ($1.0 million cap hit).
When Orpik was signed to a five-year/$27.5 million deal back in 2014, it was the opinion of many that the contract would eventually be one of poor value for the Caps, who would be saddled with that heavy cap hit attached to an aging, hard-playing defenseman with little contribution to make in the offensive end. But a $1 million contract for a player with more than 1,100 regular and postseason games of experience with two Stanley Cups and three trips to the finals? There could be value in that.
Orpik’s started his season, at least by his standards, on fire, recording an assist in the Caps’ 7-0 Opening Night win over Boston and following that up the next night with a goal in an overtime loss to Pittsburgh. He cooled off thereafter, not recording a point in his next eight games and recording a career low 16:18 per game in ice time over his first ten games. Then, he was out of the lineup. First it was a maintenance day, and then it was a lower body injury. Then it was long term injured reserve. Eventually, the problem was made public, a knee injury that required surgery.
Orpik missed 27 games, not returning to the lineup until New Year’s Eve. He did, however, dress for 43 of the team’s last 45 games and was a respectable 1-6-7, plus-6, in those contests while averaging 15:31 in ice time per game. Orpik finished especially strong in one area. He was plus-11 in his last 19 games while posting four assists. Only three defensemen in the league posted better plus-minus numbers over that span – Boston’s Zdeno Chara (plus-16) and Brandon Carlo (plus-15), and Carolina’s Brett Pesce (plus-13).
Fearless’ Take… Getting points from a defenseman of Brooks Orpik’s sort is a rarity and of a volume not generally counted on for team success. So, that the Caps would have a good record when he did show up on the score sheet was hardly surprising, since his scoring contribution could be considered gravy. Washington was 6-1-2 in the nine games in which he posted a point. What was a bit more surprising was the Caps’ record when he recorded shots on goal. They were 7-2-2 in the 11 games in which he had at least two shots on goal recorded, while they were 15-8-3 in the 26 games in which he did not record a shot on goal.
Cheerless’ Take… The Caps were 28-18-7 in the 53 games in which Orpik played, 20-8-1 in the games he missed. They were 5-2-3 in the games he skated less than 14 minutes. Even if his underlying numbers were better this season than last, and they were (shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 almost four points better; Corsi-for relative at fives almost three points better (sources: NHL.com, hockey-reference.com)), it did not seem to have a strong relationship with wins and losses.
Odd Orpik Fact… Brooks Orpik did not skate for 20 minutes in any game this season. It was the first time in his career that he went an entire regular season without logging 20 minutes in any game, including his first NHL season, when he dressed for only six games for the Pittsburgh Penguins (he did have a 23-minute game in that season).
Bonus Odd Orpik Fact… Bad number: “14.” The Caps did not win a single game in which Orpik skated between 14:00 and 14:59 in ice time, inclusive (0-8-1).
Double Bonus Odd Orpik Fact… Both of Brooks Orpik’s regular season goals this season came in losses, a 7-6 overtime loss to Pittsburgh on October 4th and in an 8-5 loss to Chicago on January 20th.
Game to Remember… January 14th vs. St. Louis
It is rare when a memorable game takes place in a loss, but that was the case for Brooks Orpik when he took the ice against the St. Louis Blues at Capital One Arena in mid-January. When he did so, he became the 45th player in NHL history born in the United States to dress for 1,000 NHL games and the 18th defenseman to do so. It was a hard night for Orpik and the Caps, who lost in a 4-1 decision, Orpik contributing four hits and a shot on goal in 14 minutes of ice time. But he took his place among a select few whose level of play merited being given a place in the lineup 1,000 times in his career.
Game to Forget… March 16th at Tampa Bay
When the Caps visited Florida on an 8-1-0 run, outscoring opponents by a 37-21 margin, they were no doubt feeling pretty good about themselves. Brooks Orpik, even as a veteran who has seen the high highs and the low lows, might have felt at least perky after going 0-3-3, plus-5 in those nine games while averaging almost 16 minutes of ice time per game. “Happy” and “perky” would not be appropriate adjectives to describe Orpik or the Caps in this game. Tampa Bay had a 2-0 lead less than 11 minutes into the game. They led, 3-1, at the first intermission. And while the Caps got within a goal by the time the second intermission rolled around and again in the third period after Tampa Bay restored their two-goal lead, it was as close as they would get, the Lightning scoring a pair of empty net goals in the last minute to take a 6-3 decision and a team record 55th win of the season.
For Orpik, it was a dreadful night. He was on ice for two of the four non-empty net goals, he had one shot attempt (a missed shot), was without a hit for only the fifth time all season, did not record a blocked shot, and he skated only 11:12, his lowest ice time of the season. His last three shifts totaled 25 seconds, and he did not take the ice in the final 7:04 of the game. It was enough for head coach Todd Reirden to sit Orpik as a healthy scratch in the next game for rest purposes.
Postseason… If you had Brooks Orpik scoring the only goal by a Capitals defenseman in the postseason, go buy a Powerball ticket. Not only that, it was the overtime game-winning goal in Game 2 of the opening round series against Carolina.
It was arguably the high point of the series for the Caps and what was Orpik’s third game-winning goal among the four postseason goals he has in his career. Alas, Orpik did not record another point in the last five games of the series and was minus-3
Looking ahead… On Opening Night of the new season, Brooks Orpik will be 39 years old. He will have 16 seasons behind him and almost 1,200 regular and postseason games on his resume. No defenseman in his 2000 draft class has that many games on his ledger. And it is not as if they have been easy games. Since he came into the league in 2002-2003, no defenseman has been credited with more hits in regular season games than Orpik (3,148, almost 700 more than Zdeno Chara), and only Dustin Brown among all skaters has more (3,369).
The $1 million cap hit for Orpik was arguably a bargain this season. The value of his experience on youngsters like Christian Djoos or Jonas Siegenthaler is hard to quantify, and his numbers were more or less consistent with the production he has recorded in the latter half of his career. However, with the development of Djoos and Siegenthaler, plus the additions of Michal Kempny last season and Nick Jensen this season, it is hard to see how Orpik fits in other than as a depth defenseman, and even that could be complicated by how Matt Niskanen’s status with the club settles out.
In the end…
In the cold calculus of costs and benefits, you could say that Brooks Orpik (and Matt Niskanen, who completed what was something of a free agent package deal in 2014) did what he was brought here to do, to help the Caps win a Stanley Cup. That has been accomplished. But more, by his example of preparation and respect for his craft, he has helped in the development of young defensemen that could provide a solid foundation for some years to come. That might have been part of the deal, too, albeit one not discussed in as much detail as his production numbers. Nevertheless, as likely as it seems that Brooks Orpik’s stay with the Caps is at an end, he should be appreciated for being “батя” to a generation of Capitals.