Brooks Orpik’s Contract, Corsi and Context

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Caps' management has repeatedly excused their new blueliner’s poor possession stats as a product of his on-ice circumstances... and there is some merit in that explanation.

Not two weeks ago while at the NHL Draft, Capitals head coach Barry Trotz downplayed the role of advanced metrics in his player evaluation, but did note that "the Corsi stuff" has some value and "really puts some red flags on certain guys," to help call out when something isn't working. If that's the case, new Capital Brooks Orpik has been rocking the red flags for a few years.

There's no way to sugarcoat it — Orpik's advanced numbers aren't pretty. Via Behind the Net, here are Orpik's Corsi ratings, offensive zone start percentages, and competition ratings since 2007-08:

Season

Corsi Rel

Zone start%

Corsi Rel QoC (team rank)

Age on Oct 1

2007-08

-0.6

44.8

0.077 (5)

27

2008-09

-9.3

50.4

0.608 (3)

28

2009-10

-1.3

55.1

0.942 (1)

29

2010-11

-5.7

48.7

0.996 (1)

30

2011-12

-8.9

51.5

0.917 (1)

31

2012-13

-18.1

44.2

0.891 (1)

32

2013-14

-8.8

45.0

1.050 (1)

33

Orpik's numbers looked decent enough in 2009-10 and 2010-11, but have been heading south ever since. Considering Orpik's hard-nosed style and the fates of some stylistically similar (albeit less mobile) defensive defensemen around the league — Robyn Regehr and Douglas Murray, to name two — there's certainly a big risk that Orpik falls off another cliff during this deal.

It's not surprising, then, that this deal has been universally panned in the media.

But fear of media discontent and poor advanced numbers didn't stop the Capitals from signing Orpik to a five-year, $27.5 million deal. In fact, new Capitals GM Brian MacLellan said Orpik was his primary target in free agency, adding that he envisioned Orpik playing with either Mike Green or John Carlson in one of the team's top-two defensive pairings, and brushing aside concerns over Orpik's poor puck possession numbers by citing quality of competition and zone starts (which are valid mitigating factors... to a point). Via Alex Prewitt of The Washington Post:

Unfortunately, that reasoning doesn't really hold up to scrutiny.

Orpik is an upgrade on the team's bottom-pair options, and should help improve an absolutely horrific penalty kill, but he's not necessarily the tough-minutes top-four stud the team apparently thinks it has gotten with its $5.5 million per year — so the contract could look bad sooner rather than later.

And while quality of competition and zone starts are an important part of this conversation, they're only two pieces of the context puzzle, and there's one more big piece to consider: quality of teammates.

It's no coincidence that Orpik's numbers really tailed off following 2011-12. Yes, he's on the wrong side of 30, when drop-offs can happen, but it's noteworthy that 2012 is when the Penguins traded tough-minutes stud Jordan Staal and lost Tyler Kennedy — two-thirds of their extremely effective checking line.

Orpik % of 5v5 TOI spent with Jordan Staal/Brandon Sutter

Player

Season

% of TOI (min)

Staal

2010-11

16.7

Staal

2011-12

26.3

Sutter

2012-13

33.5

Sutter

2013-14

23.0

(via Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com)

Pittsburgh was easily the most top-heavy playoff team in the NHL this season, and that imbalance could in theory have led to some misleading Corsi ratings. With Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin anchoring the top two lines, the Penguins' top-six could go head-to-head against any opposition and expect to come out on top. But over the last couple of years, Pittsburgh's bottom-six forwards have been anywhere from poor to downright abysmal:

2011-12

2013-14

Name

CF%

Name

CF%

Crosby

57.7

Crosby

53.0

Dupuis

53.4

Dupuis

53.7

Kunitz

57.9

Kunitz

52.3

Malkin

56.6

Malkin

52.7

Neal

56.5

Neal

55.2

Staal

54.6

Stempniak

47.4

Kennedy

57.7

Jokinen

54.7

Cooke

52.7

Gibbons

50.9

Sullivan

55.1

Sutter

43.1

Vitale

49.9

Pyatt

42.5

Park

51.1

Vitale

44.5

Asham

49.3

Glass

39.6

Adams

49.7

Adams

41.1

(via Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com)

Taking tough assignments in the defensive zone with players like Brandon Sutter, Tanner Glass, and Craig Adams in "support" sounds like a recipe for a poor Corsi, and combined with either Crosby or Malkin likely jumping over the boards for the next shift, a recipe for an awful relative Corsi as well.

Taking tough assignments in the defensive zone with players like Sutter, Glass, and Adams sounds like a recipe for a poor Corsi.

The other item of note regarding Pittsburgh's roster and line combinations is the makeup of the blueline. Over the last two seasons, Orpik has spent nearly half his 5-on-5 ice time with Paul Martin. When those two weren't on the ice, when Pittsburgh was healthy, either 2013 Norris Trophy finalist Kris Letang or advanced stats darling and new Capital Matt Niskanen usually were. Playing behind those two is another reason why it could have been very difficult for Orpik to avoid a poor Corsi Rel.

