Defenseman Brooks Orpik has been a mainstay in the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup for what seems like ages. Drafted in 2000 in the first round, Orpik has contributed to the team over the years, including playing in every game of the 2009 Cup run. However, things change, and Orpik is entering his final year of his contract. When asked about re-signing with Pittsburgh he said,
No comment. I’d rather not talk about it. (x)
Doesn’t sound too encouraging that he’s coming back. But that might not be a bad thing. In fact, I believe not re-signing Orpik is in the best interest of the Penguins. There are several factors that brought me to this conclusion and I’ll try to touch on them all.
AAV and Contract Length
Orpik is currently in his last year of a six-year contract with an annual average value of $3.75 M. If he were to look to re-sign with Pittsburgh he would most likely ask for a four-year deal. This makes sense from the player’s perspective and I’m sure there are teams out there who will be willing to give it to him. However, Pittsburgh should not be one of those teams. First off, because of the AAV the contact would carry. Let’s pretend that his new contract would retain the same AAV as his previous one of $3.75 M. A new contract would kick in during the 2014-2015 season in which the salary cap is expected to drastically increase. It could go as high as $74 M. Realistically, the cap will most likely be around $70-71 M. Let’s go with $71 M. While the Pens would have more cap to work with, it would also coincide with the new Malkin and Letang contracts going into effect. So if the cap were to be $71 M, before anyone is re-signed the Pens would have approximately $17.4 M in cap space. Sounds pretty good. Until you realize they only have 12 roster players. This would mean that the average cap hit of the remaining roster spots would be $1.33 M. If Orpik were to make $3.75 M the average cap hit of the remaining roster spots decreases to $1.14 M. So unless you want to have 12 Tanner Glasses on your team, this probably isn’t your best option. While I know some players will make less it still doesn’t leave you with much room. Now to be clear, Orpik’s AAV won’t kill the cap and it’s not the most important factor when it comes to re-signing him or not, but it is certainly worth noting that it would make a sizable impact.
The second part of the contract besides AAV is contract length. In this case, I believe contract length is more important than AAV. First, because the salary cap will continue to rise with increased league revenue, therefore diminishing the impact of Orpik’s cap hit. Secondly, and more importantly, because of Orpik’s age. Brooks is already 32 and will be turning 33 this Thursday. That would mean that if he were to receive a four year contract, he would be 37 in his final year. That would also mean that in 2016-17 the Pens would have two defensemen (Orpik and Scuderi) who would be ages 37 and 36 respectively. The Pens need to get younger, not older. Scuderi is already under a four year contract. The Pens can’t afford to give Orpik one as well.
AAV and contract length simply don’t make it practical to re-sign Orpik. It’s been a good run, but all good things have to come to an end. So after not re-signing Orpik, the Pens next task is to fill a void in it’s defense, something that shouldn’t be a problem.
For years the Pens and Ray Shero have been stock-piling defensive prospects, both through the draft and trades. It’s now time to cash in. In fact, Olli Maatta, the twenty-second overall pick in the 2012 draft, may make the big club this year. He’s ready that’s for sure. Derrick Pouliot (2012 – 8th overall), Scott Harrington (2011 – 54th overall), and Brian Dumouling (acquired from Carolina in Staal trade) are also NHL-ready or close to NHL-ready now. Now jump ahead a year when Orpik’s current contract expires. These young kids will be ready to go and tough decisions will have to be made to see who will make it in the lineup.
Another factor to consider is that the contracts of Niskanen, Despres, and Engelland are also up at the end of this season (Despres will be an RFA) and Martin’s is up the following year. With all the young kids coming up, and we can still somewhat include Despres in this category, the Pens won’t be keeping all of the veterans. Out of Niskanen, Engelland, Orpik, and Martin I would most like to keep Martin, even though he carries the highest cap hit. He has a very healthy balance of shut-down defense and contributing to offensive puck movement. He has much better stick work than Orpik, and has better positioning. Last season, and most likely this season as well, Martin and Orpik were paired together as the shut-down pair. The Pens are going to have to loose one of them, and the better of the two right now is Martin. Additionally, Martin has better advanced stats and he can play point on the power play.
