Ex-Penguin Orpik: It was time for change
Brooks Orpik and wife Erin made the same September drive they always make, leaving their Boston home in the morning before stopping for lunch in Wilkes-Barre.
“Then,” Orpik recalled, “I went south instead of going west. That's when it hit me.”
Orpik, one of the greats in Penguins history, will return to Consol Energy Center on Saturday for the first time since joining the Washington Capitals during the offseason.
He returns with mixed emotions.
Positive memories outweigh negative ones for Orpik, who spent 11 seasons with the Penguins. There was a Stanley Cup, two appearances in the Cup Final and eight consecutive playoff appearances.
Playing in Pittsburgh, however, wasn't always fun for Orpik and those Penguins. Stanley Cup or bust expectations, Orpik said, became overwhelming and contributed to the unraveling of the 2013-14 Penguins, who blew a 3-1 second-round series lead against the New York Rangers.
“There was something not right last year,” said Orpik, 34. “I guess stale is a good word. Something needed to change. I thought guys were affected by the outside pressure. There is a standard in Pittsburgh that is tough. We'd win games, and people would still be criticizing us. People were saying we were winning games the wrong way. I don't even know what that means, if there is such a thing.”
After the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009, many believed the team was on the verge of becoming a dynasty.
Instead, five consecutive years of playoff disappointments followed. After claiming the Stanley Cup, the Penguins dropped five of their next nine series, failing to reach the Final.
“There was so much pressure from the outside,” Orpik said. “And that was something that wore on guys.”
The Penguins dropped playoff series to the Canadiens, Lightning, Flyers, Bruins and Rangers after winning the Cup.
All of the series bother Orpik. One in particular haunts him.
The Penguins were swept by Boston in 2013, the only time Orpik participated in a playoff series in the town where he played college hockey. That season, the Penguins loaded up by acquiring Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Jussi Jokinen and Douglas Murray.
“Look at some of the lineups we had over those years, especially that one,” Orpik said. “I just look at is as a missed opportunity. You think about it, you really don't get many opportunities to win it all.”
The Penguins scored two goals in the four-game sweep.
“It still hurts,” he said. “Ownership and management gave us everything we needed that year. We were fully committed. We just didn't come through. That series bothers me the most. We'll always want a do-over in that one.”
Orpik knew last season likely was his last with the Penguins. A part of him never wanted to leave, but another part embraced it.
“I saw the change coming,” he said. “I kind of needed change, to be honest, for a lot of different reasons. I wasn't surprised by it. I was looking forward to it, to be honest.”
Orpik said he initially didn't want to sign with a team in the Metropolitan Division because playing regularly against the Penguins, whom he had been “so loyal to,” would be “weird.”
But he couldn't turn down the five-year, $27.5 million contract or the chance to play for former Penguins assistant Todd Reirden and alongside former Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen.
“Playing for a team that once was your rival is tougher for fans to understand than players,” Orpik said. “People ask how I can sign with the Capitals because (Alex Ovechkin) and I used to kill each other every game. But Ovi called me on the day I signed. Hockey players are hockey players.”
Orpik said he has been embraced by his new teammates.
“He's been great,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “He changed us immediately, from Day 1. He has a presence about him.”
Orpik is satisfied with the change, even if he can't explain why.
“I thought change was the best thing for me at that point,” he said. “It's not that I was unhappy. My family and I were nothing but happy in Pittsburgh. I just was at a point in my career where it was what I needed.”
Orpik knows the Penguins will showcase a tribute video Saturday night. It might feature Orpik with the Stanley Cup or his iconic four-hit shift in the 2008 Final against the Red Wings or his series-ending goal in 2013 against the Islanders.
“I just hope the video is short,” Orpik said with a smile, acknowledging he will be emotional.
While he prefers to downplay his return, it has been on his mind for months.
“I looked right away on the schedule to see when we played in Pittsburgh,” he said.
Orpik will go west one more time. Only this time, he'll head back south, his life and career now in a different place.
“I got my gloves this summer, and they were red, white and blue,” Orpik said. “And then I made that drive. Sometimes you fear change. But sometimes it's for the best.”