“When I'm playing, I'm never through. It's unfinished. I like to find a place to leave for someone else to finish it. That's where the high comes in.”
-- Miles Davis
When the 2016-2017 season ended, Brooks Orpik was not the oldest defenseman in the league, but he was at the head table. Only six defensemen older than Orpik dressed last season. Only three defensemen older than Orpik would dress for the 2017-2018 regular season that wrapped up in April. Still, he dressed for 81 games. It was the first time in a 15-year career that he appeared in at least 80 regular season games. No defensemen in the NHL older than 32 at season’s end (there were 13 in all) played in more, and only New Jersey’s Andy Greene played in as many.
One would be hard-pressed to think of 2017-2018 being one of Orpik’s best seasons, though, even as difficult as it is to evaluate a defensive defenseman’s numbers. For the second consecutive season and third in four seasons in Washington, Orpik did not record a goal. Not all that surprising, given that he never had more than two in any of his 11 seasons in Pittsburgh before coming to Washington, but he had no goals for the Penguins only three times in those 11 seasons, and one of them was in his first year in which he appeared in just six games.
His ten assists falls squarely in the middle of his annual production over 15 seasons, but it ties for the lowest he recorded in a season in which he appeared in at least 70 games (he had ten in 2007-2008 in 78 games in Pittsburgh). And, after three seasons in Washington with ever-increasing plus-minus numbers (plus-5, plus-11, and plus-32), he had his first “minus” season as a Capital (minus-9). He went from having the best plus-minus among Caps defensemen last season to having the worst this season (in fact, those best and worst are the best and worst for any Caps defenseman in the four years Orpik has been a Capital, and the plus-32 was the best for a Capital defenseman over the last eight seasons).
Then there was possession. Orpik had a shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 of 44.21. Only six of 200 defensemen dressing for 40 or more games had a worse percentage (numbers from NHL.com). His SAT-for at 5-on-5 in tied games was second-worst in the league (41.52 percent). It is not a neighborhood in which a defensive defenseman might wish to reside, even if he is getting only 16:14 of even strength ice time per game, 121st among that group of 200 defensemen.
Fearless’ Take… When Brooks Orpik was on his physical game, the Caps were on theirs. In 26 games in which Orpik recorded four or more credited hits, the Caps were 19-5-2. In 21 games in which he recorded one or no credited hits, the Caps were 11-7-3. Extending the “grittership” theme, the Caps were 20-10-2 in the 32 games in which Orpik had at least three blocked shots, 6-5-2 in the 13 games in which he did not have one. Orpik seems to thrive in the context of “old school” numbers a lot more than in the “new school” numbers.
Cheerless’ Take… It is one thing not to be an offensive threat. It is another to be something of a non-contributor. Only 14 times in the history of the franchise did a player finish a season with more games of no shots on goal than Brooks Orpik (42) and the most since Jeff Schultz had 46 such games in the 2010-2011 season. The Caps were 25-13-4 in those games. That they were 24-12-3 in the 39 games in which he did record at least one shot on goal makes one think it didn’t matter much. Maybe it was the “grittership,” after all.
Odd Orpik Fact… Brooks Orpik has more goals in 149 career postseason games (three) than he had over his last two regular seasons with the Caps (none in 160 games).
Game to Remember… February 9th vs. Columbus
Defensive defensemen aren’t going to get a lot of headlines, and they aren’t often going to be named a star of the game. It was no different for Brooks Orpik when the Caps faced the Columbus Blue Jackets at Capital One Arena in early February. It was the back half of a home-and-home set against the Blue Jackets, who the Caps defeated three days earlier by a 3-2 margin on a last-minute goal in regulation by Nicklas Backstrom. The rematch promised to feature a grumpy Columbus squad looking to even the score.
It was the sort of game made for a player like Orpik. Neither it, nor Orpik disappointed. The teams alternated goals over the first 21 minutes of the contest, but the Caps scored a pair of goals less than two minutes apart in the second period to take a 4-2 lead into the third period. Braden Holtby stopped all 15 shots he faced in the third period, and the Caps held on to that 4-2 margin for the win. As for Orpik, he did not record a shot attempt, but he had four credited hits and five blocked shots to go along with a plus-1 in 18:45 in ice time. It was one of four games in the 2017-2018 season in which Orpik recorded at least four credited hits and four blocked shots. He was the only Capital to record any such games this season.
Game to Forget… February 4th vs. Vegas
There might not have been another team in the NHL in the regular season that posed as stiff a challenge to the type of player Brooks Orpik is than the Vegas Golden Knights. A fast, deep team intent on playing “quick hockey” against an older, traditional, stay-at-home, and (frankly) slower defenseman. The differences between player and opponent were evident in an early-February game at Capital One Arena.
The Caps managed to get a lead – three times, in fact – but could not shake the visitors loose. Vegas tied the game three times, one last time mid-way through the third period on a Jonathan Marchessault goal for which Orpik was on the ice, and then they took their first, only, and last lead five minutes later on a goal by Alex Tuch in a 4-3 Vegas win.
Orpik skated 16:05 for the game, and other than his minus-1 and penalty (after which Vegas scored on the ensuing power play, their only man advantage of the game), he had a blank score sheet. It was one of only four games all season that Orpik recorded neither a hit nor a blocked shot and the only one of those that the Caps lost.
Brooks Orpik came into the postseason with far more experience than his teammates, 125 games worth (by way of comparison, Alex Ovechkin had 97 games of experience going into the playoffs). Perhaps as important, he was the only Capital having played in a Stanley Cup final (twice), let alone one who played on a team that won one (in 2009 with the Penguins).
Orpik did not post flashy numbers in the 2018 playoffs for the Caps. For instance, his 16:49 in average ice time was the third-lowest in his 12 trips to the postseason. But the time was well spent, in an odd sort of way. Here was Orpik, who endured a lot of negative commentary over the season for his on-ice performance, playing at least 16:06 in 13 of the Caps’ 24 post season games. And the Caps did not lose one of them in regulation time. After an overtime loss in Game 1 of the opening round to Columbus (he skated 19:39 in that one), the Caps won 12 in a row when he skated 16:06 or more, including Game 5 of the final against Vegas, in which he skated 18:00.
It was in that game in which Orpik might have made his signature play of importance as a Capital, and oddly enough it was in the offensive end of the ice. With Vegas approaching the mid-point of the third period with a 3-2 lead, Erik Haula tried to clear the puck up the boards out of his own end. Orpik, stationed at the blue line, held the puck onside by the narrowest of margins, and then he sent it in the direction of the Vegas net. Devante Smith-Pelly settled it off his skate, and as he was being tripped by Colin Miller in the slot, he curled a shot around the left pad of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to tie the game 9:52 into the period. Less than three minutes later, Lars Eller put the Caps ahead, and the Caps had their series-ending, Cup-clinching margin of victory.
In the end…
Brook Orpik is in the autumn of his career. It is uncertain as of this writing where he will be spending what might be the last seasons of his career after being traded to the Colorado Avalanche with goaltender Philipp Grubauer to the Colorado Avalanche, who promptly bought out Orpik from the last year of his current contract. He finished the season with the seventh-highest number of regular season games played by an active defenseman (982), and only Zdeno Chara among active defensemen had more postseason games played (159) than Orpik (149).
It is possible that he will return to the Caps, perhaps in a third-pair mentoring role, much as was his role in 2017-2018. In that sense, his work might not yet be finished as a Capital. He might, as Miles Davis put it, “find a place to leave for someone else to finish it.” Or at least take up the challenge.
Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images North America