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Q and A: In matchup between Capitals and Penguins, Brooks Orpik brings unique insight

Brooks Oprik has a Stanley Cup ring from his tenure with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Now he'll have to go through them as the Washington Capitals look to win it all. Here's what the veteran defenseman has to say about the two franchises.

ARLINGTON, Va.—As the second-round rematch everyone saw coming fully rounded into sight, several Washington Capitals jokingly reminded Brooks Orpik that “there are no friends in this series” against Pittsburgh, his former team. To which the defenseman replied by laughing at a nonexistent problem. “There’s like three guys in the lineup that I played with,” he says. “I don’t know 85 percent of them. The coaches are different, the management’s different, some of the trainers are different…”

In the interest of accuracy, it’s actually six Penguins projected into Thursday night’s Game 1 lineup—forwards Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz; defensemen Olli Maata and Brian Dumoulin; and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury—who wore black and gold before Orpik left as an unrestricted free agent. Until then he had grown into Pittsburgh’s longest-tenured player, picked 18th in the first draft of the millennium, debuting against Toronto on Dec. 10, 2002, when Mario Lemieux had two points and Ed Belfour made 14 saves.

Orpik is 36 years now, the most senior member of the back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy winners, an alternate captain upon arrival in July ‘14 and a third-pair blueliner as of this season. His locker stall hugs a concrete support column at the Capitals’ training facility; on the other side sits Alex Ovechkin, a longtime foe now technically deemed a dressing-room neighbor. He’s by no means the only Penguin whose migration patterns recently pointed southeast: defenseman Matt Niskanen signed mere hours before Orpik, and together they joined ex-Pittsburgh assistant coach Todd Reirden. But Orpik was around before Ovechkin and Crosby rocketed into the league; before Pittsburgh twice beat Washington en route to the Stanley Cup, once with a penguin on his jersey and the other with an eagle; before the Capitals take another crack at this particular tormentor.

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Which makes him perhaps uniquely qualified to discuss the series. As defenseman Karl Alzner puts it, “If anybody knows the way things tick on both sides, it’s probably Brooks."

Wednesday morning, Orpik bounded off the ice after practice with a burst of energy and a loud yelp, an unusual sight from someone built like the concrete column next to his stall (6-2, 221 pounds) and speaks at roughly the same volume. Don’t conflate tone with terseness, though. Orpik’s dial defaults to honesty. He held court for several waves of reporters, thoughtfully answering queries about Crosby and Ovechkin, Pittsburgh and Washington, as though he hasn’t been getting them ever since ink hit that five-year, $27.5 million contract.

Later, chugging from a carton of coconut water and fidgeting with a foot up on his stall, Orpik lent another 15 minutes to the matchup, among other topics. “I think both teams probably had it in the back of their minds that it was only a matter of time before we played each other, whether it was in the second or third round,” he says. “With the way the divisional format’s set up, you knew the chances were even higher of us playing each other sooner than we probably should. But we’re both in the same boat.”

It seems nonsensical, of course, pitting the NHL’s top two teams against one another in the Eastern Conference semifinals. But Orpik is also hinting at another truth: For the second straight year, the team that emerges will assume pole position for the Cup. And they know each other well. Pittsburgh won in six games last spring, buoyed primarily by its bottom-six forwards. Since then the Capitals have become deeper than ever in the Ovechkin era, further fortified at the deadline by the arrival of Orpik’s partner, Kevin Shattenkirk. In a testament to his connections, Orpik even knows Pittsburgh’s youngest player. One of his U-17 coaches was Mike Guentzel, father of Jake, the current playoff points leader who hadn’t entered kindergarten at the time.

“We’re going to watch a fair amount of video like we do with everybody, but this is one series where both teams are probably familiar with each other enough that you probably don’t need much,” Orpik says. “There’s not going to be a lot of surprises in terms of what we’re trying to do and what they’re trying to do.”

Alex Prewitt: You were around before all this started, before Penguins-Capitals really became what we know today. What do you remember?

