Defenseman’s Large Contract Even More Puzzling Now, Two Years Into Five-Year-Deal
In the summer of 2014, Washington Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan inked rugged, nearly 34-year-old, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik to a five-year, 27.5 million dollar deal. Despite needing to fill gaping holes in their defense, the choice of Orpik at that price and length of contract was an odd move.
In the years leading up to the Orpik signing, the NHL had begun a shift toward a style of play that places more value on smoother-skating, puck-moving backenders, things Orpik —more of a throwback to the days of crease-clearing, “HIT SOMEONE!” defensemen—really is not.
Perhaps more importantly, by the time he received that long-term contract from the Caps, Orpik had reached an age when most NHL players experience a decline in their performance. Locking up a player who no longer fits the modern day blue-liner mold, through the season when he’ll be 38-years-old and at such a high salary, didn’t seem like a great idea.
Hours before the Caps and Orpik struck that deal two summer ago and not knowing who the team might make offers to, my brother Pat tweeted, “We all agree that the worst possible thing the Caps could do today, including standing pat, is to sign Brooks Orpik, right?”
But, maybe MacLellan saw the former Boston College player as a guy who could deliver value worthy of the contract that currently makes him the second-highest-paid Caps defensemen, just $250,000 a year behind Matt Niskanen. The 2009 Stanley Cup winner may have fit into the team’s plans in ways some outside the Washington front office couldn’t see.
If that was true at the time of the 2014 signing, recent comments by MacLellan make it hard to believe. The GM’s May 2016 remarks better support the thinking of those who’ve been skeptical of the Orpik signing for the past two years.
Addressing the media a few days after this season’s second round playoff loss to Pittsburgh, MacLellan spoke about the Caps’ trade deadline acquisition of defenseman Mike Weber. “I mean, did we need a higher-caliber defenseman? Maybe. But it was difficult to trade those off because you’re going to bring in a guy that’s going to jump in front of [Nate Schmidt] and jump in front of [Dmitry] Orlov and jump in front of Orpik,” he explained.
It was clear this season that Orpik was at-best the fourth defensemen on the Caps depth chart, with Niskanen, John Carlson and Karl Alzner ahead of him. MacLellan’s comment regarding the Weber acquisition hints he may feel similarly about Orpik’s place on the team.
At times, it could also have been argued that Schmidt ranked ahead of Orpik, with Orlov showing flashes of potential to do so as well. With a little more experience, both of those young players may soon remove any doubt they’ve surpassed Orpik in the value they bring to the Washington lineup.
In a May 24 radio interview, MacLellan touched on a piece of this, saying, “There’s an offensive upside to Orlov and there’s ability for him to move up in our lineup, and we’ve got to be careful that we don’t limit him in his ability to move there. I would count on him developing and getting to that next level. I mean, the idea would be, Brooks Orpik plays a little less minutes and Orlov plays a little bit more, maybe he moves into the top four for part of the time. That would be ideal situation, but we’ll have to see how he comes into camp.”
Clearly there’s the possibility in MacLellan’s mind that, as early as this coming season, the fourth highest paid skater on the Caps roster is playing in the team’s bottom defensive pairing, which brings to mind the question: If MacLellan is thinking that now, what was he thinking when he signed Orpik just two years ago? A player recently handed one of the biggest contracts on the roster shouldn’t fall down the ranks to fourth or lower on the depth chart so quickly, unless maybe he shouldn’t have been given that lucrative a contract to begin with.
Even as a fifth or sixth defenseman, could Orpik still provide valuable minutes as a penalty killer? Sure. Did he provide an immediate upgrade to a thin defense that badly needed it going into the 2014-15 season? Yes. Does he bring leadership and experience as a Stanley Cup champion to the Caps locker room? Most certainly. Could he likely be helping some of the team’s younger defensemen adjust to the NHL? Absolutely.
However, none of those needs requires a five-year, $5.5 million cap hit to address it. Players filling Orpik’s role in Washington can be had for far less and, just two seasons after losing him to free agency, Orpik’s former team in Pittsburgh is back in the Stanley Cup Finals without him. Like most players, Orpik is replaceable, regardless of what intangibles he may have brought to Washington.
If the Caps win the Stanley Cup next season, none of this may matter much in the short term. But, if Washington loses in next year’s playoffs due to not having enough of the right kind of talent in the lineup, and wishes they’d had room under the salary cap to add another piece or two, the Orpik contract could be pointed to as Exhibit A for why they weren’t able to do that. It could be argued it already was an issue this past season, possibly preventing the Caps from acquiring the aforementioned “higher-caliber defenseman” than Weber or another player.
Given his recent comments about the team’s plans, the guy who signed Orpik to that deal could be thinking similar thoughts, which raises the question of why MacLellan—who’s otherwise made shrewd moves since being named GM in 2014—didn’t see this coming two years ago and implement a different solution for filling the Caps’ needs on defense.