This postseason could be the last for Brooks Orpik, center. The defenseman has been a fixture in the lineup since the 2003-04 season.
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Although you will be paying close attention to Nos. 87, 29 and, hopefully, 71 when the Penguins start the postseason Wednesday night, make sure you find time to check out No. 44. These playoffs could be the beginning of the end in Pittsburgh for Brooks Orpik, one of the great defensemen in franchise history. It's sad, really.
It's no reflection on Orpik's performance. He has been solid again this season, just as he has been every season since joining the Penguins full time for the 2003-04 season. He gets more time on the penalty-kill than any of the team's defensemen, nearly 3 minutes per game. He leads the defensemen with 221 hits. He leads the team with 143 blocked shots.
No one recognizes Orpik's value more than his teammates. They don't just respect him, they adore him. For the fourth consecutive season, they voted him their Players' Player award because of his leadership skills and his commitment to the team. It is their greatest honor.
But a number of factors are working against Orpik, a free agent after this season. He will be 34 before the start of next season. He makes good money in a salary-cap era, a time when the Penguins are looking for a number of young players on entry-level contracts to counterbalance the huge deals they have given Sidney Crosby (No. 87), Marc-Andre Fleury (No. 29) and Evgeni Malkin (No. 71), among others. He also can see -- almost feel -- his replacement pushing hard behind him.
"I think the top six prospects in the system are defensemen," Orpik said. "It is what it is ...
"I'd love to stay here. I love it here. I know I've still got a lot left in me."
Defenseman Matt Niskanen, who has had a really good season, also will be a free agent. It's hard to imagine the Penguins keeping him and Orpik. "You think about what might happen. Anyone who says they don't think about it is lying," Orpik said.
Don't worry, though. Orpik is such a great pro that he's able to set those thoughts aside until after the playoffs. His focus squarely is on the Blue Jackets, who were 0-5 against the Penguins this season.
"Yeah, but we had a lot of success against Boston in the regular season last season, too," Orpik said.
You might remember what happened when the Penguins played the Bruins in the Eastern Conference final.
That was as close as Orpik has come to playing for a second Stanley Cup. He was a key part of the Cup-winning team in 2009.
"People tell me it will be different if we do it again," Orpik said. "I don't know that I believe that. I think it will be the same. It will be accomplishing the same goal, just with a different group of guys."
Yes, Orpik hopes he gets a chance to confirm his theory.
Orpik said likes this Penguins team, especially now that defensemen Paul Martin and Kris Letang have returned to the lineup after long absences. He and Martin will be the club's top shutdown defensive pairing against the Blue Jackets and for as long as the Penguins last in the playoffs. The next key guy to get back is Malkin, if not for Game 1 against Columbus, then perhaps later in the series.
"Hopefully, the worst of it is over," Orpik said of the Penguins' injuries. "I've never seen anything like it, especially to significant guys. It seems like every time we got one back, someone else went down. I don't think people have paid nearly enough attention to what we've been able to get done as a team."
Orpik missed eight games in December with a concussion after being assaulted by Boston's Shawn Thornton but said he's as healthy as he has been at playoff time.
One of the reasons Orpik's teammates gave him the Players' Player award is his work with the Penguins' young players. Because of injuries, seven rookies made their NHL debut, including defenseman Olli Maata, a rookie of the year candidate. Rather than worrying about losing his job to one of the young defensemen, Orpik welcomed all. Every player in the room noticed.
"I learned pretty early on that if you're uncomfortable off the ice, you're going to be uncomfortable on it," Orpik said. "This team doesn't treat rookies like rookies. We realize we are going to need those guys to be successful. I can't say that about all of the older guys I have played with."
Orpik was touched by the recognition from his teammates. "I definitely wasn't expecting it this time. There were a lot of guys I could have voted for. Leadership comes from a lot of different areas in this room." So who received Orpik's vote? "I voted for [Deryk Engelland]. He's been out of the lineup. He's played forward. He's played defense. I never once heard him complain about anything. He's probably the most selfless player we have on the team. He's a great teammate."
So is Orpik.
The best in the Penguins' room, actually.
But pro sports are brutal. Tough decisions have to be made after every season. Even the greatest players eventually move on, to retirement or to another team.
Two things are certain with Orpik:
He won't be truly missed until he is gone. He won't be easily replaced.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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