Brooks Orpik: Ten years ago, I think we were both trying to get the 1-2 picks for Ovi and Malkin and Sid and whatnot. Both organizations made a really quick transition from the bottom of the league all the way to two of the premier franchises. It’s a lot different. But I think both organizations are doing things the right way.

It was Penguins-Flyers when I started. Then when Sid and Ovi came, that’s two of the marquee names. I think that rivalry was manufactured a little bit, especially when we weren’t even in the same division and didn’t play each other in the playoffs until ‘09. A lot of that, I think, was hyped up for TV ratings. But at the same time those guys always seemed to kick it up a notch when they played each other, so it was fun to be a part of. I think now since our last lockout, when they changed the divisions around, has made that rivalry a little more realistic.

AP: How do you think the supporting casts around Sid and Alex changed—or evolved—to get to the points both are at today?

BO: It’s tough with the salary cap, when you have this many big names on one team. It’s tough on the organization and the general managers to fit guys around them. I think that puts more of a premium on drafting well, trying to get guys who are on reasonable contracts at young ages, to plug those guys in, have them contribute a positive way. That’s what you saw with Pittsburgh last year. They had a lot of guys on entry-level contracts who [coach] Mike Sullivan really trusted.

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AP: I also see some pretty impactful trades over the past two years. Here, it’s [T.J.] Oshie, Shattenkirk and Lars [Eller]. There it’s [Phil] Kessel, [Trevor] Daley and Carl Hagelin.

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BO: When you look at those, if you make big trades, you’ve got to be willing to give something up you might not normally want to give up to acquire something good. I think it’s having the belief and the courage to actually pull the trigger on those. I think a lot of general managers would be hesitant to give up on guys, or similar assets. You can’t be timid when it comes to some of that. You’ve got to trust and believe in what you’re doing, that what you’re doing to is going to benefit you short-term and maybe long-term, if you give up something for that. That’s what good GMs are good at, they’re patient but they know when to pull the trigger.

AP: Did you feel any animus coming to Washington from Pittsburgh?

BO: Not really. It obviously helped that, when [the Penguins] got rid of the coaches, they got rid of the management, there was a whole handful of us who moved on at the same time. I think that probably made it a little easier for people to digest. I don't think going into free agency there were teams I hadn’t necessarily included because they were rivals or divisional opponents. You look at what’s the best fit for you. And from talking to the guys there, there was no animosity. They understood the situation.

I think a lot of those guys too knew what was going on organizationally in Pittsburgh at the time. There were a lot of question marks after the season. There were a lot of moving parts. So many things happened and there was so much news for people to digest. I was just one small part of that.

Brooks Oprik with the Penguins in 2012.

Brooks Oprik with the Penguins in 2012.

AP: When you and Matt [Niskanen] signed, it was billed internally as kind of an attitude overhaul, that you two symbolized something new. They wanted to bring leaders, the right examples. What do you remember about that transition, about coming into this room? Did you see yourself that way?

BO: Yeah, they pretty much told me what they were looking for when I came and met with them before free agency started that year. I guess it was a little bit similar in that they had a coaching change there and a management change, so there were some parallels there in terms of where the two organizations were at. Obviously they didn’t make the playoffs here so it was a little bit of a different situation. But I think they were pretty straightforward with me and Niskanen in terms of what they were looking for, what they were hoping to change here in terms of, I guess, attitude within the organization. A lot of people say culture change—that takes a long time to change. But you’ve got to start somewhere.

AP: When I was talking to him earlier, Karl called you “the type of guy who lays the groundwork for a team.” You were a rebuilding block in Pittsburgh, bringing it back up, and he sees you as one here too. Now the core was already in place here, but they wanted to reboot things...

BO: Yeah, when I got to Pittsburgh, I think our team payroll was $20 million and we were playing against teams that were $90 million. We probably had, with all due respect to the guys we had playing, people who were realistically more American Hockey League guys, thrown into a team because they were going through some ownership problems. There were talks of relocation. There wasn’t a lot of stability when I got there. Everyone thought we were moving to Kansas City, then they were trying to get a new arena. Obviously a lot of that changed with the way we drafted. But the attitude and culture there, it was the same thing. It took four or five years to really get established, and you saw it transform from one end of the spectrum to the other.

