Brooks Orpik Returns to Face New Era of Penguins Defense


December 27th will mark the first meeting of the 2014-15 season between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins when the Caps visit the Consol Energy Center to take on their division rivals.

While the two clubs have long engaged in a fierce rivalry centred upon their respective marquee stars, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, it’ll be a different pair of players under the spotlights once the puck drops tomorrow night.

The game marks the return of former Penguins Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, both of whom signed with the Capitals this past offseason after suiting up for the black and gold last year.

For Niskanen, it will surely be a significant affair, as the defenseman spent parts of the past four seasons in Pittsburgh, during which time he saw his career ramp upwards significantly, enough to warrant a $40 million contract offer from Washington last summer.

For Orpik, however, the game will hold an entirely different meaning. While Niskanen moved onto the third team of his NHL career when he went to the nation’s capital, having played 278 games for Dallas prior to his 214 with the Penguins, Orpik’s move to Ovechkin’s squad meant leaving the only NHL club he had ever known.

Drafted 18th overall by the Pens in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, Orpik suited up for all 11 years and 703 games of his NHL career for Pittsburgh (the most games with the Pens of any defenseman in history), over which he recorded 132 points, 734 penalty minutes, and over 1500 hits.

The rugged defender grew to become one of Pittsburgh’s most important anchors on the blue line, leading the team forward with his veteran presence and no-nonsense approach to the game.

After over a decade with the team, it isn’t hard for fans to conjure up fond memories of number 44.

There was, of course, “the shift” that saw Orpik lay four big-time checks in the span of 15 seconds during the 2008 Stanley Cup final.

And the very next season, there was Orpik lifting the Stanley Cup alongside his fellow Pens after the team triumphed in Detroit.

There are very few defensemen in Pittsburgh’s history that have had as significant an impact as Orpik. The span of time spent on the team’s blue line is remarkable alone. He joined the Penguins organization the same year Mario Lemieux made his return from retirement and remained through all of the Pens’ triumphs and failures, all the way up until this point.

Apr 19, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik (44) skates on the ice before playing the Columbus Blue Jackets in game two of the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the CONSOL Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Others like Niskanen have made their mark, and Orpik was certainly joined by other notable defensemen during his time in Pittsburgh, but for the past decade it was that ’44’ in black and gold that inspired fear in the Pens’ opponents.

And now, for the first time in history, Orpik will return to face the Penguins as one of those opponents, laying it all on the line to take down Pittsburgh rather than to raise them up.

When he does, Orpik will face a team that has grown significantly in the short time since he’s been gone. He isn’t facing a defense that simply filled the hole created by his absence and kept on moving.

Rather, he’ll come to Pittsburgh and be witness to a new era of Penguins defense.

Not only in former defensive partner Kris Letang emerging to become the undeniable leader of the Pens’ blue line, a shift that began while Orpik was still a member of Pittsburgh’s locker room, but also, due to a rash of injuries throught the lineup, the emergence of the defensive prospects Pittsburgh has long touted as the team’s future.

There’s Derrick Pouliot, getting his shot and quickly proving his worth as the next Letang. There’s Scott Harrington and Brian Dumoulin, steadily improving and rounding into the solid form they’ve come to be known for in the AHL.

And of course there’s Simon Despres. Besides growing into one of the team’s most veteran defenders with Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff on the shelf, Despres has also surprisingly stepped into the role of Pittsburgh’s biggest bruiser, laying out bone-shattering checks on a nightly basis and providing a rugged, physical presence from the back end.

It’s a role Orpik will recognize quite well, as it is the one he carved out for himself over the past several seasons in the Steel City.

Orpik’s and Niskanen’s exit from the Penguins organization was just one piece of a massive offseason overhaul that had its most significant effect not in terms of the names on the roster sheet alone, but on the culture of the team as a whole. As Orpik recently stated in a candid interview with Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “Something needed to change.”

And change, it did.

While he’ll surely be greeted with cheers and an organizational tribute when he takes the ice at Consol, Brooks knows as well as anyone else that as soon as the puck drops, the battle lines will be drawn, and his camaraderie with Pittsburgh will officially come to an end.

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