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How The Capitals Are Managing Brooks Orpik

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Taking a look at how the Capitals are mitigating risk on one of their biggest liabilities.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that Brooks Orpik is a weak spot on the Capitals blueline, even acknowledging what intangibles he may bring to the team. We’ve dragged Orpik over the coals already, so suffice it to say that he had a year so bad it bordered on the historic.

Conventional wisdom is that Orpik would be an obvious target for coaches deploying high-skill players such as Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessell, and Evgeni Malkin, or looking to the future, Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Tyler Johnson. In last round’s roundtable, when asked about which player was key for the Caps’ in the series, I had this to say:

I’m gonna put myself out on a limb here and say Brooks Orpik. No, really. Hear me out. For all the discussion about whether Brooks Orpik was good or not in the first round (I don’t think he was particularly good, boasting a 42.7% CF and 41.3% HDSC), I’ve long trumpeted the philosophy that the underlying numbers are worth a hill of beans in the postseason, given that a seven-game series is generally too short for the expected production evinced by those numbers to kick in. Brooksy managed to exit round one with a favorable tally in on-ice goals, with 4 GF and 3 GA.

Orpik, who has been nothing short of awful all season long, is a sitting duck for Pittsburgh’s incredible speed and skill. Whether it’s by way of a strong showing from Braden Holtby, or some nice shooting percentages from the guys up front, if Orpik can repeat his performance as a net-positive in the goals column, that’s going to go a long way towards the Caps advancing.

And because it was spoken to the universe, it became truth. Or something. In the Penguins series Orpik skated to the tune of a 54% CF, and was on the ice for three 5v5 goals for, and only one against. So what gives? This level of damage control was unfathomable when you consider how things went for Orpik during the regular season.

The following plot examines how Orpik has been deployed in the regular season and the playoffs during his time with Barry Trotz, Todd Reirden, and the Capitals.

A tip on reading this: each line segments represents a season, with the bigger dot representing the playoffs. Think of zone start ratio as what percentage of non-neutral zone faceoffs Orpik is on the ice for occur in the offensive zone.

Let’s quickly break down the last four regular seasons first. Over the last two years Orpik has seen a noticeable shift downwards in the 5v5 TOI of the teammates he’s deployed with, which we use as a proxy for quality of teammate here. Last year, Trotz threw Orpik over the boards in the offensive zone more than he had in the past, but this year that behavior receded back to about 50%, which was more in-line with what we’ve seen previously.

But looking at a tactical-shift in the playoffs is where things get interesting. In Trotz’s first two years, Orpik’s quality of teammate jumped up in the playoffs, and he saw a significant skew towards defensive draws. Last year his QoT also jumped, but his deployments went the other way. This year, that difference has become stark, with Orpik drawing in in the offensive zone more often than ever before.

So the face-off deployment is curious, given that Orpik has very little to offer in the offensive zone, and leads one to believe that it’s a sheltering strategy. Leaving the ZSR in the plot, let’s swap quality of teammate out for quality of competition. Who is Orpik out on the ice against, and how has that changed?

So in this year’s regular season we can infer that Orpik skated against stiffer completion than the year before, about the same as what he did in 2015-16, and weaker competition than in 2014-15. Last year he saw a jump in QoC from the regular season to the playoffs, but that marker was still lower than any regular season or playoffs in the rest of the field.

Playing matchups and being selective about when you throw your weaker players over the boards is certainly one way to mitigate the negative impact of a net-negative player. Another is tamping down on their ice-time, which is what Trotz and Reirden have also done in these playoffs, though it’s worth noting that Brooks is still seeing slightly more ice per game than he did during last year’s second season.

The bench boss has done a good job of minimizing Orpik’s presence on the ice (and so has the goaltender behind the big guy), and that success is going to need to continue in order for the Caps to see success against a viciously talented Tampa Bay Lightning squad.