“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.” – Brooks Orpik i
“We want to be a puck-possession team. That’s what the playoff teams are.” – Rick Tocchet ii
Tonight, the Pittsburgh Penguins will host to Washington Capitals on NBC Sports Network. Historically, this matchup has been known for its forward matchups. During tonight’s contest, however, all eyes will be focused on the defensemen.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are enjoying a youth renaissance amidst a series of unfortunate injuries to Paul Martin, Christian Ehrhoff, Robert Bortuzzo, and Olli Maatta. Those players have been replaced with Derrick Pouliot, Scott Harrington, and Brian Dumoulin. Don’t forget about Simon Despres, a 6’4” left-handed defenseman playing his first season as a full-time contributor.
Despres was drafted with the 30th pick in the 2009 NHL Draft. That event took place just fourteen days after the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Brooks Orpik, hoisted the Stanley Cup.
Drafted with the 18th overall pick in the 2000 NHL Draft, Orpik remained on the Penguins roster throughout the Sidney Crosby rebuild. He was a part of the core, a key contributor during the Penguins’ playoff appearances from 2006-07 to 2013-14.
Not only was he a leader on the ice, but he also spoke his mind in the locker room. The same can be said for Matt Niskanen, who was also praised for his leadership last season.
Niskanen’s tremendous performance last season cannot be denied. A +33 player that saw time on both the power play and the penalty kill last season, the artist formerly known as “Riskanen” broke out and earned himself a rather sizeable pay day from the Washington Capitals (who are known for overpaying free agents and making bad trades). Frankly, giving Niskanen a seven-year contract may have been the team’s best acquisition in years.
Regardless of whether Niskanen is worth what he is being paid, signing Brooks Orpik on the basis of his leadership and ability to affect the team’s culture was a curious decision given the criticism of Pittsburgh’s locker room culture during the 2013-14 season.
This season, the Penguins’ leadership has been praised, with Orpik nowhere to be found.
Additionally, Dejan Kovacevic has also suggested that the Pens’ young blueliners may not have received the right support from veterans who are no longer with the team:
“[Simon Despres] does belong. He has the unwavering faith of this management and coaching staff — Mike Johnston took a liking to him even before camp started based on his summer workouts — and he also has … not sure how to word this … let’s just say he’s got more support from his current teammates than he had from some no longer here.”
If Simon Despres wasn’t receiving support from his veteran teammates, then were those veterans really great leaders? Defensemen Deryk Engelland, Brooks Orpik, and Matt Niskanen are no longer with the Pens and the latter was also quite critical of the Penguins’ handling of the Dan Bylsma firing:
“It’s not like Dan was a chump or something, but that’s how he was treated. He won you guys a Cup, you know?”
Regardless of whether the Penguins should have fired Dan Bylsma on the same day they sent Ray Shero packing, it’s clear that Orpik and Niskanen were no longer strong fits in Pittsburgh. They’ll be facing their young replacements tonight, players who either did not or would not have received their support in Pittsburgh. Perhaps Brooks Orpik will inspire the team to play well by yelling at them during the first intermission. That worked so well for this man: