Brooks Orpik played a reduced role for the Capitals last season on the third pairing averaging just 17:47 of ice time per game. This season? Well, that’s gone up a bit.
With no Nate Schmidt, Kevin Shattenkirk or Karl Alzner, Orpik has suddenly become one of the team’s workhorses.
“This year we lost a lot of luxuries," Orpik said Tuesday after practice. "I think we all knew it was going to be a little bit different and [Matt Niskanen] getting hurt obviously complicated that even more. That put a big hole in our lineup."
At 37 years old, the veteran blue liner currently sits third on the team in ice time per game with 22:16. That would be the highest average he has seen since the 2012-13 season while a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins and the third-highest average of his career.
Did I mention he is 37?
One of the elephants in the room for the Capitals is that the minutes their top defensemen are playing is not sustainable. John Carlson played 28:51 and 27:38 in back-to-back games over the weekend. Orpik was not far behind with 27:47 and 23:59.
The question for Orpik is how this will affect him game by game and over the course of the season.
In terms of game by game, few players are as prepared to handle a large workload than Orpik who prides himself on his conditioning.
“I don't think conditioning has ever been a problem with me," he said. "It's something I take a lot of pride in. I'm pretty diligent with my diet and getting extra cardio in. I think you prepare yourself the same way every year. You never know what kind of role they're going to give you and whatever opportunity they give you, you just try to make the most of the minutes you have.”
According to Orpik, how taxing any single night ends up being depends more on the type of minutes he is asked to play rather than the number.
“Sometimes you play 20 minutes and you're exhausted and other times you could play 25 and you're not nearly as tired just because of the way the game play's out, but it's not as physical or if you're not playing in your own zone as much. And then shorthanded minutes are a little bit more taxing I think then the other minutes.”
Yet another reason why it is critical for the Capitals to stay out of penalty box.
In addition to his offseason training, Orpik has also turned to another NHL player for guidance, Minnesota Wild defenseman Ryan Suter.
"If you watch the way he plays, he doesn't waste any energy," Orpik said of Suter. "He uses his body real well, but he's not real physical. Physically, you've got to pick your spots a little bit better. If you go out there and run around and try to be really physical, it's tough to play more than 20 minutes no matter how good a shape your in. A lot of times you just try to play better positionally. You still want to have the same approach physically but you just try to pick your spots a little better."
Suter’s workload has been ridiculous throughout his career. In the six seasons he has spent with Minnesota, his average time on ice during that time has been a whopping 28:17. If there is anyone who knows how to handle big minutes, it’s Suter. At 32, however, Suter has played those minutes through the prime of his career. Orpik’s challenge is to learn how to continue playing effectively late in his career.
The silver lining for the Caps is that Orpik won’t have to do this forever. Not only is Matt Niskanen expected to return from an upper-body injury in November, but rookies Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey will be able to handle more and more playing time as the season progresses. Until then, however, Barry Trotz seems content with riding his veteran blue liners as far as they can take the team.
Said Orpik, “That's why they make training camp as hard as it is.”