Orpik’s future remains up in the air

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Brooks Orpik has pulled on a Penguins sweater for 701 regular-season games since breaking into the NHL in 2002.

Only four men — Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Jean Pronovost and Rick Kehoe — have done that more. All rank among the most-celebrated figures in franchise history, even though Lemieux is the only one to spend his entire career here.

Orpik has done that so far, too, and, understandably, it is a point of pride.

“I think it’s pretty cool that I’ve played for one team my whole career,” he said. “Where there’s not a lot of loyalty in pro sports anymore, it’s pretty unique.”

How long Orpik will retain that distinction isn’t clear because his contract expires after this season. What place, if any, he has in the Penguins’ plans beyond this season is not clear, and both sides apparently are content to keep it that way.

Asked if his agent, Lewis Gross, has had any discussions with general manager Ray Shero about a new deal, Orpik smiled and said, “That’s something Ray and I agreed we wouldn’t talk about in the media. We’ll just let it play out and see what happens.”

Orpik is 33, and continues to play the physically demanding style that prompted the Penguins to make him their first-round draft choice in 2000.

He leads them in blocked shots(140) and ranks second on the team in hits (217), 20 fewer than left winger Tanner Glass.

That kind of game can take a toll, and a lingering, but unspecified, injury prevented him from dressing for Game No. 702 Sunday in Denver. He spent the evening in street clothes as a patchwork lineup cobbled together a 3-2 shootout victory against Colorado.

The Penguins proved that night that they can beat a quality opponent even when guys such as Orpik, Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz, and Evgeni Malkin, among others, aren’t available, but that doesn’t mean they’re eager to try to do it on a regular basis.

“Our guys did a great job of stepping up with some added opportunities to play, different guys in the lineup,” said assistant coach Todd Reirden, who oversees the defense. “But it doesn’t take long to miss Brooks Orpik out there.”

Several factors figure to determine whether Orpik returns for another hitch with the Penguins.

Although their prospects pipeline is full of promising young defensemen, that doesn’t guarantee any is ready to fill the niche Orpik does. Precisely how his contract requirements, in terms of salary and duration, fit into Shero’s plans could be decisive, as well.

Many players insist they don’t pay attention to talks between their agent and employer or ponder where they might end up working when their current contract expires.

Orpik isn’t one of them.

“I’ve thought about it a ton,” he said. “I think that’s just natural. It’s always on your mind. But the only thing you can do about it now is to just try to have the same approach to games.

“I don’t want to say it puts more pressure on you, but you’re definitely aware of what your individual situation is.”

Orpik has a fierce commitment to conditioning, and that’s part of the reason Reirden believes he can continue to be effective in his shutdown role.

“There’s lots of hockey left in Brooks Orpik,” Reirden said. “I can’t say enough about the job he’s done, playing against the other team’s top players every night. … He’s definitely not at the end of the road, in terms of his career.”

Indeed, Reirden feels some aspects of Orpik’s game, such as his positional play and ability to get his stick on pucks, have continued to improve.

“If you look at from two years ago until now, it’s not even comparable,” he said.

And if someone looks at Orpik two years from now, there’s a pretty good chance he still will be skating a regular shift in the NHL. The only question is what sweater he will be wearing.

“My body feels pretty good at 33,” he said. “I like to think I take pretty good care of myself off the ice.

“Everybody’s different. As long as you’re enjoying it, you just play as long as you can. Once you stop enjoying it, if you’re 23 or you’re 33 or you’re 38, that’s the time to stop playing.

“Once it’s just a job, that’s the time to get out. I’m nowhere close to that.”

Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.

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