AP: How’d you start getting called batya [dad] by your Russian teammates?

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BO: Oh, the Russians? I don't know how that started, to be honest with you. Caught on pretty quick. Now, it’s funny, in your career you go from being a younger guy to an older guy pretty quick. I don't think it was a knock on me. I think it was more being a responsible voice and hopefully being one of the more mature guys in the room. I think that’s what it was intended to be. It caught on. When Brooks Laich was here, they needed something else too, because they kept calling both of us, Brooksie. That was a little confusing, kind of like Willie [Justin Williams] and Whip [Tom Wilson]. You can’t have two Willies. That’s what stuck.

AP: You know some Russian, right? Thought it was, like, an honorary club membership.

BO: Yeah, there’s Russians, there’s Swedes, there’s different types of guys. I think it’s important on any team, when you have new guys or guys where English isn’t their first language, you try to get everybody on the same page, you try to make everybody as comfortable as possible.

From what I’ve learned, that’s something that held this group back, that there were too many cliques. But when you can squash that and get everybody to feel like they’re a part of things equally, I think that’s where you can see a lot of growth as a group. I think with this team, especially when you watch us on the road and who goes to dinner with who, it’s always different. It’s always big groups, not small groups here or there.

Everyone feels included. Not just players but families, wives away from the rink. I think some people laugh at that and overlook the value in that. I’ve been enough teams where you can see the positive and negative effects that has. Obviously you need good talent. You need a good hockey team. But little things like that can definitely separate teams.

AP: As you get older and your role evolves the way it has this year, ice time goes down a tick [Orpik’s averaging 17:47, his lowest since ‘07-08], does that off-ice stuff become more pronounced in your mind? Do you focus on that more? Does that become a larger share of the pie chart in terms of your value to this team?]

BO: I don't think so. I think you’re more aware of the importance and impact it has on a team. Another year, you see how another group performs, what works and what doesn’t work. I think you just keep doing what you do. Maybe your realization on the value it has increases or decreases. I don't think you do anything differently. You make sure that it’s going in the right direction, and those things aren’t pushed aside.

AP: I remember how much you hated the team yoga sessions. Then I read you were doing Pilates. What gives?

BO: I did that last year, yeah. That’s on a whole different level. As you get older, you get to a point where you’ve got to accept training differently, different surgeries or injuries you have, you just have to work around those. I think it’s one of those things, just like earlier, the longer you play the more knowledge you gather. You wish you had that knowledge at 22, 23. That’s just not the case. You try to incorporate some of that stuff and work it into your routine. I wish I had some of that knowledge when I was younger. You try to pass it onto guys at an earlier age, try to help them out, try to avoid some of the problems I’ve gotten myself into.

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AP: Any tweaks you made this year?

BO: Hmm...this year compared to last year is tough, because I dealt with injury the whole year. This year I got back to getting into a normal routine. Every time you’re healthy, that’s a luxury you have. You’re able to do what you want to do in terms of training. That’s helped me out. I don't know if i’ve changed much. I’ve worked with [strength coach Mark Nemish] tweaking some things here and there. He’s collected a lot of data throughout the year, trying to see what days you feel better, trying to identify what you did the year before that, versus days you don’t feel well, whether it be workout wise or nutrition or sleeping. He’s put a lot of time and effort into that for everybody. I’ve obviously benefitted from that.

For me, it’s just getting a full training camp in, being healthy for pretty much the whole year is probably the biggest benefit.

AP: You tied your career-high in games played [with 79], most in a decade.

BO: I probably should’ve played all of them if it wasn’t for the infection I got. That kind of snuck up on me. I didn’t even have a cut on my leg. Somehow it got in through a bruise. That was a new one for me. It wasn’t fun. But it was only the three games. Not too bad.