Now with the hypothesis out of the way, let's get to the facts.

I assembled some relevant Corsi data for this task. The tables and graphs show the performances of various Pens forwards with and without the Martin-Orpik pairing on the ice, as well as that pair's performance without the forwards in question, also calculating quality of competition. I limited the data to shifts that didn't start with an offensive- or defensive-zone faceoff. That almost cuts sample sizes in half, but I think it was a necessary step to paint a clearer picture. (Worth noting: it looks like Orpik contributes to his own poor zone starts by not doing all that well after defensive-zone faceoffs.)

Here's what we have:

Total

w/Orpik-Martin

w/o Martin-Orpik

Orpik-Martin w/o

Name

CF%

F TOICOMP

CF%

F TOICOMP

CF%

F TOICOMP

CF%

F TOICOMP

Crosby

.533

16.00

.530

16.51

.533

15.88

.505

15.74

Malkin

.562

15.76

.584

16.34

.559

15.67

.497

15.93

Kunitz

.521

15.98

.530

16.51

.519

15.87

.506

15.76

Dupuis

.513

16.05

.524

16.63

.511

15.89

.510

15.77

Neal

.569

15.59

.559

15.96

.570

15.54

.504

16.02

Glass

.407

14.88

.500

15.13

.392

14.84

.517

16.21

Vitale

.423

14.79

.528

14.95

.410

14.77

.512

16.13

Adams

.414

14.79

.458

14.95

.408

14.77

.524

16.21

Sutter

.439

15.49

.448

15.94

.438

15.41

.537

16.03

Jokinen

.555

15.71

.565

16.32

.554

15.64

.507

15.96

(I listed more information, include ice time totals — which range from about 60 to about 200 minutes with Martin and Orpik — here. As reference points, Martin was at 54.6% Corsi without Orpik and 51.2% with, while Orpik was at 43.2% without Martin.)

Unsurprisingly, across the board, Penguins forwards faced tougher competition with the Orpik-Martin pairing. But what's a little surprising is just how many Penguins forwards saw improved possession with Orpik on the ice — especially the Penguins' bottom-six — despite playing tougher minutes.

Orpik doesn't even look like an anchor for Pittsburgh's top players. Over the last two seasons, respectively, Pittsburgh's Corsi percentage was 7.7 and 4.2 percentage points worse with Orpik on the ice than without, but here, it doesn't even look like the Pens are worse off. That's undoubtedly thanks in part to Paul Martin, who is a solid defenseman in his own right, and it could also be partly a function of quirks in competition faced or other transient factors — but I think it also indicates that Orpik is far from bad enough to sink a good partner. Given the Caps' strength down the right side (Green, Matt Niskanen, and Carlson), Orpik should have a Martin-level partner for almost every shift.

Put another way, here are the Corsi rates for each player in order of (left to right) decreasing quality of forward competition:

And just the differences between numbers with Martin-Orpik and without (i.e. all players saw tougher competition with Orpik-Martin, with Dupuis seeing the biggest difference, while Vitale saw the biggest Corsi improvement):

There are some extremes, but again, the effect looks manageable... if not outright good. It might just be randomness propping up his numbers — but given Orpik's reputation as a sound, useful depth defenseman (at this stage in his career), I'm inclined to believe that he's a decent-enough blueliner.

(Incidentally, dCorsi, a metric developed by Pension Plan Puppets contributor Steve Burtch, also suggests Orpik is a serviceable NHL defenseman, but I don't feel like it's been analyzed enough yet to properly understand its uses and limitations.)

There's one more item we need to look at, and that's shot rates. As a defensive defenseman, Orpik can be doing his job merely by limiting the quantity of shots against. If a player expects to lose his matchup against the opposition's top players, by limiting shot quantity against, he's limiting the margin of defeat. In terms of Fenwick against, the Orpik-Martin pairing made a noticeable positive impact:

Everyone is better off. This isn't the profile of a poor player — it's one of a specialist who was good in his proper role (or of some really, really good luck to look good in "open play" and neutral zone situations, which is always a possibility when dealing with small sample sizes).

This isn't to say that the five-year, $27.5 million deal to which the Caps signed Orpik is a good one, or that it wasn't the worst signing of free agency. At Orpik's age, he's only going to get worse, and he takes up more cap room than some of his "comparables" (including one who just won a title in Regehr). But he's clearly an NHL-caliber player — a substantial improvement over the numerous replacement- or sub-replacement-level blueliners the Caps have tossed over the boards in the past year or ten  — and one that has legitimate on-ice value for a team that was short on defensemen who won't turn something good into a disaster.

Couple that with penalty-killing utility and, potentially, off-ice intangible value, and maybe, just maybe, the Capitals will gain something helpful from this deal... for a little while, at least.

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