In his 13th full NHL season, Brooks Orpik didn’t need to be told his role on the Washington Capitals was changing. As the preseason wore on and the defenseman often found himself paired with Nate Schmidt, he was perceptive enough to understand he’d likely be playing less this season. And with that realization came … nothing. No outburst. No venting. Not even a conversation with the Capitals coaches.
“I wasn’t really told about it,” Orpik said. “You guys knew about it before I did, so that was a little strange. . . . If they think that’s what’s more beneficial for the team, then you’ve just got to go with it.”
Orpik’s ice time has been down roughly two minutes per game from last season as he’s gone from being a top-four defenseman for Washington to the team’s third pairing. With his stature in the locker room and because he wears the alternate captain’s “A” for the Capitals, few of his teammates would have blamed Orpik for objecting to the reduced role. Instead, his acceptance set an example for the rest of the team as Coach Barry Trotz has balanced the ice time across the lineup, even lowering minutes for captain Alex Ovechkin.
Now the Capitals could ask Orpik to make another sacrifice. Following the recent acquisition of defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk in a trade last month, Schmidt was scratched from the lineup to make room. But while Shattenkirk served a two-game suspension, Schmidt showed well while filling in, scoring the opening goal in the Caps’ Tuesday night win over the Minnesota Wild. Trotz acknowledged that he’s considering keeping Schmidt in the lineup. He also intends to play Shattenkirk now that his suspension is over, so if Trotz does intend to keep Schmidt in, it could be Orpik who is out.
In Trotz’s three seasons in Washington, he has always praised Orpik for the “intangibles” he brings as a steadying, veteran presence. For the Capitals’ fan base, Orpik is polarizing for his lack of speed, a more physical defenseman than a mobile one, and its perceived reflection in the team’s shot-attempt metrics when he’s on the ice.
“Sometimes the numbers guys really don’t play the game and don’t understand the impact of an individual in your organization,” Trotz said. “There’s certain things you can’t measure and some of those things that you can’t measure are some of the most important things that are part of a culture, development of a player, those things you can’t measure, and he’s got those intangibles. That’s why he’s been such a valuable player for us.”
The irony is that with Orpik getting more favorable matchups as a third-pairing defenseman, the Capitals have taken the majority of the five-on-five shot attempts when he’s been on the ice this season, making this one of his best years in that category. Among defensemen who play regularly, Orpik leads the league with a 66.2 goals-for percentage at five-on-five.
Orpik has never cared much for using those statistics to measure his performance because he feels they’re often lacking context.
“I don’t put a lot of value into those stats,” Orpik said. “I know there’s a big debate between hockey people and non-hockey people. You know, traditional people versus more futuristic people or whatever. I think everybody has a different way of evaluating. I think I’m probably the best evaluator of myself. I’m pretty honest.”
Orpik’s assessment of himself this season is that he’s played more consistently than last year when injuries derailed his season. When Washington signed Orpik to a five-year, $27.5 million deal, management had to reconcile Orpik’s age (34 his first season in Washington) and the potential of diminishing skills against his physicality on the ice and leadership in the locker room. The short-term gains in the latter categories won out.
That was tested last year when a cracked femur sidelined Orpik for half of the regular season, and then in the playoffs, he suffered a concussion in the Capitals’ first-round series. In the second round, he was hit with a three-game suspension for an illegal hit on Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta. After the season, he had knee surgery and couldn’t start skating until September. In the meantime, the Capitals let it be known that Dmitry Orlov would have a greater role on the blue line, which would affect Orpik’s ice time.
“Everybody’s competitive and everybody wants to play as much as possible,” Orpik said. “I think you’ve got to realize that there’s only so much ice time to go around. . . . It’s easy for everybody to say their main goal is to win the Stanley Cup. Well, times like this are really good tests to show if that really is important to guys, or if individual accomplishments or minutes are more important. I think that’s how you look at it.”
The addition of Orpik and Matt Niskanen three years ago had forced Washington into a similar decision between veteran defensemen. In Trotz’s first season with the Capitals, Mike Green transitioned from the organization’s top blue-liner (averaging nearly 23 minutes of ice time the year before) to playing on a third pairing and skating just over 19 minutes a night. With fewer minutes against easier competition, Green had one of his most productive seasons in years, and though he and Orpik are polar opposites in playing styles, that experience reinforced to associate coach Todd Reirden that a lighter load can be a positive.
“I’d rather play a whole bunch,” Green said recently. “But I mean, that was where we were at as far as the depth within that team. … You can look at it two ways. You can look at it and be sour, or you can stay positive and try to make the best of it. I took pride in that role that was given to me, and that’s that.”
The Capitals are again at a familiar crossroad, forced to choose between the younger, more mobile Schmidt and Orpik’s intangibles as they consider their lineup for the rest of the season and the playoffs. The organization has been happy with how Orpik has played this season and how he handled the reduction of his ice time. It’s unclear if the Capitals will now ask him to make another sacrifice for the team.
“Brooks understands the whole process,” Trotz said earlier this month. “He understands whatever is best for the team, he’s going to do. He gets that part.”