Washington Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik isn’t sure what his NHL future holds. As an unrestricted free agent, the 38-year-old, 16-year veteran heads into the offseason uncertain on whether he will try to return for another year with the Capitals or another team, or if he will retire.
During breakdown day at the Capitals’ facility in Arlington on Friday, two days after the team’s Stanley Cup title defense ended with a double-overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7 of a first-round playoff series, Orpik said that he is in no rush to make a decision about his future and that his health will be the main factor. Orpik, who has been an alternate captain in Washington for the past five years, had surgery on his right knee early in the season and was sidelined from late October to late December. In hindsight, he said, he probably should have given himself more time to recover.
“I think from a hockey and competitive standpoint, I’ll want to play,” said Orpik, who might not make a decision until late in the summer. “But if I can’t get to a certain level, then I don’t want to do what I did this year throughout the whole season."
Orpik, the oldest player on the Capitals’ roster, said he struggled for parts of the season with inflammation in his knee and felt “frustrated” at times trying to maintain his level of play. Toward the end of the season and into the postseason, however, he said he felt his game start to come back. Orpik scored the game-winning goal in overtime of Game 2 against the Hurricanes, his third career game-winning goal in the playoffs. He came to Washington as a free agent in 2014, strengthening the blue line and adding an experienced voice to a dressing room that needed a culture shift, and he appeared in every playoff game last year when the franchise won its first Stanley Cup.
"When I came here as a free agent, it was obviously a family decision, but it was something where I wanted to win a Stanley Cup,” Orpik said. “That was something where I just talked to [General Manager Brian MacLellan] about it. Obviously as frustrated as we are about this year, if someone told me at the beginning of five years I'd come here and win a Stanley Cup, I'd sign up for it in a heartbeat.”
Orpik said the thought of him playing his last game as a Capital did go through his mind during the postseason, but he hasn’t really pondered whether the Capitals’ level of interest in having him back will have an impact on whether he will retire. MacLellan said it "might be tough” to re-sign Orpik with the organization’s salary cap space for next year, but he is open to the possibility.
“We’ll see how he does here with his injuries and his attitude and whether he wants to continue playing and whether we have room,” MacLellan said. “Would we rather go with one of our younger guys instead of him? We’ll cross that bridge when he makes his decision.”
The team does have a strong pipeline of blue-liners in the organization. In addition to young defensemen Christian Djoos and Jonas Siegenthaler, who are already part of the NHL club, the Capitals have prospects Lucas Johansen and Alexander Alexeyev.
Among their more established defensemen, Michal Kempny said Friday that his recovery is on schedule after he had surgery this month for a torn hamstring suffered late in the regular season. He said he will begin rehabbing next week and will be ready to start training camp. Veterans John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov and Nick Jensen are also under contract.
But losing Orpik would still have an impact. His teammates had nothing but praise Friday for a player who has had a knack for relating to both the young players in the room and his fellow veteran leaders.
“As you get older, you reflect on that, and you’re like, ‘I hope guys view me in the same light that I viewed some of these guys, not the way I was treated by some of these other guys,’” Orpik said. “If you want to stick around, too, you can. This league is pretty small. Word gets around whether you’re a good teammate or not."
Niskanen, who could be a trade candidate with two years left on a contract that carries a $5.75 million annual salary cap hit, said Orpik was very “influential,” and if this is the end of Orpik’s time with the Capitals, they will remember the lessons he preached.
“I’ve got a special place in my heart for Brooks Orpik,” Niskanen said. “We’ll see what happens. If he decides he wants to, if he gets the opportunity to either come back here or somewhere else, I don’t know. I haven’t talked to him about that. But what a great, great person, first and foremost. He has so much integrity. And that’s what I admire most, what a good friend and leader, a good quality person, he is.”
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