The Washington Capitals entered the 2014 free agency period with specific goals in mind: to significantly upgrade their defensive unit and goaltending depth.
One such signing was the addition of veteran blueliner Brooks Orpik, a longtime Penguin well-known around hockey for his leadership abilities. Though Orpik represents an improvement from what the Caps previously had on defense, some raised eyebrows at the specific terms of his contract.
Orpik, who turns 34 in September, signed a five-year deal worth $27.5 million. He already has 11 NHL seasons under his belt and has played 795 games in his career including the playoffs.
Caps majority owner Ted Leonsis responded to criticism of that deal at the team's development camp on Saturday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex.
"I was a little disappointed that it's not the right way to welcome somebody to a new team and a new city, a guy who has been in the league a long, long time," Leonsis said.
"He's a guy who has intangibles of leadership and he's tough as nails and one the coaches and the GM respect very much. I think he's a good player. I obviously want to see him be additive to what we're doing, but I don't think one player makes the gigantic change."
The same press conference allowed Orpik's former teammate, Matt Niskanen, to shed some light on the value he brings to Washington. Niskanen also came over from Pittsburgh, and at 27 years old, has seen Orpik's leadership firsthand. Orpik was there when Niskanen joined the Penguins as a 24-year-old in his fourth NHL season. He looked up to Orpik and says he's learned plenty from the two-time Olympian.
"Steady, that’s the best word I can say. He’s real steady positionally, he’s still got that real physical edge, he can bring that," Niskanen said.
"He’s a leader, that’s another element that people can’t ever see, just the guys in the room. He’s got a lot of experience. He’s been on bad teams and he’s been on championship teams and everywhere in between. So he knows what it takes: the chemistry, the work ethic, he knows what it takes to win and I think that will add a lot to our group and get us headed in the right direction."
Niskanen elaborated on how Orpik can set an example for others, particularly young players.
"He’s a workout freak, you know he’s going to be in excellent shape," Niskanen said.
"The biggest thing that I really looked up to Brooks [for] was his habits in the gym, nutrition, work habits in practice, attention to detail, he’s what every professional defenseman should strive to be like just as far as your habits. Just the way he prepares, and keeps himself ready to go all the time, that guy is all in physically and off-ice habits were pretty much what I learned most from him and picked up right away and I’ve tried to copy a lot of the things that he does in that regard."
Leonsis said he met with Orpik before the two sides reached a contract agreement. The Caps' owner allowed the front office to operate for the most part on their own through free agency, but this particular decision required his presence.
"I did come in, I was asked to come in to meet Brooks. That was, I thought, a good thing. He spent hours and hours with the coaches and the staff, and then with [GM Brian MacLellan]. And then with me and Dick Patrick. I think he was looking to us on how committed we'd be to winning, what we were going to do to continue to improve because he's won a Cup."
Leonsis was struck by Orpik's continued drive to win, despite already having a championship on his resume.
"It was really interesting in listening that after winning a Cup, you'd think he'd be satisfied. But instead you get hungrier to want the second one. That has to be the total focus of our organization."