Efficiency and consistency are two of the keywords Brooks Orpik has lived by this season.
The consistency part is something he’s worked to achieve throughout his four-plus seasons with the Penguins.
“You just try to come every year and try to improve a little bit. I think the biggest thing in this league is consistency. That’s the hardest thing for younger guys to achieve,” he said. “The biggest thing is to kind of go with a flat line – you don’t want too many highs or too many lows. You just want to be consistent. You see a lot of younger guys, especially defensemen, come up and have periods where they are real high and periods where they are real low. So, I try to even that out as much as possible and this year is probably the best year I’ve had at doing that.”
Efficiency has come along with that as well for the 27-year-old blueliner. One of the Penguins’ biggest hitters and most-physical defensemen, Orpik has been a student of the NHL game during his career. That’s allowed him to remain aggressive and cut down on his penalty minutes despite getting more minutes on the ice.
“I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. For younger guys, when they come to the league, they don’t really know any of the players other than some of the guys they watched on TV and even that can be misleading,” he said. “So, once you get familiar with the guys and a lot of their tendencies and stuff, it helps you out a ton. Just the speed of the game for a defenseman is something that, the more and more you play, you get accustomed to. You can practice all you want and play in the minors all you want; it definitely helps you out, but it’s definitely not the same as playing in the actual games. The experience is something you can’t match in practice or AHL games.”
The knowledge of positioning, opponents’ tendencies and how penalties are called has helped Orpik reduce his time spent in the penalty box dramatically. He had 124 penalty minutes in 64 games two seasons ago and 82 PIMs through 70 games last year. This season, Orpik has just 50 PIMs through 74 games.
“I think, especially for defensemen, adjusting to the way the game was called was the hardest thing coming out of the lockout (two years ago). Down low in your own zone, the hooking and the holding, pretty much all the advantage was given to the forwards, whereas, before it was on the defense. I think it took an adjustment for a lot of guys,” he said. “I think every year my penalty minutes have gone down. I don’t think I am playing any less physical or aggressive as I was my first couple years. I think positioning is a big thing, too. When you get caught out of position and guys beat you to the net and stuff, that’s when you’re forced into taking a hooking or holding or tripping penalty. If you’re in good position, you don’t have to take those kinds of penalties. Better positioning is something you learn, too, and that also comes with learning the system.”
Orpik feels very comfortable playing in the Penguins’ defensive system. It took some adjustment at first, but Orpik is thriving now.
“We played pretty wide-open and went totally polar opposite with the system we have now,” he said. “As defensemen, it’s your job to protect your zone and the front of your net. It was an adjustment; the defensive zone coverage was completely different to what I played in college and the minors. It took some time, but once you learn it, it’s something where you can just go out and play. The first season, you might be out there thinking about it too much and I think that’s when you get in trouble. When you just go out there and play, I think that’s when anyone’s at their best.”
Once Rob Scuderi went out of the lineup with a thumb injury, Orpik was rewarded with a spot on the Penguins’ top defensive pairing alongside Sergei Gonchar. Orpik and Gonchar found quick chemistry.
“It was actually a pretty smooth transition. He’s really offensive and likes to jump up a lot. I think we communicate pretty well together. I think it’s something where he jumps up and I just kind of read off him. That’s the best thing to do,” Orpik said. “I like to call myself a safety out there. But, that’s why he is so good. He finds the holes and picks his spots. He moves the puck so well, so it’s actually pretty easy to play with him. I’ve enjoyed it and I actually think I’ve played with everyone so far this year other than Hal Gill.”
Gonchar enjoys playing on the blue line with Orpik.
“Especially now, we’re used to each other a little more. He knows what to expect from me and I know what exactly he is going to do, so it’s getting a little bit better with every game,” he said. “It seems like we’re getting to the point where, without even looking, we know where we’re going to be. That happens when you play with a partner for a while. That’s a good thing and we just have to continue to develop.”
In addition, Gonchar is not afraid to jump into the offensive rush since he knows Orpik will stay back and cover for him, if necessary.
“Obviously, I can rely on him. I know he is going to back me up,” Gonchar said. “It’s one of those things you need when you want to jump in and create some offense. You have trust your partner and know he is going to back you up and he does that for me.”
The increased role has resulted in more minutes on the ice for Orpik. He enjoys the heavy workload.
“When you are playing less minutes, you have so much time between shifts that you might get caught thinking about stuff that you probably shouldn’t be,” he said. “The more minutes you’re playing, you’re just rolling and rolling and you don’t have time to think. That’s definitely a benefit. When you can help a team win when you’re playing those minutes, it’s more beneficial for everyone, too.”
Gonchar has been impressed with Orpik’s continued development.
“He always was a physical guy. He can hit. Now, you can see him playing with more confidence. He moves the puck a little bit better and he’s shooting the puck a little better,” he said. “Now, he’s playing a little more and has a little more confidence. To me, it seems like he is getting more comfortable and playing every game and it’s just a matter of him being in the lineup and making sure he’s playing every night.”
Orpik is happy he can continue to learn and improve as an individual while helping the Penguins win as a team at the same time.
“That’s what’s tough. Sometimes you have growing pains and hopefully those were the first couple years we had and now we’re finding our stride,” he said. “I think, for defensemen, you probably don’t hit your peak or prime until a little bit later than forwards do. It’s been fun with these guys. As much as we think we’re young, some of these forwards in here make us feel pretty old. I think everyone in this room has been on an upward swing, in terms of development. That’s definitely a positive.”