Friday, July 18, 2014

Brooks Orpik Isn't the Worst. Honestly.

So it's been a couple weeks since NHL free agency opened and the Washington Capitals made a couple of signings, one of them widely panned. The Caps signed defenseman Brooks Orpik to a 5-year, $27.5 million contract, shortly before signing his former Penguins teammate Matt Niskanen to a 7-year, $40.25 million contract. They also signed backup goalie Justin Peters for three bags of peanuts and a box of crayons. Obviously Peters isn't the problem contract.

While I'm not crazy about Matt Niskanen, most of the talking heads around the league seemed okay with his money and term. He turns 28 in December and has fair pedigree (he was a first round pick in 2005). This past season was his first with 40+ points, and while defensemen aren't as well-captured by simple statistics as forwards (and hockey players in general aren't as well-captured by statistics as players in some other sports), a guy who gets a lot of talk about being an offensive defensemen and a potential power play quarterback ought to not have trouble posting good numbers.

But the consensus outrage/concern/laughingstock was that the Capitals signed on for paying Brooks Orpik $5.25 million through his age 38 season. Orpik, who some analysts already believe is a few steps beyond his prime, was a staple for the Penguins for basically the entire Sidney Crosby era in Pittsburgh. As something of a bruiser, he hasn't ever put up 40 points in a season, but that's not his role, so no one seems too concerned about that. The points I keep hearing people harp on are "38-year-old," "already past his prime," "term, term, term."

What's surprising to me is that not a single analyst (at least, none that I've heard) has mentioned that the acquisition of Orpik fills a pretty glaring and longtime hole on the Capitals roster, at least in the short term. Karl Alzner is a great positional defender, and he stifles rushes as well as anybody. But he hasn't shown himself to be someone who can move a player out of the crease on the PK. The previous management regime thought the same thing; that's why John Erskine is still in town. He was the only guy who was mean enough to get that job done, but he's a liability in most other situations.

Orpik, while no Nicklas Lidstrom, acquits himself fine on offense, and can play all facets of defense, not just the ones involving knocking people over. The Caps for five years have been terrible at moving guys out from in front of their goaltenders. Big guys with quick hands have been their undoing. Orpik can help that, and he can help it immediately.

So the important question is, are the Caps a team that can compete this year for a title? Remember, they didn't even make the playoffs last season, in a league that send more than half of its teams to the playoffs. Part of the thinking is that replacing Adam Oates with Barry Trotz will help, and it will, but is the roster strong enough?

Yes, unequivocally.

Everyone knows Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are stars, and most people are aware of what Mike Green can be. If you know anything about hockey, you should also know that John Carlson and Karl Alzner are a very strong defensive pairing. But farther down the depth chart, there's still a ton of production. Joel Ward, after a disappointing start to his Capitals career, has really come into his own. Eric Fehr rediscovered his talent in coming back to DC. The two new defensemen will add considerable strength, and adding in Dmitry Orlov, the Caps can roll six dynamic defensemen every night.

The key for the Caps, as it has been for years, is finding production out of their second scoring line. Fehr is a good player, but doesn't have the skill to carry a second line. Luckily, the Caps have someone who does have that level of skill, and he was added to the team late last season:

Evgeny Kuznetsov is a hyper-talented Russian player who just finally finished his commitments with the KHL at the end of last season, and made an immediate impact upon joining the Capitals. His skill was obvious to any viewer, and he had virtually zero time to prepare, study, learn, or mesh at all. With a full offseason and preseason, and with another Russian dynamo to take him under his wing, I expect huge things from this youngster. I'd really enjoy seeing Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson spend time together on the same line, so they can grow into the next era of prolific Caps players.

But to answer my previously posed question, I expect the Capitals to be able to challenge the best of the Eastern Conference this year. I would've liked to see them maybe take a flyer on Derek Roy, and obviously I'm a bit of a homer, but it feels like a lot of things are falling into place this year.

Back to the original topic, I think adding Orpik was a move that addressed a substantial need for a team that has Stanley Cup aspirations. The term may be a concern, but I'm okay with my favorite team taking this risk.

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