Monday, September 24, 2018

Washington Capitals 2018-2019 Previews -- Defensemen: Brooks Orpik

Brooks Orpik

“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”
-- Albert Camus

It would be easy to look at Brooks Orpik’s 2017-2018 season and think that he was challenged to keep up with his younger teammates and the speed that has become an important feature of NHL hockey.  His minus-9 was the second worst of his career (he was a minus-36 for a dreadful Pittsburgh Penguins team in 2003-2004).  His possession numbers were of a sort one would want to forget, a 44.21 shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 that ranked 149th of 151 defensemen appearing in at least 60 games source:  His hitting was down, the 2.7 hits per game he recorded ranking second lowest of the 11 seasons he played in at least 60 games since the statistic was recorded by the league.  He had more giveaways than any of those same 11 seasons (44).  On a sheer individual numbers basis, his was not a great season.

On the other hand, he dressed for 81 of 82 games, a career high in games played in a season.  He had ten assists, the ninth time in 15 seasons the defensive defenseman recorded double-digits in helpers.  His 168 blocked shots was the second highest total of his career.  And, even with the high giveaway volume, he did tie a career high in takeaways (17).  And, he had one of those game-saving little plays that figured large in the Caps' Cup-clinching win over the Vegas Golden Knights last June:

Odd Orpik Fact…

No player in the history of the NHL has played more regular season games than Brooks Orpik (982) and scored fewer goals (16).

Bonus Odd Orpik Fact...

Only three players in NHL history have scored fewer than 20 goals and recorded more than 150 assists.  Brooks Orpik (16-169-185) joins Jimmy Thomson (19-215-234 from 1945 through 1958)) and Bert Marshall (17-181-198 from 1965 through 1979).

Fearless’ Take…

Brooks Orpik raised his game considerably in one respect in the playoffs.  Yes, it’s not the best measure of effectiveness, but after posting a minus-9 in the regular season, the second worst of his career, he was a league best plus-17 in the postseason, five points better than teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov and by far the best of his career (he was a plus-6 in the 2014 postseason with Pittsburgh).  His lone goal in the postseason was a game-winner (a 3-2 win in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final against the Vegas Golden Knights).  That makes two game-winners among his three career playoff goals scored.

Cheerless’ Take…

Brooks Orpik skated 19.4 minutes last season for every goal scored against the Caps when he was on the ice. Only John Carlson skated fewer minutes per goal scored against (18.5 minutes) among defensemen appearing in at least 25 games.  And while Orpik skated more penalty killing minutes than Carlson, it was not by all that large a margin (252 minutes to 215 minutes).  More to the point and what a defensive defenseman is out there for, his goals-for-to-total-goals percentage at 5-on-5 (41.38 percent; source: was worst on the team and was 205th among 224 defensemen skating at least 400 5-on-5 minutes.

Potential Milestones…
  • 1,000 career games (he needs 18)
  • 300 career games as a Capital (he needs 21 to become the 65 player in team history to do reach that mark)
  • 20 career goals (he needs four, which would be a career high)
  • 200 career points (he needs 15)
  • 1,000 penalty minutes (he needs 60)
  • 20,000 minutes played (he needs 671)
  • 1,500 credited hits (he needs 27)
  • 2,500 blocked shots (he needs 75)

The Big Question… Can Brooks Orpik summon up one more solid season?

Defenseman is the hardest position to master as a skater at the NHL level of hockey.  It also seems to be the least forgiving at the other end of the age spectrum.  Since the 2005-2006 season, only ten defensemen age 38 or older have dressed for 75 games in at least one season.  Nicklas Lidstrom (three times) and Zdeno Chara (twice), each of whom is a freak of healthy nature in their own way, are the only ones to do it more than once.  Brooks Orpik will be 38 years old on opening night.  However, he has been preparing for this stage of his career, too.  If there is a player who could answer the call for 75 or more games at that age, the 38-year old Orpik (on September 26th) is that player. 

But can he play in 75 or more games without being a liability on the blue line?  Measuring contributions by defensive defensemen, and that really is the singular dimension of his game, is a hard thing to do.  Things other than goals, assists, and points have to be scrutinized – shot attempt percentages on ice, relative Corsi, goal scored against on ice (preventing them is Job 1 in his position description), and these were not areas of strength for Orpik in 2017-2018.  He did step things up the postseason, and frankly, if his regular season impact is to be sacrificed for a stronger postseason, the Caps will take that trade-off. 

We might bemoan from time to time Orpik’s underlying numbers as the season rolls on, but at this point in his career and given the team for which he plays, it’s not about the regular season, although if his underlying numbers deteriorate further he could be pushed for ice time.  All other things being equal, though, it is about being strong for the playoffs where his intangible assets -- experience and professionalism on the ice and in the locker room – have been an advantage.

In the end…

For a player who exudes a sense of stability and continuity, the 2018 off-season seemed a bit bumpy, what with his being traded to the Colorado Avalanche in June, bought out the following day and released, and then re-signed by the Caps a month later.  The trade to Colorado, in Orpik’s word, “blindsided” the player,  and it was part of a process that got the league’s attention.  Add in the fact that there appeared to be off-ice family matters that influenced his return to Washington and the fact that he will also be coming back from an odd injury suffered in the Stanley Cup final, one that has left him for the time being without feeling in his pinkie finger, and getting onto the ice with its routine and familiarity might be what Orpik needs to make his autumn with the Capitals the springboard to a second spring of a deep playoff run.

Projection: 75 games, 0-8-8, minus-6

Photo: Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images North America