ARLINGTON — Brooks Orpik’s future might include the NHL. Or maybe it will be a return to school. Or coaching eventually. For now, all the 38-year-old defenseman knows is it definitely includes Mickey Mouse.
Disney World with the kids is about as far ahead as Orpik is willing to look these days after the Capitals were eliminated by the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs on Wednesday. His one-year contract will expire, leaving Orpik as a free agent at an age when most NHL players his age have retired – or been forced to do so.
It is a testament to Orpik’s dedication to the sport that he was still a significant factor in Washington’s season. He was fifth among defensemen in minutes played (830:39). That time-on-ice per game (15:40) increased significantly in the postseason (18:12) after an injury to defenseman Michal Kempny (torn left hamstring) ruffled the Capitals’ blueline. But he has a decision to make and it won’t be an easy one.
"You’ve got to be 100% committed to it. If you're not, then it's unfair to your teammates and other people that are trying to help you out,” Orpik said. “In terms of wanting to play or being committed to play, I think that's something that when stuff doesn't go your way after the season you’ve got to take a lot of time off to let things settle down. I know from past experience, the emotion you feel after a loss like that, sometimes you feel a lot differently a month later. You don't rush to any judgments in terms of your future or try to dissect what went wrong, because a lot of times you regret what you initially think. I think patience is always a good thing."
Orpik needed it this season. He missed 27 games after surgery on his right knee in early November to repair a torn meniscus. He earned a couple of veterans’ days off later in the year to get him some rest and indicated that he had another procedure just before the All-Star break when he missed a game in Toronto.
“It wasn’t real good,” Orpik said.
It’s only the second time in a full NHL season that Orpik has played fewer than 63 games dating all the way back to 2002-03 when he broke in full time with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Orpik was limited to 41 games in 2014-15, his first season with the Capitals. That will make a man ponder his future. It seems unlikely to be in Washington.
“It might be tough for us. We're going to wait to see what he says,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “[Orpik has] been great for us over the five years. He's done everything and more that we thought we'd get out of him. So, it's been a good relationship. We'll see how he does here with his injuries and his attitude and whether he wants to continue playing and whether we have room. Would we rather go with one of our younger guys instead of him? We'll cross that bridge when he makes his decision.
Orpik was already traded to Colorado last June 23 with backup goalie Philipp Grubauer. The move cleared $5.5 million in salary-cap space that the Capitals used to re-sign top defenseman John Carlson, among other priorities.
Orpik, however, was quickly bought out by the Avalanche, which really just wanted Grubauer as a potential starter in goal. He is currently doing exactly that, starting for Colorado in the second round of the playoffs in a series against San Jose.
The move blindsided Orpik at the time. It came just 12 days after the championship parade up Constitution Avenue. It was 16 days after the alternate captain was on the ice lifting the Stanley Cup in Las Vegas with his teammates.
In the end, Orpik got over it. He got his money from the buyout and signed a one-year, $1 million contract with $500,000 in performance bonuses added. Add in the $1.5 million that Colorado paid him this year - and must pay him again next year - and Orpik almost breaks even after hitting his bonuses with Washington.
“When I got traded last year I still had a year on my contract, so anything can happen,” Orpik said. “I think you always, when the season ends, whether you have a contract or not, think about it a little bit. But obviously when you don't have a contract or potentially not even playing next year, you think about it even more."
Orpik was brought to Washington by MacLellan in 2014 to help stabilize a blueline in turmoil. The Capitals had just missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and lacked some of the toughness and experience that Orpik had long provided Pittsburgh. Back then he wanted a deal done close to the start of free agency on July 1. It worked out with Washington and he had a new home.
“It’s hard to put into words what a guy like that means to a team,” forward Tom Wilson said. “I mean you guys see it but you don’t really see it. It’s everything that that guy does has been good for the team. I’ve said it a bunch of times. He’s best friends with the 19-year-old, he’s best friends with the 35-year-old. It’s just who he is. He’s one of the guys on the team who makes it fun coming to the rink. We were extremely lucky to have him and I hope he’s coming back."
This year Orpik says it could be well into August before he decides if he wants to give it another go. He’d likely be a later signing anyway as younger free agents take priority and teams figure out before training camp if they need a veteran defenseman. He’ll probably want to play by then – though how his body feels will play a significant factor in that decision.
But first there is family time with his wife, Erin, and daughters, Harlow and Brooklyn, and extra healing time, which doctors told him should take a month or so. Orpik limped out of the locker room at Capital One Arena for the last time after Wednesday’s loss with a giant bag of ice wrapped around the right knee.
Orpik said at breakdown day on Friday at MedStar Capitals Iceplex that he hadn’t thought much about a post-hockey career yet. He wants to finish his communications degree from Boston College. He’s close there. Maybe he has a future in coaching, but that would come later.
“I’ve got a special place in my heart for Brooks Orpik,” said defenseman Matt Niskanen, who played four years with Orpik in Pittsburgh and signed with him in Washington the same summer. “We’ll see what happens…But what a great, great person first and foremost. He has so much integrity. And that’s what I admire most, what a good friend and leader, a good, quality person he is. And I think that means something to a hockey team. Especially young players. But as a group you’re not going to find a guy around that doesn’t respect Brooks.”
Advanced stats weren’t always kind to Orpik late in his career. But focus just on that and his teammates look at you like you’re crazy. You just don’t GET it. It’s like you’re not even part of the same conversation. Wilson’s comments hint at that. So do Niskanen’s. Orpik could always take a hit as well as level one. He could play through pain and was available to his teammates. He was hard on opposing players. His high hockey IQ helped him kill penalties even if his foot speed wasn’t what it once was. Nobody was more dedicated to keeping their body in top condition in all the ways that’s possible.
“I think his last two years are maybe better than some of his earlier years,” Niskanen said. “Reverse aging or something. The guy is getting better. That’s not supposed to happen. If he decides he wants to, if he’s able to, if he gets an opportunity, I think he can do it. At some point maybe we all get too old, but I don’t think he’s there yet.”
That’s coming from a friend and long-time teammate. Take it with a grain of salt, if you wish. Orpik’s shots-for/against percentage was underwater (44.29) in much heavier minutes last season. He was better this year (48.09) and above water in 2015-16 (52.43), when he played just 41 games, and also in 2016-17 (52.52). But again that’s viewing him through a prism that his teammates just don’t.
“The impact he’s had on our team is probably second to none, the way he’s changed the culture and pushed guys to make them better,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “One of the true leaders in our game, and to have been able to grow through him as a team, we wouldn’t have a Stanley Cup if it wasn’t for him. Outstanding teammate.”
For now, Orpik will head home to suburban Boston and plan for Disney World and some other trips. The knee will heal and he’ll slowly get over what he sees as a missed opportunity for the Capitals, who with a single goal would have found themselves in the second round without the Eastern Conference’s top seed (Tampa Bay Lightning) and their biggest nemesis (Pittsburgh Penguins). Both were swept out of the first round. For Orpik, there is time to think and time to plan for one more run - or life beyond if this chapter has closed.
"When I came here as a free agent, it was obviously a family decision, but it was something where I wanted to win a Stanley Cup." Orpik said. “As frustrated as we are about this year, if someone told me at the beginning of five years I'd come here and win a Stanley Cup, I'd sign up for it in a heartbeat. That's kind of what my role was, just to kind of help this group out any way I could. Wasn't perfect along the way, but looking back on it, a few years from now I'll be pretty satisfied with it."
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