When Brooks Orpik was signed to his five-year, $27.5 million deal in the summer of 2014 it was received with mixed reviews. The Capitals were in desperate need of defensive help, which Orpik brought, but he was 33-years old and some believed he was over the hill. Not many people were arguing about the first 2-3 years, but everyone knew at the time the last 2-3 years were going to be rough. Now, Orpik is in the last two years of his contract.
This isn’t to take away from what Orpik did this year as a third-pairing defenseman – he actually did exceptionally well. The Orpik-Nate Schmidt pairing was the second-best possession pair in the NHL in the regular season among pairings with 500 minutes (Dmitry Orlov-Matt Niskanen were #1). And when Kevin Shattenkirk was paired with him, they also did very well, they were 11th in possession with pairs that hit at least 200 minutes together. Even in the playoffs that 44-22 pairing did well, posting the third-best possession numbers with pairs that played at least 90 minutes together. But that possession didn’t really matter, because that pairing was at times burned hard by opposing players and were on the ice for SIX goals against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Now the Caps, having been ousted yet again from the playoffs way too early, are in for a tough summer with tough decisions to be made. T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, Karl Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Daniel Winnik are all unrestricted free agents (UFAs), with Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Nate Schmidt, Brett Connolly, and Dmitry Orlov being restricted free agents (RFAs).
There’s no way the Caps will be able to keep all of them. You could possibly guarantee all of the RFAs are kept, except maybe Connolly. The only UFAs that are possibly staying are Oshie and Williams and even then it will be difficult. All of this is to say that Orpik is taking up a great deal of cap space over the next two seasons ($5.5M per year). His body can only take bottom-pairing time and you simply can’t pay a player $5.5M to play the least amount of minutes. This leaves the Caps with four options: keep, buyout, switch, or trade.
This doesn’t technically mean they have to move him. The Caps can still build a really good team with him. For example, here’s something I quickly drew up on CapFriendly.com. Numbers might not be perfect, but they are pretty close. It gives you about $2 million in cap space to mess around with, too. But the argument is that Schmidt and Shattenkirk carried Orpik this past season and in the playoffs. He won’t have either this upcoming season. If he stays, Orpik will most likely be paired with rookies Madison Bowey or Christian Djoos. Both are very promising young prospects, but there is no guarantee they can carry Orpik.
Also, don’t forget he will be 37 by the start of next season; he’s only getting slower in a league that is getting younger and quicker.
So what are the options that the Capitals have if they want to rid themselves of Orpik? The first and most obvious that people point out is buying him out. To do this, the Caps will have an empty $2.5 million cap hit for two years, and $1.5 million for two more years after that. So the Caps will have some sort of cap hit for the next four years if they buy out Orpik, albeit a small cap hit.
This is scary to do, because you need all the cap room you can get to be the best in this league. The positive of doing this is that you don’t have to give anything up to trade him, which leads to the next point.
No team is exactly looking to grab Orpik for his defensive services, so don’t expect anything good in return. In order to move him, the Caps will likely have to give up either 1) draft picks and/or prospects or 2) switch a bad contract that you think might help more than what you’re giving up.
Let’s first look at trades that involve taking back a bad contract. Looking around the league there are two teams that I think can benefit from a switch for Orpik.
First there is New Jersey Devils’ winger Mike Cammalleri. Both he and Orpik are in similar boats:
Cammelleri had a very poor year for the Devils, only putting up 31 points in 61 games played this season. This, after putting up 38 points in 42 games played the year before. He also isn’t healthy very often; he hasn’t played more than 68 games in a season since the 2009-10 season.
But, even with all of that, it would be smart for Washington to make this trade. A Cammalleri-Lars Eller-Jakub Vrana line would be very effective on a skilled team like the Caps. Yes, they would be overpaying another aging player as a replacement for Orpik, but Cammalleri should be able to offer more than Orpik. New Jersey could certainly use Orpik better than the Caps, plus the General Manager for the Devils, Ray Shero, has a connection from his time as the GM of Pittsburgh. The Capitals might have to throw in a bit more, like a mid-round pick or prospect, but nothing out of this world.
The second team that the Caps could find a switch with is the Buffalo Sabres and winger Matt Moulson. He isn’t exactly in the same boat as Orpik, but close enough.
Moulson had a pretty promising career until he signed with Buffalo. During the last three years with the Sabres, he’s averaged about 32 points per 82 games. That certainly isn’t bad, but when he’s being paid $5 million a year, he needs to be better.
So this is similar to Cammalleri, but it’s a bit more of a gamble since Moulson has three years instead of two, though Moulson is one year younger than Cammalleri. He should be better with the Caps, than with Buffalo, as he could probably hit 40+ points in Washington.
But is that worth it for three years at $5 million a year? That’s something the Caps would have to figure out looking into the future, to see if it’s worth the trade off. Maybe Buffalo could throw in a mid-round pick to make it worth it.
No one is exactly fighting to acquire a 36-year old defensemen at $5.5 million a year for two more years. In order to move him and his contract, it would take some extra “throw-ins”. Typically this means draft picks. On the flip side, the Capitals need to start keeping draft picks, since they don’t have a pick this summer in Rounds 1-3, and don’t have a second in 2018.
This leaves prospects which are always hard to part with, since the Caps invested so much in them. The Caps have a good amount of good-to-great prospects and will need them soon, as RFA/UFAs like Kuznetsov, Orlov, Schmidt, Burakovsky, Tom Wilson, and John Carlson, and maybe Jay Beagle and Eller, will all need raises over the next two years.
On top of that, it’s hard to find teams willing to take Orpik, even if the Capitals offer young talent in return. Scouring the depths of the NHL CapFriendly site, I found three teams that might be able to pull it off.
First are the Arizona Coyotes. Consistently one of the worst teams in the league, Arizona is slowly getting better and have a bright future with some young pieces. One thing they don’t have is a goaltender. Mike Smith is old and Louis Domingue is good, but not great. He’s better-suited as a career backup, so the Caps could make something work there. Ignoring the upcoming expansion draft for a second, the Caps could offer Philipp Grubauer+Orpik+middle prospect, and Arizona would likely listen. Taking Orpik for two more years is worth it for a future of a young, very good goalie like Grubauer.
The second team that could be interested is the Calgary Flames. There was a rumor leading up to the trade deadline this year that the Flames were offering the Caps their first round pick+goaltender Chad Johnson for Grubauer. The Caps didn’t want to take the chance of Braden Holtby getting hurt, but Calgary could possibly still be interested in this deal, since they still don’t have a goalie. Could the Caps offer Grubauer+Orpik for a late pick from Calgary? The Flames have three defensemen costing $10 million combined coming off the books this summer, which would leave room for Orpik. They also aren’t afraid to sign players like Orpik; one of the defensemen coming off the books this summer is Deryk Engelland. They have Matt Bartkowski locked up for two more years. The Caps could possibly throw in a little bit more to sweeten the deal.
The last team I can see taking Orpik is Vegas. I think every Caps fan is hoping George McPhee just picks Orpik in the expansion draft to make up for the Filip Forsberg deal, but I think that’s a prayer. Vegas won’t have many prospects in their pipeline, so maybe Orpik, with 2-3 prospects, would get it done. I hope that they (the Capitals) won’t send their best prospects such as Ilya Samsonov, Vrana, Shane Gersich, or Bowey, but just about any others would work. Maybe if Vegas signs Alzner as their pick, the Caps can package Grubauer like they did with previous deals to move him. Would Vegas reject Grubauer+Orpik+Chandler Stephenson? I doubt it. They’d get a great goalie for the future and a good prospect to have Orpik for two years. Seems worth it to me.
Since I wrote about all these options, probably none of them will happen, but hopefully it shows there are ways to get Orpik off the books. Again, Orpik isn’t terrible, but he’s eating a lot of important cap space that the Caps desperately need over the next two years. Could they make a great team with him on it? Absolutely. But when it comes to winning the Cup, you need all the help you can get and that money in place of Orpik’s lack of speed would certainly help. Should be an interesting summer.
By Luke Adomanis