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Brooks Orpik accepts reduced role with Capitals

Less ice time no issue for defenseman heading into Wednesday Night Rivalry game against Penguins

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Washington Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik had a lot to think about this summer and a lot of time to do it.

An injury-plagued 2015-16 season that ended with a six-game loss to his former team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, in the Eastern Conference Second Round left the 36-year-old disappointed but also determined to rebound. Healthy now and comfortable in a reduced role, Orpik feels good about how he has played this season entering the Capitals' Wednesday Night Rivalry game against the Penguins at Verizon Center (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV). 

"Not a very good year last year health-wise, so my main concern this year was doing some things differently in the offseason and trying to come in and be a little more durable," Orpik said. "I feel pretty good so far to start this season. It's been a lot more enjoyable coming to the rink being healthy, that's for sure."

Although there probably was nothing Orpik could have done last season to prevent the fractured femur that sidelined him for 40 games (he blocked a shot) or the concussion that kept him out for three games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, he mixed "some new stuff" into his offseason training, including "a lot of Pilates stuff that was a little less impact."

He also waited until the end of August to resume skating after having what he called a minor procedure on his knee.

"That was more the doctors," Orpik said. "I think I could have skated Aug. 15, but they said to give it an extra little bit."

With training camp not opening until Sept. 23 because of the World Cup of Hockey 2016, Orpik had plenty of time to get ready. He returned knowing the Capitals plan to give defenseman Dmitry Orlov a chance to play in their top four, which meant he would be shifted to the third pair.

Washington coach Barry Trotz calls Orpik "the ultimate pro" for how he has handled the redistribution of ice time. Including the Capitals' 2-1 overtime loss at the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday, Orpik is averaging 16:34 per game playing mostly with Nate Schmidt.

That's down more than three minutes from his 19:48 average last season and more than five minutes less than his 21:47 average in 2014-15, his first season with the Capitals after he left the Penguins to sign a five-year contract with them as an unrestricted free agent.

Orpik claims not to understand the fuss over his reduced playing time.

"It's a team game here and everyone's trying to contribute," he said. "I just try to prepare myself the same way. I don't know how much ice time they're giving me. That's up to the coaches."

Trotz credits Orpik with helping Schmidt, 25, settle into a regular role. Schmidt credits Orpik with being a calming influence for everyone regardless of his ice time.

"You can just tell how much he wants to be involved in our success," Schmidt said. "He's certainly a part of it, a big part of it. It's just in a different way than he's used to. I think he looks like a new man this year. Whether it's off the ice or on the ice, it's just everything about him. He's not as on edge. He's not trying to shove 82 games into 20 games like he did last year."

It wasn't only the injuries that bothered Orpik about last season. He struggled at times in the playoffs and also had to sit out three games against the Penguins after he was suspended for a late, high hit on defenseman Olli Maatta.  

Those are things he reflected upon after the Capitals came up short of their Stanley Cup aspirations.

"That's never fun individually or as a team when you get knocked out, especially when you think you have a team that's capable of winning," Orpik said. "I think everybody felt like we underachieved as a team and individually. I'm sure I wasn't the only one, but I wasn't happy with the way I played in the playoffs."

Orpik, who still has a handful of friends on the Penguins, said it didn't bother him that they went on to win the Stanley Cup. 

"It was amazing what that team did," he said. "I remember playing them and talking to some of the guys after [the Capitals defeated the Penguins 4-1 on Dec. 14] and you talk about a team having zero confidence. They had zero confidence. Then you get to the end of the year and they were playing like nothing could derail them. It was amazing to see the transformation of that team."

This season, the Capitals want to be the team on a roll when the playoffs begin. They cruised through the final quarter of last season after going 45-11-4 in their first 60 games and never found their top level again.

So as much as they want to play well early this season, they know it's most important they are playing their best when the playoffs begin.

"That was something we stressed compared to last year, just trying to build as the season goes on," Orpik said. "Last year we got out to such a big lead and clinched the Presidents' Trophy so early that I think you saw the last 10 to 15 games of the season we probably weren't playing the way we should have been playing. So trying to keep our foot on the gas and progress as the season goes on is what we're trying to achieve here."

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