After his poor performance in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik has become a highly (and rather unfairly) criticized player by many fans. And as an Orpik fan, I’m here to put that criticism to rest (or at least settle it).
Even as a diehard Caps fan, I was an Orpik fan long before he ever signed with the team (yes, even when he was a Penguin). His hard-hitting, shutdown style of play was fun to watch; the type of blueliner I knew the Caps so desperately needed. So when he became a free agent in July 2014, I was hoping the Caps’ General Manager, Brian MacLellan, would see the same thing I did: a defenseman that could help improve the team’s weak defensive corps.
While the Caps did slightly overpay Orpik (five-years, $27.5 million), what he’s done to help the Washington blueline has been worth it. In his two seasons in Washington he’s been a rock on the blueline when healthy.
Playing primarily on a top-pairing with John Carlson, Orpik has played 2,512 minutes, which ranks fourth among the Opening Night Top-4 blueliners (John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Orpik, and Matt Niskanen) during that span. This is largely due to the fact Orpik missed 40 games due to injury last season.
One of the biggest strengths of Orpik’s game is his hard-hitting, physical style of play. He also moves the puck out of his own zone very well. In his two seasons with the Caps, Orpik has a Corsi rating of 49.9. While not the best, it’s not terrible. He ranks third in blocked shots (294) amongst current Capitals defensemen that have played at least 20 games, and has 431 hits during his career with D.C.
Orpik’s offensive production also increased last year, as he recorded a career-high three goals along with seven assists for 10 points in 41 games, which would have put him on a full season pace for six goals, 14 assists, and 20 points. While he’ll never be a puck-moving, offensive defenseman, he can chip in when needed.
While many have criticized him for his slow speed, I don’t think he’s extremely slow. While he’ll never win a fastest skater contest, he’s quick enough to get back into position when the puck goes towards the defensive zone. He’s older, which also factors in, but a defenseman doesn’t necessarily have to be lightning quick to be able to be effective. Orpik has also enabled Carlson to become more involved in the offensive rush with his shutdown style of play, and Carlson has become one of the Caps’ most productive blueliner. Orpik has also been one of the team’s most efficient penalty killers.
While his contract and cap hit may have been a bit too expensive, it was necessary in order to acquire his services, as MacLellan alluded to during his July 1, 2014 press conference: “We struggled with the fifth year. Things were getting competitive and we felt like we had to go that fifth year to get him”. He’s been the shutdown, physical rearguard the Caps have lacked for years and his presence is clearly felt by opposing players that attempt to park themselves in front of Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby. Is Orpik’s contract a burden? If he can’t shake the injury bug, and his possession statistics and defensive numbers decrease, then yes, it is. But there’s also a strong possibility the Caps will leave him unprotected in next year’s expansion draft (they can only protect three defensemen and it’s likely they’ll protect Niskanen, Carlson, and Alzner, assuming he’s re-signed). But although his playoff performance and suspension put him under immense scrutiny, I personally think he can be an effective defensive blueliner that provides leadership and Stanley Cup experience to a team that is a true contender and needs that more than ever.
By Michael Fleetwood
Stats via Hockey Reference
Interview with a Brooks Orpik Fan