Brooks Orpik is evolving. Even right now, he's out there, thinking. Changing. Adapting.
Can you feel it?
The 36 year-old Capitals defenseman has been persona non protecta de drafta around Washington since the end of last season, when the time-warping, omnidimensional speed of the Pittsburgh Penguins ripped apart the mutiverse along a very specific axis that kind of made it look like Brooks Orpik was getting old. The time-distortion field surrounding that firebrand offense-cum-track-meet almost made it appear as though Brooks couldn't keep up.
And the weird thing is, the stats bear this out. Orpik has seen his average ice time decrease over five of the last six seasons, and save for his statistically anomalous first season in Washington in which he recorded career highs in just about every category, his other stats have followed suit. A career Relative Corsi-For Percentage (CF% rel) mark of -3.9 is actually bolstered by his first three seasons in Pittsburgh, and Orpik has scored well beneath his career average four of the last five years.
In short, Orpik has gone from a first-pair franchise blue-chip blueliner to a third-pair collar intended to keep Nate Schmidt from barking at cars.
NATE SCHMIDT: You wan't me to go in deep??— Jason Rogers (@HeyJayJRogers) October 14, 2016
REST OF TEAM: Uhh, I don't-
NATE SCHMIDT: I'm gonna go in deep!!!
Orpik is still the fifth-highest paid player on the Capitals, pulling in a lordly $5.5 million this year. And next year, when he's 37...and the year after that, when he's 38.
Don't blame Brooks, though. If somebody offered me $5.5 million a year to eat buckets of spiders while people forgot my birthday I would probably do it.
At the time of his signing, the Capitals needed defense, and were willing to overpay for it. Plain and simple. They got Orpik and Matt Niskanen (the fourth-highest paid Capital, by the way), and you know what? The defense got better.
But Orpik's value may well go beyond his on-ice performance. For one thing, he's smart. He's an intensely focused professional, and is a well-documented nutritional expert, often helping his own teammates design diets that help keep them energized, fueled, and operating at peak performance. He takes his body as deadly seriously as a surgeon would take his scalpel, or perhaps his gnarly circular bone saw, and he has earned the respect of his teammates and coaches.
His veteran presence is welcomed, and he is one of only two Capitals players to have ever climbed Mt. Stanley without the aid of oxygen or indigenous guides. He has taken young players like Evgeny Kuznetsov under his wing, who now refers to Orpik affectionately and respectfully as "batya." He may as well be Mr. Intangibles.
But time is a fickle mistress, taking and giving of life's convenience store pennies like so many careless teens in search of taquitos. Even Orpik can't outrun the long and ever-lengthening shadow of age. His wheels are failing him. The spire is falling, and the building is collapsing. The only question is: will Orpik let it crush him, or will he zag?
Thursday night in the season opener against the Penguins, Brooks Orpik didn't lead the Capitals in shots against. He didn't lead in Relative Corsi-For. He didn't lead the team in speed, or youth either.
What he did lead the team in was blocked shots. Orpik is 6'3", he is 220 pounds, and he is a lot of meat. Blocked shots win championships, and can frustrate even choir boys and altar girls. He also led the team in hits, and while neither are statistics you accumulate if you're dominating puck possession, Orpik is making whatever impact he can. The Capitals need a big, bad bruiser to make skilled opponents alter their playing style, and Orpik is one of the biggest, most devastating, dump truck-like artillery pieces on the team. Sometimes to excess, but always with effect.
Perhaps Brooks Orpik is shrewd enough to realize the reality of his role, and make a realistic evolution to his game. Maybe, with his wheels fading, a savvy veteran is finding a new way to "do his job" by mortgaging his body. Maybe, paired with youngster Nate Schmidt in an arrangement that I can only assume is some sort of Ratatouille situation in which Orpik directs Schmidt's quick but aimless body around the ice by proxy, a veteran hockey player is finding a way to prove his worth, once again.
Or maybe he isn't. Who knows? After all... it's only been one game.