Brooks Orpik finished last season as a Capital. He will start the 2018-19 season as a Capital. In between, however, Orpik’s return to Washington took a rather circuitous route in what was, for him, a tumultuous offseason.
Orpik, who will turn 38 before the start of the season, was traded, bought out and ultimately re-signed by the Caps at a lower cap hit. He was slated to enter the final year of a five-year contract he signed with Washington that carried a cap hit of $5.5 million, but things quickly changed when the team drew closer and closer to the salary cap ceiling.
General manager Brian MacLellan was clearly committed to keeping the team together as much as possible for another Stanley Cup run, which was made difficult by the fact that a number of players were in need of a raise.
Soon after John Carlson re-signed for eight years and $64 million, it became clear that the team needed to shed salary. The team simply could not afford a $5.5 million cap hit for a soon-to-be 38-year-old defenseman.
“I'm pretty in tune with the CBA and what our cap situation was, and I'm really good buddies with Johnny Carlson,” Orpik said to NBC Sports Washington after an informal skate at MedStar Iceplex. “… [Carlson] was kind of the wild card. Nobody knew if they were going to be able to re-sign him. I think that was Friday morning, actually, when they kind of agreed upon whatever the structure of his contract was, and that was obvious they needed to clear salaries. That's kind of how the salary cap works. You've got to move money out to add money. That's what happened at the end of the day.”
Orpik was packaged with goalie Philipp Grubauer in a trade with the Colorado Avalanche. Washington received a draft pick and cap flexibility, Colorado received a starting caliber goalie at a cheaper price than it would have cost them without Orpik in the deal and Orpik suddenly received an uncertain future.
“I completely understood what was going on, I just had no knowledge it was coming,” Orpik said. “Even when you understand that side of the business, you still get blindsided by it a little bit.”
Colorado general manager Joe Sakic soon began shopping Orpik and, when there were no takers, Orpik’s contract was ultimately bought out, making him a free agent.
That’s when things got interesting.
The Capitals could not afford a 38-year-old defenseman taking up $5.5 million of cap space. What they did need, however, was a veteran defenseman who could cycle in and out of the lineup on the third pair and who could mentor the team’s young blueliners. Suddenly, re-signing Orpik made a lot of sense.
But was it legal?
By rule, when a team buys out a player’s contract, they cannot immediately re-sign that player just to circumvent the salary cap. Washington, however, didn’t buy out Orpik. Colorado did, which opened the door for a return to Washington.
It was a scenario Orpik had not considered after the trade.
“I didn't really think [signing with Washington] was even a possibility,” he said. “I know how it works, if you get bought out, you can't re-sign with a team for one calendar year. I don't know if anyone's ever even tried to or contemplated doing that after a buyout or if it's ever happened that way, trade, buyout and try to go back.
“It took awhile. I thought I was signing somewhere else, to be honest, but it worked out in the end.”
As a free agent, Orpik had a number of options. Though on the verge of 38, he said he never considered retiring. Instead, it was a matter of deciding where to sign. When it became clear Washington was a possibility, the choice was easy.
With a wife and two daughters already settled in the Washington area, Orpik jumped at the chance to re-sign with the Caps.
“I think it's a lot easier for players kind of just get up and move,” Orpik said. “It's tougher for families that have a lot of other stuff going on besides hockey to take that kind of news. It definitely worked out the best for us. This is kind of where we had to be.”
The move was a shrewd one by MacLellan who ended up with a veteran defenseman who fills an obvious need at the as a No. 6 or 7 blueliner and at a much lower cap hit. For Orpik, he gets to return to the Caps and join his teammates in their quest to defend their championship.
From the outside looking in, nothing has changed other than Orpik’s cap hit. But that’s not how the saga felt to Orpik as it played out.
“Some people are like, 'Oh, it's like you never left,'” he said. “Yeah, well, as long as you can get by the fact that you got traded.”
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