Me and Brooks Orpik shared a birthday last week. Orpik’s got a few years on me, so he’s now at the dawn of his 37th year and heading into a new season in which his role on the team will likely grow. After a year of sheltered minutes on the third pairing with Nate Schmidt, Orpik may see a promotion when he returns to the second pairing. And that’s probably not good news for the Caps.
We addressed this in the wake of the Capitals’ offseason moves, but an increased role for any player at age 37 is generally a bad idea. Hockey players usually peak in their mid-20s and drop off sharply by their mid-30s. Orpik, despite a tremendous adeptness for shutting down zone entries last season, does not appear to be an exception to this trend.
Growing his role this late in his career is an indication of desperation on the Washington defensive corps. Up until the offseason, the Caps seemed to understand that. Orpik’s ice time had gradually declined each season he had been here.
But with the exits of Karl Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Nate Schmidt, the blue line is all of a sudden thin. Some options at defense are still unproven (Bowey, Djoos) and others are proven and found wanting (Chorney). Orpik might be the best option available, but that’s only because the options are bad.
Still, maybe surprisingly, 37-year-old defensemen have a quite good track record. Among the ones who played at least 30 games in a season since the last lockout, 37-year-old D averaged 19.2 minutes per game. That’s a solid role for greybeards, and more than I would have expected.
But then I look at the names of the 37-year-olds with the most ice time: Willie Mitchell, Kimmo Timonen, Sergei Gonchar, Mark Streit, Zdeno Chara, Brian Leetch, Mathieu Schneider, Andrei Markov, Rob Blake, Sergei Zubov, Nicklas Lidstrom. There’s a bunch of hall-of-famers in that list, and they’re the ones playing a lot.
Of the folks who played less than Orpik did last season (17.8 minutes a night), the names are more reasonable: Hal Gill, Rob Scuderi, Michal Rozsival, Stephane Robidas.
That second group is the cohort I’d expect Brooks Orpik to be in – the one he certainly would have been in if the Capitals didn’t have such an unfortunate summer.
But that’s not reason to despair. Orpik had chemistry with his most common partner last season, Nate Schmidt (peace be upon him). They genuinely complemented one another’s games, and the same could happen this season with another young defenseman. If Madison Bowey, for example, cracks the roster and pairs with Orpik, it’s possible they’ll find a similar synergy. And then, once again, we’ll be slapping our heads, incredulous that Brooks Orpik had another stellar season after all. I’m rooting for that scenario.
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