Brian MacLellan understands what it takes to win a Stanley Cup. He hoisted her back in 1989 as a member of the Calgary Flames. After serving in various executive roles with the Washington Capitals for thirteen seasons, MacLellan was promoted to general manager in March of 2014, replacing his boss George McPhee.
The former NHL veteran forward and linemate of Hall of Fame member Marcel Dionne is one of the most competitive men in the business. The Caps knew all too well what they were doing when they announced the move at the completion of a disappointing 2013-14 season. Along with MacLellan, Barry Trotz was hired as the head coach. The longtime Nashville Predators coach who was excused about the same time McPhee was clearing out his office.
The duo have been on the same page since day one and identified what their needs were in order to make a run at the Cup. When the free agency period opened up last summer Washington dove in head first and landed two highly coveted defenseman. Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik signed long term deals with the Capitals, a team they knew all too well, having battled them as members of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Trotz understood where the Caps had fallen short. They weren’t physical enough and didn’t block enough shots. They needed more scoring from the blueline. With McLellan at the helm they quickly identified who could help them fill these critical areas that needed to be addressed. With Niskanen and Orpik they added defensive scoring, blue-line stability, physical play in front of goaltender Braden Holtby and post season experience.
When Orpik signed his five-year, $27.5 million dollar deal the Capitals caught plenty of flack. Wide ranging media members scoffed at the absurd amount of money given to a player many believed to be on the downward slide of his career. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Orpik increased his TOI this season and has been as bruising as ever in his own end. He was second on the team in blocked shots with 192 in 78 games played, second to John Carlson who recorded 200 and appeared in all 82 games. Carlson recorded 177 the season before in the same amount of games. It’s safe to say that Orpik played a key role in turning the defensive core around. He also had the honor of wearing an “A” on his jersey.
Orpik also brought a winning attitude, he has appeared in two Stanley Cup series, winning it all in 2009. What too many fans and media do not understand and forget to take into account is that having a proven leader in your locker room can help change the culture and inspire veterans and rookies alike to play better, harder and with more passion. At least for now, it appears the addition of Orpik has had a profound impact on the Washington Capitals.
Niskanen’s offensive numbers are down compared to a season ago, that’s not surprising when you look at the offensive talent between Pittsburgh and Washington. Still, the Caps added another puck moving defenseman to support the ever dangerous Alex Ovechkin. Another need Trotz spoke about when he took the job.
In the first round of the playoffs versus the New York Islanders the Capitals did not give up a single power play goal. They played seven tough games that required each player to play outside their comfort zones. Again, having a guy like Orpik showing the way proved to be the difference.
They didn’t let up a power play goal in game one with the Rangers. The Caps gave up a tying goal late in the third period, but quickly bounced back and scored in the dying seconds of regulation. Another sign of a team playing with a renewed passion. Could you honestly say that about Washington in previous years?
Washington has a great chance to take a 2-0 lead back to the nation’s capital if they can grind out another win Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.
Thursday’s game came down to the wire. Orpik’s physical presence was felt throughout the contest and he certainly didn’t show any signs of slowing down. He took forwards hard into the boards, recorded four hits, blocked four shots and broke up several potential scoring chances. Would you believe Nicklas Backstrom led the team in game one with 5 hits? You still don’t think Orpik has made an impact.
There is no doubt in my mind that a big reason Washington is in the position they are in right now is because of the off-season acquisition of Brooks Orpik.
You can’t put a price tag on bringing in winners, MacLellan and Orpik have been there. Washington will reap the benefits for years to come.