While reading up on the Orpik contract situation earlier today I noticed that several people were making claims that it would be easier to replace Martin than Orpik, and that the Pens won’t be able to find someone who brings what Orpik does to the team. This would have been a better argument to make when people were arguing about whether or not to keep or trade Letang. You can’t replace what Kris Letang brings to the team. Our breakout would hurt tremendously from that kind of loss. However, you can replace Brooks Orpik. Maybe not the 2009 Brooks Orpik, but you can certainly replace the 2013 Brooks Orpik. Enter Robert Bortuzzo. I’m really impressed with this guy. Just last night I was at the Pens/Hawks game. I’m a sucker for good defensive plays and there were a ton in the final minute of overtime. I was cheering like crazy over good body positioning and stick work by defensemen and I’m pretty sure no one in my section understood why I was cheering when the puck was in our own zone. One play in particular impressed me. It was with about a minute left in OT and the Hawks were trying to start a breakout along the right boards. Bortuzzo was the D1 on the play and made a heads up play to just stand the guy up instead of playing the puck or dropping back in the two-on-two. The result was the guy losing the puck to the corner and the Pens getting puck possession. It’s such a basic, but heads up play, and things like that are why I enjoy watching certain players play. Bortuzzo is a solid defenseman who brings size and physicality. I bet if you asked someone why the Pens should re-sign Orpik they’ll say because he brings to the team those two very same things. Bortuzzo is 24 and is making $650,000. Orpik is 32 and making $3.75 M. Bortuzzo’s a bargain at twice the price.
To be clear, I’m not against veteran players. I know that experience is important. I’m not suggesting we get rid of all the veteran defenseman and call up Maatta, Pouliot, Harrington, and Dumoulin at once. What I am suggesting is that we start to filter these guys in. If we don’t we’re going to end up with a bunch of Despres (not sure how to make that plural). I’m a Despres fan. He’s looked solid so far this pre-season. He also looked good last year. However, the organization is ruining his development. They play him every once in a while and didn’t do anything to prepare him for last year’s playoffs. The same thing can’t happen to the slew of talented young prospects we’re hoarding. I’d rather lose a few games early on, or even sacrifice a division championship, due to rookie mistakes and have my young guys ready for postseason play than play to win every game just for the points in the standings and not worry about player development. If the Pens put in effort, they’ll win games. They won’t have a problem making the playoffs. They need to spend the regular season getting together the best group of guys to compete in the postseason, as that’s what has been hindering talented Penguins teams the past few seasons. So you don’t win the division. Who cares? Does anyone care that the Penguins won the Atlantic Division last season? I certainly don’t. Cup or die. Now this doesn’t mean that playing young guys will cost you the division. Even with playing multiple rookies I believe the Pens will be the best team in the Metropolitan Division. All I’m saying is that the priorities within the Penguins organization are a bit out of line. Development and playoff preparedness, not regular season points, wins you Stanley Cups.
So let’s skip ahead a year to next off-season. The contracts of Orpik, Niskanen, and Engelland are up (in the case that Niskanen isn’t dealt this season). Who’s left? Let’s take a look. We have: Martin, Letang, Scuderi, Despres, Bortuzzo, Maatta, Pouliot, Harrington, Dumoulin, and Samuelsson. Ten defensemen that could play at the NHL level, three of which have a lot of NHL experience already, and Despres and Bortuzzo have already seen NHL time. Anyone who’s watched the preseason so far knows that Maatta is good to go and that Harrington and Pouliot are right on his tail. The Pens certainly won’t be short of defensemen in the absence of Brooks Orpik.
Another factor is a change in defensive pairings. We’ve all become accustom to referring to Orpik and Martin as our shut-down pair, but I believe the pairing of Martin and Scuderi would be just as effective. Scuderi is a better defensive-defenseman than Orpik, not to mention his advanced stats are off the charts. Before anyone says anything, I know Scuderi was brought in and expected to play on a pairing with Letang. I don’t have a problem with that. However, him on a line with Martin may be a better option. So who do you pair with Letang? Easy choice. Olli Maatta. I’ve read a lot of tweets and posts the past few days gushing over the Scuderi/Letang pairing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great pairing, but did you see Letang paired with Maatta? It was insane. I don’t want to get carried away as he’s only 19, but Maatta could be the next Ryan Suter. At least he plays like he could be. He plays the same style as Suter and did I mention he’s only 19? He had instant chemistry with Letang, and this would allow Martin and Scuderi to be your shutdown pair. Then the third pair would consist of two of Despres, Bortuzzo, Pouliot, Harrington, and Dumoulin.
