By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)
When John Tortorella compares Brooks Orpik to a creature that went extinct 65 million years ago, he means it affectionately.
”He’s a little bit of a dinosaur because he hits, and there isn’t a lot of hitting in this game,” Tortorella said.
Orpik, who helped the Washington Capitals win the Stanley Cup last season and played his 1,000th NHL regular-season game Tuesday, is certainly a rarity. Big, rugged, defensive defensemen are going the way of prehistoric animals, mask-less goaltenders, helmet-less skaters and enforcers, except the ones like Orpik who have adapted to keep pace with the speed of modern hockey.
”I think if you don’t adapt to where the league’s going, then you’re pushed out,” Orpik said. ”If you weren’t willing to adjust how you trained or maybe shed some weight, that would push you out of the league. … There’s that and there’s obviously more of an emphasis on being able to move the puck up quickly.”
NHL teams are looking for the next Erik Karlsson or Thomas Chabot, smaller, more mobile defenseman who can lead the rush and pile up the points. Slower, play-it-safe defensemen like 6-foot-7, 245-pound Hal Gill don’t roam the ice anymore, and those players must approach the game differently.
”I’ve heard people come up and say, ‘Hey, my kid plays just like you,”’ Gill said. ”And I’m like, ‘Well, you better change quick.”’
Tortorella, who coached Tampa Bay to the Stanley Cup in 2004 and is in his fourth season with Columbus, sees value in big ”miserable” defenders who can play a tough game. He believes the loss of that kind of player has contributed to an increase in scoring over recent years – which is what the NHL wants at the expense of old-school muscle.
Players like Orpik and St. Louis’ Robert Bortuzzo are far less prevalent than when Gill stayed in the NHL for 16 years from the late 1990s through 2013. Bortuzzo thinks the term ”stay-at-home” doesn’t apply anymore; even slow defensemen have to do more than just sit back, hit and defend like they used to.
”’Defensively conscious’ would probably be a better term nowadays and one that fits the game,” the 6-4, 216-pound Bortuzzo said. ”At this stage of the game, you need to be able to join the rush, you need to be able to move pucks. … The days of a defenseman not being able to skate and keep up with the pace of play is done. Guys are too fast and moving too quick.”
No one’s confusing Orpik, Bortuzzo, Vegas’ Deryk Engelland or Buffalo’s Zach Bogosian for speed demons, but puck moving helps those players stay in the NHL. Bortuzzo said his focus has always been on his skating, and similarly Orpik and Boston’s Zdeno Chara have worked with skating coach Adam Nicholas to adapt.
Even if they can’t get markedly faster, they can better manage their skates and sticks and use their size as an advantage.
”What I work on with those guys a ton is just always giving them good footwork-type drills and suggestions to allow them to still be able to control space and tempo,” Nicholas said. ”What we talk a lot about is continuing to be puck-moving machines and how to always stack decks in your favor to have time and space, control it and transition pucks very quickly.”
Todd Reirden, during his time as a Penguins assistant, helped Orpik evolve from a hit-seeking missile to a defensive stalwart. Orpik began picking his spots for hits and using his stick more to defend.
”That has allowed him to still have the physical element when he needed to around the net front against some of the skill guys,” said Reirden, who now coaches Orpik with the Capitals. ”He’s been able to really change his game to fit into today’s hockey.”
Orpik cites former Pittsburgh teammate Kelly Buchberger as the greatest influence on him as a young player. Buchberger hasn’t played since in 2004 but has since seen Orpik become an example for younger players of the same ilk.
”Players have to adjust to the new rules in the game. He’s adjusted very well,” said Buchberger, a retired winger who coaches the Western Hockey League’s Tri-City Americans. ”If you have players like that, you don’t want to get rid of those players.”
Coaches and teammates all love guys who save goals with blocked shots, big hits and provide some snarl. Gill sees value in the kind of simplicity Hall of Fame Nicklas Lidstrom played with, and having contrasting styles on the blue line allows skilled, jump-up-in-the-play defensemen to take some more risks and score goals.
”They’re a real good safety valve a lot of time for D-men who do want to get up the ice and move the puck,” Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo said. ”You can’t just have offensive defensemen throughout your lineup. You want to have guys who will take care of the back end. You need guys that can play both ends of the ice.”
BOB BACK IN BLUE
The Columbus Blue Jackets made quick work of an ”incident” involving goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky last week after he was pulled from a game at Tampa Bay, punishing him by making him miss a game, meeting with him and getting him back with the team the next morning. Captain Nick Foligno said the leadership group, coaching staff and front office are adept at pushing aside distractions – which is important given that Bobrovsky and scoring winger Artemi Panarin could be free agents this summer.
”No matter who it is, it’s all right, we’re going to handle the situation and get back to what really matters and that’s trying to win hockey games,” Foligno said. ”We’re trying to win hockey games, trying to become a Stanley Cup champion and nothing’s going to get in the way of that. That’s kind of the message for everybody.”
The first-place Calgary Flames have won five in a row, the San Jose Sharks seven in a row and the Vegas Golden Knights eight of their past 10. Move over, Central Division, the Pacific is where the power is out West, especially with San Jose rolling behind Erik Karlsson.
”Our game’s in a good spot,” Sharks captain Joe Pavelski. ”The standings are tight. You see Calgary winning every night, you see Vegas winning every night. You throw us in there. We’ve been on a good stretch.”
GAME OF THE WEEK
The Winnipeg Jets visit the Nashville Predators on Thursday night in a matchup of the top two teams in the Central Division.
LEADERS (through Tuesday)
Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 33; Assists: Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay), 53; Points: Kucherov, 75; Ice time: Drew Doughty (Los Angeles), 26:42; Wins: Marc-Andre Fleury (Vegas), 26; Goals-against average: Robin Lehner (N.Y. Islanders), 2.16; Save percentage: Jack Campbell (Los Angeles), .930.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno