When I first heard the deal the Washington Capitals handed 33-year-old (34 before opening night) defenseman Brooks Orpik, I was as apoplectic as anyone else. Well, almost anyone else.
My initial reaction: the Caps drastically overpaid — in dollars and years — for an aging, slowing, one-dimensional defenseman that doesn’t drive play. While I can appreciate the element Orpik will contribute to the team, what crusty old Canadians refer to as “snarl”, in no way is that worth $5.5 million over a five year term. Let alone, to a player that will be 39 at the end of the deal.
The analysis stands. My emotional response to the deal has mellowed a bit though.
Yes, the Caps drastically overpaid. There’s no possible way Orpik returns value on the length of the contract. With luck, the salary cap will continue to go up and he’ll be less of a burden in the later years.
He’ll add very little to the offensive side of the game. He makes a decent outlet pass, that’s about it. There’s lots of video of more talented skaters turning him inside out, and that’s going to continue.
As Caps GM Brian MacLellan pointed out, Orpik’s primary responsibility was starting in his own end and getting the puck out of it. Corsi’s not going to be kind to a player like that.
But the Caps have very precious little muscle on the back end. And that’s where Orpik can still contribute. Essentially, Orpik will be the player the Caps hoped John Erskine could continue to be. It’s debatable how long Orpik will be able to continue in that role, but we’ve got the next five years to watch it.
The next deal that the Caps made, bringing in fellow former Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen, sort of helps put the Orpik deal in perspective.
Niskanen signed a market-value seven-year deal for $40.25 million — the largest contract doled out on frenzy day. Niskanen was probably the best defenseman available on the free agent market. He’s 27, coming off his best season, and in the prime of his career. He’ll “just” be 34 at the conclusion of his current contract.
Signing Niskanen gives the Caps not just another top-four defenseman, it gives them a top pair blue-liner. Whether Niskanen plays with Karl Alzner, Orpik, John Carlson, or even Mike Green or Dmitry Orlov, it slots every one down a spot. The Caps added not one, but two top four defensemen, something we advocated in this column before the conclusion of last season.
They are now deep, talented and tough on the back end, with impressive defense coaches to guide them.
Yes, the Caps spent a lot of money on two NHL caliber defensemen. But they needed to. After the parade of journeymen and teenagers last season, the Caps now boast a legitimate NHL defensive corps.
The team has been pretty good at drafting and developing puck moving defensemen, but you can’t teach size and toughness. As much as some of us (myself definitely included) like to point to possession and skill, this game still needs an element of toughness and defensive reliability on the backline.
The Caps have failed miserably to develop anyone to fill that role, so they had to pay for it.
The Caps are banking on the idea that while Alex Ovechkin is in his prime, they have to take every opportunity to “go for it.” Tuesday proved that this “refresh” is no rebuild. Damn the future, MacLellan’s directive is obvious: patch together a team that if it makes the playoffs, will at least have a puncher’s chance in the tournament.
The addition of Niskanen and Orpik, at an exorbitant cost, prove beyond a shadow of a doubt the organization — and ownership — thinks it should be competitive. Maybe they are deluding themselves. Maybe they know more than we think. Maybe they are chasing fool’s gold. Maybe they are just trying to pull the wool over our eyes.
Maybe in three year’s time they’ll be looking for another general manager.
But for know, the Caps were the most active team in the free agent market. That means that they have at least acknowledged that problems existed. There will still probably be dominoes to fall. When all is said and done, we can — and will — judge.
Orpik’s deal is bad. He’s aging quickly, his skating isn’t great, and he doesn’t drive play. The last couple of years of this contract are going to be painful to watch. But, at least, at the end of the day we could see a semblance of a plan, where taken at face value and on its own it looked like unmitigated and indefensible disaster.
Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Washington Capitals, Washington Wizards and Washington Mystics. Dave also works for Associated Press, covering Major League Soccer, college football and basketball out of its Spokane, WA college sports desk. Previously, he wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network and spent four years in commercial radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP.