Dave Molinari on the Penguins: Whatever shortcomings Orpik may have, hitting is not among them
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The Penguins' coaching staff seems to have found a lot that it doesn't like about Brooks Orpik's game.
He isn't part of the regular penalty-killing rotation and, last week, was transplanted to left wing -- a position he never had played at any level -- when injuries and illness left the Penguins with 11 healthy forwards, one shy of the normal complement.
But whatever shortcomings Orpik might have, or be perceived as having, this much is certain: He is the only physical presence on the Penguins' defense. The only one who plays the body with any consistency, and who is a legitimate threat to throw a high-impact bodycheck.
He entered the weekend with 131 hits, the 14th-highest total in the NHL and 57 more than Ryan Malone, who ranks second on the team. And it isn't because he benefits from generous stat-keeping in his home rink.
"Two hits in [Mellon Arena] might be 10 hits in Ottawa or Long Island," Orpik said.
The off-ice officials in some arenas are notoriously liberal when handing out stats, including hits, that are based on subjective assessments. The statisticians here, Orpik said, are not among them.
"Ask [Gary Roberts] about that," he said. "I think he ran over three guys last year and [was credited with] two hits. That's why guys don't really pay attention to those stats. It's so different from arena to arena."
Orpik doesn't complain about the standards applied by the statisticians at Mellon Arena, or about the way the structure of the Penguins' style of play limits his opportunities to look for big hits. He doesn't have the latitude to move out of position and play the body the way he would under a system that is less restrictive.
"That's something a lot of guys have to deal with," he said. "If you look around the league, there definitely are different systems that benefit different guys. Like I'm sure Marian Gaborik [the high-scoring Minnesota forward] isn't too thrilled about playing in a trap system all the time, but that's something his team has chosen to go with.
"The [New York] Islanders' system, if you look at the way their [defense] steps up all the time, maybe you'd be noticed a little bit more, but that's just something I've had to adjust to. It's nothing I complain about. That's how our defense plays."
Orpik is, in large part, a self-taught hitter. He did not have a coach to instruct him on the finer points of playing the body; instead, it's something he picked up mostly by watching the generation of big hitters that preceded him.
"There was really no coaching," he said. "Hitting is so much about skating and timing and balance. You'd have to look back at the people who taught me to skate.
"You learn by watching a guy like Scott Stevens or guys similar to him, just seeing when they step up and when they don't. Even now, I look back at videos of other guys around the league, guys who are older and more experienced. You watch when they take their chances."
Tom Fitzgerald is in his first season as the Penguins' director of player development, and pretty much everything about the job is a learning experience for him.
But one thing Fitzgerald caught on to quite quickly is that it doesn't take long to form bonds with the prospects he scouts and works with, and to develop a personal stake in how they progress.
"It's amazing, how attached I am to these kids now," Fitzgerald said. "They'll reach out and call me for things and be very engaging when we talk. It's nice.
"It's like these are now my little babies, and I want the best for them, so I'm going to try to help them all achieve their goals. It's just like they're your own kids."
Ryan Lannon, the club's eighth-round draft pick in 2002, spent two weeks with the Penguins recently but never got in a game before rejoining Wilkes-Barre.
If he was frustrated by that, however, Lannon never let it show.
And if he's so unhappy about spending virtually all of his first three pro seasons in the minors that he can't wait to sever ties with the Penguins when he becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer, he certainly doesn't let on.
"It's been a great two or three years for me, as far as what I expected from pro hockey," Lannon said. "Wilkes-Barre is a first-class organization, the way it's run.
"We've had some success, and I think I've improved every year as a player, which is all you can ask for."
First Published February 3, 2008 12:00 am