By Joe Starkey
July 2, 2014
Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals battles for the puck against Brooks Orpik #44 of the Pittsburgh Penguins on March 19, 2013 at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)
On the weirdness-in-Washington scale, nothing could top Jaromir Jagr in a Capitals jersey. That was downright frightening.
Brooks Orpik wearing Capitals “44” will come close, though, won't it? Especially when he walks through the tunnel with Alex Ovechkin, who played Ali to Orpik's Frazier all these years.
These guys hated each other's guts on the ice. Now they're sharing laughs. Ovechkin checked in with a congratulatory call Tuesday, a few hours after the Cash-itals signed Orpik to a mind-blowing contract (five years, $27.5 million).
“I just talked to him an hour ago,” Orpik told me late Tuesday night. “He called from Russia. He was saying, ‘It'll be a lot better on both our bodies if we don't have to play against each other.' He got a good laugh out of that. It's definitely different.”
And definitely strange. Which follows the pattern of a surreal offseason in these parts. Who better than Orpik — the most consistently blunt athlete I've covered — to assess the revolution in Penguins country?
“I think everybody knew change was coming by the way we lost the last few years,” he said. “I think it was inevitable, and you know what? You can't really argue with it. The definition of insanity, as people say, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
Besides never blinking (he didn't blink once in 11 years), Orpik was The Defenseman Who Could Not Tell a Lie from the minute he walked through the door. After an early demotion, for example, he let the media know he should not have been the one sent down.
He was right, too.
“I've probably been too honest at times,” he said, laughing. “It's a fine line.”
Yes it is, just like winning and losing at playoff time. Orpik has experienced plenty of both. And again, he does not mince words in assessing the Penguins' recent failures.
“We knew we blew some pretty good opportunities with the rosters Ray Shero put together for us,” he said.
Orpik doesn't necessarily agree with new GM Jim Rutherford's assessment that louder voices are needed in the Penguins' room.
“It'd be difficult for him to have a pulse on that,” Orpik said. “Somebody else must have conveyed that to him. I think leadership comes in a lot of different ways. I'm different than Sid. Sid is different than Chris Kunitz. Nobody's going to be Bill Guerin or Gary Roberts. Everybody's their own guy.”
He continued. Bluntly, of course.
“I think it was more that we let the pressure get to us. There were just so many expectations, both internally and externally. I think we stopped having fun, to be honest with you. We let the external pressure seep into the room. That's the one thing I could put my finger on. I'm sure Sid and Geno and the other guys will learn from it.”
Orpik played 703 regular-season games here, more than any defenseman in Penguins history and fifth overall on the franchise list. He saved his finest work for the playoffs.
Exhibit A: “The Shift” against Detroit in the 2008 Stanley Cup Final, when Orpik began shooting down Red Wings like clay pigeons.
His top three memories:
1. Winning the Cup in Detroit. Orpik registered game highs of nine hits and five blocked shots in Game 7.
2. Getting drafted back-to-back with former Boston College teammate Krys Kolanos in 2000. The Penguins brilliantly snagged Orpik 18th overall. Ten of the 13 players drafted directly in front of him did not play even two full seasons.
3. Playing his first NHL game: Dec. 10, 2002, against Toronto.
Orpik wore No. 29 that night. His teammates included the iconic Mario Lemieux and the anemic Alexandre Daigle (not to mention Ross Lupaschuk and Michal Sivek).
Who could forget that Orpik was part of the Penguins' ill-fated X Generation? He'd like to.
“I was there for some of the lean times,” he said.
Nobody would describe these as lean times for Orpik. He took a hometown discount on his last deal. This time, it was necessary for both sides to move on.
Advanced analytics would have you believe Orpik, who turns 34 in September, will show up in D.C. using a walker. I'm thinking differently. It was only two seasons ago that he led the team's defensemen in hits and blocks, finished plus-17 and helped rejuvenate Paul Martin's sagging career. Ask Martin about that.
It was only a few months ago that Orpik torpedoed Jonathan Toews. The man can still bring it when needed.
He brought it here for 11 years.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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