For the last month, long-time NHL defenseman Brooks Orpik was facing an extremely uncertain future. After the Washington Capitals traded him and Philipp Grubauer to the Colorado Avalanche to clear up cap space, Colorado decided to buy out the last year of his $4.5 million AAV contract, leaving the 37-year-old without a job.
Following the buyout, rumblings emerged that the Capitals were still open to bringing the two-time Stanley Cup champion back, and on Tuesday, they ended up inking him to a one-year, $1 million contract, with the chance to make up to $500,000 in performance bonuses.
Though Orpik has been prone to struggles over the years, he had a strong turnaround in 2017-18 and has an impact that goes beyond his stats, showing that this signing is a smart one for Washington.
“He comes early and leaves late. He’s in top shape, says the right things in the room, says the right things on the bench, plays the right way,” general manager Brian MacLellan said of Orpik toward the end of the postseason. “In my mind, he’s had a real good finish to the season and in the playoffs.”
Orpik’s Bounce Back Year
In 81 games this past season, Orpik put up 10 assists, as well as 218 hits and 168 blocks. While his possession metrics weren’t great in the regular season, he was a stable stay-at-home defender on the bottom pairing, who worked well in tandem with rookies like Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey over the course of the year. However, it was ultimately his playoff performance that capped off an excellent 2017-18 campaign for Orpik.
He led all skaters with a plus-17 rating, and had a goal and four points averaging 16:49 minutes of ice time a night; his single tally was his first since the 2015-16 regular season and was a key play in the throes of the Cup Final series against Vegas.
“Brooksy doesn’t score a lot of goals, but that was a huge one,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “To have success in the playoffs, you need guys, every single guy chipping in and sometimes, they need to chip in ways they don’t always do.”
At the same time, he was playing through a couple of injuries, including a hand injury, he suffered in Game 2 of the Columbus series and worse, a slash from Erik Haula in Game 2 of the Final that took off the tip of Orpik’s pinkie finger.
“It kind of fell off,” Orpik said. “It probably looked worse than it was, to be honest with you.”
He doesn’t require surgery on his hand and is set to be healthy heading into next season. The 6-foot-3, 217-pound blueliner is known for his toughness, stay-at-home, shutdown mentality and physicality. However, it is more likely than not that a key part of holding onto Orpik is also the impact he has off the ice.
Orpik Off the Ice
In the dressing room, Orpik is an integral part of the team’s culture, which was one of the big factors in the Capitals finally ending their 44-year drought. With a lot of young up-and-coming prospects making the jump to the NHL, it was Orpik who was one of the main mentors, a huge reason why he has been a long-time alternate captain for Washington.
“[We were] a team full of rookies, and he’s the right guy to really lead the group as one of the guys because he’s like a father figure in our room,” former head coach Barry Trotz said. “The players look up to him. I don’t think there’s a guy in our room, if Brooks sort of pulls you aside and says, ‘you know what, maybe we shouldn’t do that’ or ‘stop feeling sorry for yourself,’ guys really, really take that to heart. They have so much respect for him and he’s been the absolute perfect guys for us.”
Ultimately, given his impact that he’s had on the team since joining the club in 2014, bringing back Orpik will benefit the Capitals heading into this season. It’s a low-risk deal that provides more depth on the blue line while also bringing back a player that has been an integral part of the team’s culture. Not only that, it doesn’t cause any cap trouble and gives Washington much more than an extra player on the roster.
“He’s an extension of the coaching staff,” Trotz said. “He’s a player who does everything right professionally. He’s a player that has experience and has been in these situations before. His wisdom resonates in the room. I think he’s one of the most respected guys that we have. There are few guys that earn more respect than Brooks Orpik in our locker room, I can tell you that.”