Remember earlier when I talked about replacing Orpik and I mentioned Bortuzzo? Bortuzzo replaces the size and physicality, but Scott Harrington brings the shutdown defenseman mentality. I was able to make the roadtrip to Columbus for the first preseason game in which he played. I was very impressed to say the least. I’ve been following him for a while now and have watched him excel in the OHL and as part of Team Canada, and was very impressed with his play against NHLers.
Now lets jump ahead even further. Pouliot and Letang are your pointmen on the power play. Harrington and Dumoulin are your shutdown pair. Despres is paired with Pouliot and Maatta is paired with Letang. Bortuzzo is your seventh defenseman who plays in games that are expected to be physical. If a guy gets hurt you have someone who can step in who already has played in the league for years. Basically, exactly what you want in your seventh defenseman. (Which is exactly why Engelland would be a good seventh defenseman this year, but yet somehow he’ll end up playing ahead of Despres and Maatta, but wow is that another blog post). I’d like to think that’s a pretty darn good defensive corps.
Bottom line is the Pens have enough talented defensive prospects to allow them to be for the most part unaffected by losing Orpik. The future is certainly looking bright for the Pens’ D.
Entry Level Deals
Something often forgotten in the shuffle is the effect of entry level deals. Around the league you see some very good hockey players who make very little in comparison to others because they are new or relatively new to the league. A good example in the Pens organization is left winger Beau Bennett. Last summer the Pens signed Beau to a three year entry level deal with an AAV of $900,000. This will be his cap hit for this season as well as 2014-15. This is very typical of a rookie. But let’s think of all the things Beau could accomplish in these next two seasons. Beau will most likely play alongside Evgeni Malkin and James Neal who combined make $13.7 M (for this season, will go up to $14.5 M in 2014-15). Beau won’t be making much compared to his linemates, but he will be producing at a comparable rate. Not that Beau is as good as Geno and Neal, but he can certainly hold his own. Let’s say Beau is a twenty goal scorer and gets around sixty points this season, a very realistic goal for someone on that line. Beau just became one of the best bargains in the game simply because he is still under an entry level contract.
So how does this tie into not re-signing Orpik? The Pens defensive prospects will all be under entry level contracts when they are first brought up. A typical AAV for entry level contracts is $860,000. Let’s say the Pens sign Maatta, Pouliot, Harrington, and Dumoulin to EL deals. If they were to each make $860,000 that would mean we would be spending a total of $3.44 M (less than Orpik alone makes) on four quality defensemen. You can’t beat that.
Now to make this all work, the Pens have to be willing to commit to the young kids. If I were writing this for Chicago, Montreal, or Edmonton I wouldn’t be concerned, but knowing how the Pens development system works I have my doubts that they’ll fully commit to these young guns. However, how they’re developed isn’t up to me and I’m just basing my lack of faith in the Pens development system on observations in the recent pasts of other prospects. Just because the coaching staff in my opinion mishandled the development of Despres and Jeffrey doesn’t mean they will do the same with Maatta, Harrington, Pouliot, and Dumoulin. In fact, I expect to see Maatta on a one way contract for the 2014-15 season at the latest.
So if you were worried that the Pens would hurt from losing Orpik, don’t be. Losing Orpik and signing young guys to entry level deals would leave the Pens with more cap space to sign bottom six forwards, an area in which the Pens are not quite as deep in this year. Also, Fleury’s contract is up at the end of the 2014-15 season. That will bring with it a lot of questions to which we don’t yet know the answers to. It will all come down to how he performs these next two years, especially in the postseason. But again, that’s for another post on another day.
The Pens and Brooks Orpik have had a good relationship over the years, but I think it’s time for both parties to move on.
All numbers for AAVs of players contracts and contract length are from capgeek.com (x)