Two-time Stanley Cup champion Brooks Orpik had an okay Friday night. In Washington’s win over New Jersey, Orpik played 18:20 and put two shots on goal. Plus, he earned a $250,000 performance bonus for playing in his 40th game of the season. With his $1 million base pay and his payment from Colorado, Orpik is now effectively made whole after last summer’s buyout.
That invites reasonable questions and doubts about how the team might use him going forward. In a league growing quicker and more finesse-driven, Orpik, 38, is neither. But criticisms and condemnations of his play this season have often missed the mark. Orpik has put forth a solid outing in 2018-19, and his play is nowhere near the worst of Washington’s problems.
Below is a table showing Natural Stat Trick‘s on-ice numbers for Caps defenders, color-coded so that green is good and red is bad compared to league average. The first group of columns are the Caps’ offensive rates, the second group is opponent rates against the Caps, and the third is the share or percentage of those total events that the Caps owned. The players are ordered by their ice time per game.
Put briefly: Orpik’s been fine. He’s above 50 percent in every percentage except overall shot attempts, and he’s got good shot quality. He’s only below league averages in limiting opponent scoring-chances and high-danger chances, and the Caps are generating a decent amount of offense during Orpik’s shifts.
The top-four defenders, meanwhile, have serious deficiencies in suppressing opponent offense — with John Carlson being the surprise-worst at it — and underwhelming offensive rates — especially out of the Orlov-Niskanen pairing. We will come back to this.
Shot suppression during five-on-five play been Washington’s biggest weakness over the past two seasons, but Orpik isn’t the one driving it — at least not anymore. Below are heatmaps from HockeyViz that show from where opponents are shooting and how much when Orpik is on the ice (left) or off the ice (right) in 2018-19.
It’s not great with Orpik on the ice, but it’s not terrible either. When Orpik is on the bench, it’s undeniable: the Caps are ghastly without the puck.
This is hard to reconcile. Orpik is well known at this point in his career for not being a particularly effective defender, but his performance this season doesn’t match up with that description. We should take that contradiction as an invitation for us to look more deeply. Let’s begin with Orpik’s defensive partners.
As this visualization from HockeyViz illustrates, Orpik’s had been on a bunch of pairings without much consistency — and with a giant gap due to injury in November and December.
Performances with those partners have been varied. Below are color-coded percentages for Orpik with each of them:
Three of Orpik’s most frequent partners — Djoos, Siegenthaler, and Jensen — all do well next to him — maybe vindicating Todd Reirden’s decision to introduce new players to Washington’s system by playing with Orpik. On the other hand, Bowey and Orpik were a very bad pairing, but Bowey is not a NHL-level player in any context. The Orpik-Carlson and Orpik-Niskanen pairings have been both horrifically bad and compassionately rare.
I think it’s abundantly clear at this point that it’s possible to use Brooks Orpik successfully. It requires two factors: a mobile partner … and scarcity.
Orpik’s ice time has dropped 18 percent since last season, landing at 15.7 minutes a night, lowest among all of Washington’s full-time defenders. In some ways this is a smart move by Todd Reirden and one that his predecessor did not handle well. But playing Orpik less requires playing others more, and that’s where the trouble is.
Below is a three-year history of average ice times for Brooks Orpik and Washington’s most over-leveraged defender, Matt Niskanen.
Niskanen’s ice time increased when Orpik got injured this past fall and has not dropped too much since he returned. Caps general manager Brian MacLellan has admitted that lowering Niskanen’s ice time was a strategic goal at the trade deadline and a justification for acquiring Nick Jensen, though we have not seen that happen yet: Niskanen’s ice time has actually increased in the last few weeks.
Meanwhile, John Carlson, who allows the third highest rate of high-danger chances in the league, is playing the sixth most minutes in the league per night.
And that’s the hidden external cost of sheltering Brooks Orpik. It forces Carlson and Niskanen — two players who are struggling — to play more than they ought, while restricting the positive impact of Nick Jensen to third-pair minutes and keeping another young, mobile defender, Christian Djoos, out of the lineup entirely.
So no: Orpik is not the problem. But how he’s used might be.
I am skeptical that Todd Reirden would take Orpik out of the lineup for any stretch of time. Orpik’s leadership, his undeniable success within a certain playing context, and his mentorship role with new players are direct and compelling reasons to give him a sweater every night. The downsides — opportunity costs and network effects — are subtle, though maybe more dangerous.
Headline photo: Elizabeth Kong
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