“You must become an old man in good time if you wish to be an old man long.”
-- Marcus Aurelius
When the 2014-2015 season ended, only 26 active defensemen had appeared in more career regular season games than Brooks Orpik (781); only 13 appeared in more postseason games (106). Orpik played in 78 of those regular season games and 14 of those playoff games with the Caps last year. He acquitted himself fairly well for a man whose free agent contract signed with the Caps in the summer of 2014 was called a “bad signing,” a “puzzler,” and “the worst July 1 free agent signing.”
At a high level, it was a decent year for Orpik. His 19 points (all assists) tied his second highest point total for a season in his career, his 168 total shot attempts was a career best, as was his total shots on goal (66), and his 1,700 total minutes played set a career high. For the ninth time in 10 full seasons (not counting the abbreviated 2012-2013 season) he appeared in 70 or more games. And, a certain orneriness was still evident in his game. Orpik finished third (first among defensemen) in credited hits last season – 306, a number that was 85 more than he was credited with in Pittsburgh the previous season and only three fewer than his career best, set in 2008-2009.
What he did not have – does not yet have with the Capitals – was a goal scored. In fact, although Orpik is hardly considered an “offensive” defenseman (13 goals in 703 games coming into last season), his first year with the Capitals was the first in his career in which he appeared in more than 70 games and did not register a goal. He is now at 91 regular season games and counting without a goal.
And here is another odd fact with respect to Orpik and goals. No active player in the NHL has played as many regular season games as Orpik (781) without having scored a game-winning goal in his career. Oddly enough, the next player on that active list is former Capital (if briefly) defenseman Tim Gleason – no game-winners in 727 career regular season games.
Time on ice was a pretty good indicator of success with respect to Orpik. In games in which he skated more than 25 minutes, the Caps were 4-0-2. In those instances in which he skated between 20 and 25 minutes, they were 35-13-7. Less than 20 minutes on Orpik’s time on ice record, and the Caps were 4-11-2. There is likely a chicken and egg effect here, Orpik, being a defensive defenseman with little offensive impact, might very well have been getting less ice time in games in which the Caps trailed late. And, the Caps were 15-1-1 in games in which Orpik recorded a point, the only loss in regulation coming in his last game of the regular season. Score one (or 19, as in “assists”) for secondary scoring.
I’ll take “Words that Start with the Letters “Po,’ Alex.” “Po,” as in “possession” and “poor.” On a personal basis, Orpik finished with a better Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 (49.6) than he did in either of his last two seasons in Pittsburgh (44.4 in 2012-2013, 46.2 in 2013-2014), but on a higher level – Corsi-for/relative – he finished in minus territory (minus-2.4) for the fifth straight season. Orpik skated the bulk of his 5-on-5 ice time (1,151 minutes) with John Carlson on the Capitals’ first defense pairing. The difference between Carlson’s Corsi-for percentage with Orpik (49.7) and when apart (59.1) was stunning (numbers from stats.hockeyanalysis.com), and not in a good way (note: Carlson skated only 216 5-on-5 minutes apart from Orpik last season). It was similar with the other defenseman logging more than 100 minutes at 5-on-5 with Orpik, Matt Niskanen (42.7 with, 52.8 apart from Orpik). At a more granular level (did I use that word right, cuz?), Orpik had a challenging season.
The Big Question… How serious are Orpik’s possession issues going forward?
There is an interesting, even hopeful fact about Orpik’s possession numbers in 2014-2015. In each of his first four ten-game segments, he was below 50 percent Corsi-for. In his last four segments, including an eight-game segment to close the season, he was over 50 percent. He was also marginally better overall in close-score situations, just under 50 percent for the season (49.8/minus-7 overall). There is also his Fenwick profile (shot attempts less those attempts that are blocked). Orpik was over 50 percent – barely – for the season in all situations (50.1) and was a bit better in close score situations (50.4; numbers from war-on-ice.com).
Last season being Year 1 in what is a five-year contract with Washington, the numbers serve as a baseline for evaluating his performance going forward. There is some concern about this. Orpik turned 35 this past weekend, and he does have those 886 regular season and playoff games on his resume. They have not been an easy 886 games, either.
In the end…
No one is asking Brooks Orpik to score goals, game-winners or otherwise (nice as it might be), or do much of anything else one might associate with an offensive defenseman, except move the puck smartly out of his own zone. He is something of a throwback, an almost exclusively defensive defenseman with a touch of orneriness who can, as much as the current rules allow, keep the front of his net clear.
The further one drills into Orpik’s numbers from last season, the less attractive they become. Underneath it all, while he improved over the course of the season, there were possession issues, particularly in the manner in which partners improved their possession numbers when apart from him at 5-on-5.
However, looking in the other direction – upward through the numbers toward those “intangibles” – his impacts are a little different. He does have his name on the Stanley Cup. He does have more than 800 games of regular season and playoff experience. He does deliver a certain durability and consistency on the ice (his status after off-season wrist surgery notwithstanding). He is, in a sense, comparable on the blue line to what Mike Knuble was five years ago – a veteran who can deliver solid minutes on the ice and leadership in the locker room. He is about to enter his second year as the old man of the defense. Caps fans will be hoping he can be that “old man long” of which the ancient emperor spoke.
Projection: 73 games, 1-13-14, plus-4
Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America