The Pittsburgh Penguins have made it a priority this offseason to secure key players via multi-year contract extensions. Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Chris Kunitz all signed new deals a year before becoming unrestricted free agents, while Pascal Dupuis re-upped with the team just days shy of hitting the open market.
Glancing at the list of players the Penguins have under club control (thanks again to CapGeek.com), one supposed franchise cornerstone stands out with just one year left on his deal: defenseman Brooks Orpik. The soon-to-be 33-year-old has 12 months remaining on the six-year, $22.5-millon contract that took effect in 2008-09, and there have been no media reports of extension talk between Orpik and the Pens.
At first blush, that might seem surprising. Orpik has provided good value to the Penguins for $3.75 million per year. A 10-year NHL veteran, Orpik is the longest-tenured member of the team, and his steady, defense-first style has been an asset to the club for several years running. Although he’s toned down the physical aspect of his game recently – perhaps for preservation purposes – Orpik can still be counted on for a few hard, clean body checks per game, giving opposing forwards something to think about when they head to the corners or in front of the net.
On the other hand, maybe there’s a good reason for Orpik’s uncertain status beyond next season. Discounting the shortened 2013 campaign, Orpik has missed at least nine games in every season dating back to 2008-09, when he dressed for 79 of 82. Beyond that, he’s had recurring issues with abdominal muscle tears and other injuries to his core, a detriment to any athlete. He’s played through many of those nagging problems, rendering him a less explosive player much of the time.
In the past couple of years, Orpik has been caught out of position enough times to notice. That isn’t a good thing for any defenseman, let along one whose calling card is taking care of his own end. He also doesn’t make great outlet passes, another strike against him in coach Dan Bylsma’s preferred quick-transition approach.
On the positive side, the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Orpik led the Penguins in shorthanded time on ice in 2013, showing that he still has the coaches’ trust in big defensive situations. Perhaps with the addition of Rob Scuderi in 2013-14, Orpik won’t have to extend himself as much and can make the most of his energy. Filing under the less-is-more theory, it might be wise for Orpik’s average time on ice to drop a bit; his 22:17 per game was third-most among Penguins skaters.
Orpik’s possession stats from 2013 support the conclusion that his game is fading. As Pensburgh expertly enumerated, Orpik was part of three of the Penguins’ five worst defense pairs last season according to Corsi For, which measures the rate of shots taken by a team when a given player is on the ice.
Orpik’s possession metrics were best when he skated with Paul Martin. That was a typical pairing last season, so perhaps it’s a matter of the Penguins needing to protect Orpik a bit at this stage of his career.
It’s worth noting the Penguins and general manager Ray Shero took a wait-and-see approach with Dupuis in his age-33 season before extending him for four more years. Perhaps that will be the case with Orpik next summer, when the Penguins have a bit more space under the salary cap to draw up a new contract. As of now, they are within $200,000 of the 2013-14 ceiling.
At any rate, it’s telling that one of the leaders of the Shero-era Penguins will play on with a good amount of uncertainty regarding his immediate future. There’s no doubt Orpik will have something to prove next season.