Orpik approaches milestone, still leading on, off ice with Capitals

But the Washington Capitals 38-year-old defenseman grudgingly accepts that it will shine brightly on him when he plays in his 1,000th NHL game against the St. Louis Blues at Capital One Arena on Monday (7 p.m. ET; SNE, SNO, SNP, NBCSWA, FS-MW, NHL.TV).

“I’m not one for surprise parties or anything individual, a lot of attention. That doesn’t really go with my personality,” Orpik said Sunday. “But I know for one day I’m just going to have to suck it up and deal with it. But it is something pretty cool.”

Orpik will become the 330th player in NHL history to reach 1,000 games. It’s not a milestone he thought about when the Pittsburgh Penguins selected him with the 18th pick in the 2000 NHL Draft.

Video: WSH@PIT: Orpik cranks home blistering slap shot

Born in San Francisco and named after Herb Brooks, coach of the 1980 U.S. Olympic men’s ice hockey team, Orpik grew up in Amherst, New York before moving to Massachusetts and attending Thayer Academy in Braintree. After playing at Boston College for three seasons, he turned pro in 2001 with the modest goal of playing in one NHL game.

When Orpik was learning his way in the American Hockey League with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in 2001-02 and 2002-03, he wasn’t sure when that opportunity would come.

“I remember playing in Wilkes-Barre and just kind of hoping you get called up for that one game,” he said. “I remember other guys getting called up and you get a little bit discouraged and you just try to stay patient.”

Orpik made his NHL debut at the Toronto Maple Leafs on Dec. 10, 2002. He played in six games with the Penguins that season and became a regular with them in 2003-04, playing in 79 games.

As a stay-at-home defenseman, Orpik was an important part of the Penguins’ Stanley Cup-winning team in 2008-09. Because of Orpik’s physical style, Capitals coach Todd Reirden, an assistant with Wilkes-Barre that season, remembers wondering then how long his body would hold up.

During one shift in the third period of Game 3 of the 2008 Stanley Cup Final against the Detroit Red Wings, Orpik delivered four hits in 15 seconds.

“When I met him, to say that he would play 1,000 games, I didn’t think it would be possible with the physical brand of style that he played and how hard he played every shift,” Reirden said. “At the time, he was in a little bit of a transition period of being known as more of a physical guy and trying to grow his game.”

When Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan was thinking about signing Orpik as an unrestricted free agent in 2014, he approached Reirden, then an assistant with Washington, to ask his opinion. MacLellan had heard about Orpik’s leadership qualities and wanted to know if Reirden thought he’s be a good fit with the Capitals, who were looking for a culture change after missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2013-14.

“I asked Todd a lot of questions about him: ‘Is this for real? Is this what you hear, is this right?'” MacLellan said.

In his five seasons with the Capitals, Orpik has been a mentor for young defensemen such as Dmitry Orlov, Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey and Jonas Siegenthaler, and his leadership proved pivotal in helping Washington win the Stanley Cup for the first time last season.

“He’s been the biggest reason, in terms of players, that we’ve been able to change the culture here into a championship level culture and team,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “He pushed our guys the right way. He’s the guy that has the respect of everyone, very intelligent and not afraid to speak up when he knows what’s best for the team. That’s something we needed, and he’s been that guy to lift you up at the right times and hold everyone accountable.”

That’s why the Capitals wanted to bring him back after trading him to the Colorado Avalanche, along with backup goalie Philipp Grubauer, on June 23 to clear salary cap space to re-sign defenseman John Carlson. Orpik subsequently had the final season on his contract bought out by the Avalanche, making him an unrestricted free agent, and he returned to the Capitals, signing a one-year, $1 million contract on July 24.

Although 16 seasons in the NHL have taken their toll on Orpik physically – he missed 27 games this season (Oct. 27-Dec. 31) because of a right knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery – his presence is still valued by the Capitals on and off the ice.

Orpik says he’s going year-to-year, so he doesn’t know yet if this season will be his last. Stay-at-home defenseman are a dying breed in a game that stresses speed and emphasizes puck-moving skill from defenseman, but Orpik believes there’s still a place for him.

“You’ve just got to be able to keep up with the speed of the game,” he said. “So that’s the one thing. If you weren’t willing to adjust how you trained or maybe shed some weight, that would push you out of the League.”

But, because of how the game has changed, Reirden said he’d be surprised if another stay-at-home defenseman makes it to 1,000 games. Orpik adapted his game to make it this far.

“That’s probably what I’ve been happiest about,” Reirden said. “He’s been able to really change his game to fit into today’s hockey. We talk about it all of the time with [Alex Ovechkin] and how everyone has to adjust to things and the way they do things to have success in the League. And Brooks definitely has done that. 

“It’s an awesome accomplishment [to play 1,000 games], and I’m really excited to be a part of it and watch it.”

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