Like many other players around the NHL, Brooks Orpik had his opinions about the Capitals before arriving in Washington as a free agent last summer. He admits now they weren’t very accurate.
“I did a lot of research before I signed here, talking to guys that have played here,” Orpik said. “Guys talk around the league all the time so you have a pretty good idea of what guys are like as teammates.
“This team has been criticized as having a lot of individual talents with individual egos and right from Day One I didn’t see any existence of that and I think that’s what made it a lot of fun to be a part of this group. Guys really, genuinely cared about each other and stuck up for each other. Going into that Game 7 [a season-ending 2-1 overtime loss to the New York Rangers] guys didn’t care who scored or who played well, as long as we won. That was most important. That was a lot different than I think the perception people had of this team in years past.”
Right or wrong, the perception of the Capitals was of a team that cared more about scoring goals than the commitment it took to prevent them. A team that was talented but not very hard to play against. A team with a divided locker room.
It was one of the reasons Barry Trotz was brought in as a head coach and Orpik was signed to a five-year, $27.5 million contract that some described as exorbitant and others as insane.
“I didn’t want to pay that much money, either,” Caps general manager Brian MacLellan said with a laugh. “But it’s UFA season. It was a risk, but so far it’s worked out.”
Orpik, who will turn 35 in September, said he was “a little bit nervous” walking into a new locker room after spending the previous 10 seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“I think being in one place for as long as I was, there was a little fear of the unknown,” he said. “Being in one spot you get so used to how everything works, and relationships you have with everybody. Everything is kind of easy for you. But at this point in my career it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.
“When I came here the players and the trainers, everybody made the transition super, super easy. Something I told the coaches [in his exit interview] was I think it was genuinely probably the most fun I’ve had playing hockey in the last four or five years.
“It was a great group of guys. There were no individual agendas or egos. It was all about winning. That was something I think from an outsider’s perspective, a lot of people tried to speculate on some of the guys here as not being team guys or having individual agendas and I didn’t see any of that and I think that’s what made it most enjoyable.”
Trotz said on a number of occasions that he also had preconceived ideas about the Caps and their locker room makeup. Perhaps it was with that in mind that when he rearranged the locker room seating, he placed Orpik between Mike Green and Alex Ovechkin.
Orpik said he took a liking to both players right away, saying Green actually taught him a few things.
“I think I probably had a different perception of him being on a different team than what he’s actually like,” Orpik said. “I look at him more as the person than the hockey player after this year. He’s just a really good guy to be around. And hockey-wise he’s a guy who played really well for us all year long. I think his role probably shifted around a little bit as the season went on, but he had a great attitude all year. He has a different style than me and I don’t know if he knows it, but I probably learned a lot from him, certain things he does on the ice. He just had a really good attitude, a good approach to the game, and a good team guy. He was a good guy to have as a teammate.”
Orpik had a similar experience with Ovechkin, whom he had met in international tournaments but had never gotten to know until this season.
“What a fun guy he is, really, is the thing that jumped out at me,” Orpik said. “I had a lot of fun with him throughout the year, whether it was at the rink or playing cards with him or going out to eat with him. He’s just a fun guy to be around. A guy who really cares about the guys on the team.
“And I think he really cares about what people think of him, too. That’s what pushes him a lot. He had a great year for us, obviously.”
With a league-high 53 goals and 81 points, along with a plus-10 rating, Ovechkin has been nominated for the Hart Trophy for the fifth time in his career, and for the Ted Lindsay Award for the sixth time.
“I think that’s the one the players want to win the most, because it’s voted on by their peers,” Orpik said of the Ted Lindsay Award as the NHL’s Most Outstanding Player. “There are a lot of guys that had great seasons that didn’t get nominated for that.”
Having won a Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2009, Orpik said he believes this year’s Capitals team was capable of going all the way, if it could only get past the Rangers. Orpik noted the Caps had a winning record [they were actually .500 or better] against the three other teams still playing [the Lightning, Blackhawks and Ducks].
“That’s one of the disappointing things,” he said. “Sometimes it’s unrealistic, but I think this year it was a pretty realistic chance and when it is a realistic chance it stings a little more because you view it as a missed opportunity. Your career is not very long and the group is always different and you’re never guaranteed a chance to get back to that point. I think that’s what makes it the most frustrating. You didn’t make the most of the opportunity you were given.”
Orpik said he will head into the offseason healthier than he has in previous summers, when he spent more time healing than he did training. With that in mind he said he hopes to be quicker and stronger when he returns to Washington for his second training camp with the Capitals.
As for who will be on next season’s roster, Orpik said that’s anyone’s guess with six veterans facing unrestricted free agency on July 1.
“That’s the most disappointing thing every year,” he said. “I know before Game 7, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person to think about it, but I think that’s the kind of pressure that pushes you. You just want to keep the season moving forward because you know if you lose it’s never going to be the same group of guys going forward no matter how much you want to keep the same team together.
“That’s one of the most disappointing things when you lose. Guys don’t want to admit it right away, but there are probably some guys who know they’re moving on. That’s just part of the business, really. But that’s probably the most disappointing part of losing.”
Orpik seemed to suggest he would be available to provide input if asked by MacLellan his thoughts on some of the Caps’ pending free agents.
“I would assume that’s one of the tougher jobs for them, trying to tinker with the lineup and hoping they’re doing the right things without taking anything away from the group,” he said. “I’m sure that’s a fine line and I’m sure they’ll do their research asking other guys on the team for input in those situations. That’s always tough. Sometimes the guys you want to keep you can’t for whatever reason. You never know how things are going to pan out.”
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