Ted Leonsis, Matt Niskanen talk new Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik


(Associated Press)

The contract of Brooks Orpik has become this offseason’s hot-button issue around the Washington Capitals, the item asked whenever some new, relevant official, coach and player faces the media. Internally, the Capitals – everyone from assistant coach Todd Reirden to Coach Barry Trotz to general manager Brian MacLellan – have lauded Orpik’s leadership, his ability to guide young talent and a tireless work ethic.

These are the traits, they have said, which attracted them to Orpik, which persuaded them to sign him for five years, $27.5 million on July 1. The deal consequently drew widespread criticism about both its value and length, disconnected from the defenseman’s below-average advanced metrics. On Saturday, when Orpik’s former teammate and the owner who authorized the contract spoke, they both stuck to the praise that has defined the organization’s view on the signing.

“Steady,” said defenseman Matt Niskanen, who played with Orpik in Pittsburgh. “That’s the best word I can say. He’s real steady positionally, he’s still got that real physical edge. He can bring that. He’s a strong human being. He’s a workout freak. You know he’s going to be in excellent shape.

“He’s a leader – that’s another element that people can’t ever see, just the guys in the room. He’s got a lot of experience – he’s been on bad teams and he’s been on championship teams and everywhere in between. So he knows what it takes – the chemistry, the work ethic, he knows what it takes to win and I think that will add a lot to our group and get us headed in the right direction.”`

On Feb. 21, 2011, when Dallas dealt Niskanen to the Penguins, he began looking up to Orpik, studying his process in the gym, his work in practice, his nutritional habits and attention to detail. Even now, after the Capitals signed Niskanen to a seven-year, $40.25-million deal, he carried to his new city some of the lessons learned from Orpik.

Perhaps what Niskanen learned helped him last season, when over 81 games he set career highs in nearly every statistical category (46 points, 10 goals, 36 assists). But now Orpik finds himself in a pressure-filled situation, greeted to his first NHL team outside Pittsburgh with plenty of discourse scrutinizing the advanced metrics and details of the contract.

This did not sit well with Leonsis.

“I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t listen much anymore to what you guys say,” he said. “I think it’s your jobs, and I was a little disappointed that it’s not the right way to welcome somebody to a new team and a new city, a guy who has been in the league a long, long time. He’s a guy who has intangibles of leadership and he’s tough as nails and one the coaches and [MacLellan] respect very much. I think he’s a good player.”

With development camp over, the hockey world essentially shuts down until September, when rookie camp begets training camp, which begets a new season. Only then will the Orpik deal get judged based on results with the Capitals, but the team has been steadfast in defending its new defenseman, which has given Washington what Leonsis called its deepest blue line since he became owner.

“There’s a lot of ways that you have to improve the team,” Leonsis said. “Frankly, the way we’ll get better is our core foundational players will get better. We need more from our leaders. We need some of our players who have not been healthy to get healthy and contribute. This is the ultimate team enterprise. I own an NBA team, it’s very different. You have five guys and you play a rotation of eight. In hockey, you just need a lot of depth. For us to go six or seven deep now feels really good and it also gives a lot of comfort to Alex Ovechkin and to Nick Backstrom. They see come playoff time the teams with good goaltending and good defense tend to do well in the playoffs.”

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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