- Scott Burnside, NHL
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PITTSBURGH -- Penguins defensive coach Todd Reirden always has this message for the team's young defensive prospects who think they're ready for a taste of the National Hockey League: Go check out No. 44, and then you’ll know if you’re really ready.
That's Brooks Orpik, who has become a pillar in a locker room chock-a-block with high-end talent, a testament to his maturation into a thinking-man's defenseman who is far more than just that guy who can wreak havoc with thunderous open-ice hits.
"He doesn't know it, but they [the young prospects] watch him live his life, basically,” Reirden told ESPN.com on Thursday.
"He's an intense competitor, but he's calm and under control," the coach added.
Earlier this season, when the Penguins were struggling with their defensive play, Orpik was one of the catalysts for changes in how the team played on that side of the puck.
"He was a large part of our meetings, and he said some things that challenged our team to get better," Reirden said.
"He was a large part of our turnaround this year," added Reirden.
In some ways, Orpik is the model player, the kind all teams covet and hope to have in their organization.
The Penguins drafted him 18th overall in the 2000 draft while Orpik was establishing himself as a hard-hitting defenseman at Boston College. He spent two years playing for the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre and has been a fixture on the Pens' blue line since 2003-04. In that time, Orpik has gone from a player relying mostly on physical attributes to someone who has learned to think the game at a high level and assume more and more responsibility for a team with expectations as high as any in the league.
Orpik played his best game of the playoffs in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Ottawa Senators. He left big Ottawa defenseman Eric Gryba woozy from a titanic open-ice collision and tangled with agitating rookie Cory Conacher, all without uttering a word of trash talk or taking a trip to the penalty box.
"Five or six years ago, I might have gotten mad," Orpik said Thursday. "It's such a fine line now, especially stuff after the whistle."
Those moments aren't lost on anyone watching the game, especially Orpik's teammates.
"Even off the ice, that's his demeanor. That’s the way he is, you know, calm," said defense partner Paul Martin. "On the ice every once in a while he'll get the blood boiling or he'll get the eyes going and you definitely don’t want to be around when that's going on. But he's very composed."
"He has that intensity, but he's smart. He doesn't let the emotions get the best of him. He keeps it well within his means," Martin added.
A team is a complex machine -- at least good teams are -- a series of moving, interconnected parts. For a team as deeply skilled as the Penguins, it is imperative that there be some ballast, a kind of counter to all that skill.
Orpik, who scored the overtime winner in Game 6 of the first round against the Islanders to propel the Penguins into the second round for the first time in three years, represents that element on this team.
"We always look to Orps for that boost and the way he plays physically," said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby after Game 1. "We've gotten used to him making those big hits and stepping up and making it tough on other guys. It's definitely a huge boost when he does that."
Before playing with Martin, Orpik helped talented defenseman Kris Letang grow into a top two-way player who this year is a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenseman. Playing with Martin, Orpik helped the former New Jersey Devil rebound from a disappointing 2011-12 season, and the pair is regularly playing big minutes against opposing teams' top forward units.
"He has this presence about him that makes you not want to make a bad play," Reirden said.
Local Pens beat writer Rob Rossi has dubbed Orpik "The Conscience," and it is an apt description not only in how he plays but also in how he conducts himself off the ice. He is unfailingly thoughtful and refreshingly blunt.
"He's our most dependable guy," said Matt Niskanen. "He's just so consistent, always in the right position. Always brings a physical factor to the game. He's our leader on the back end.
"He's just that staple that's always there."
What impresses about Orpik is that, for such a physical presence, he rarely fights. According to Hockeyfights.com, he has had two fights since the start of the 2008-09 season -– and rarely talks smack to opposing players.
"He’s not a rat," Niskanen said. "He just plays the game hard and tries to be effective and leave an effect on people. But he does it in an honorable way and just plays the game hard."
Longtime NHL player Keith Jones, now a national analyst, has seen a lot of Orpik over the years and notes that the Penguins are a much different -- read: lesser -- team when Orpik is out of the lineup, as he was when the playoffs began.
"I think of him as a difficult player to play against," Jones told ESPN.com this week. "I think as an opposing player you're happy when he's not in the lineup."
If the Penguins are going to make a run at another Stanley Cup, they will need Orpik to stay healthy, said Jones, who likens his importance to that of Daniel Girardi or Ryan McDonagh for the New York Rangers, or even to another famous Penguins defender of yore, Ulf Samuelsson.
"He reminds me a lot of [Samuelsson]," Jones said. "I think he's more than a glue guy."
Orpik, a member of the U.S. team that won a silver medal at the Vancouver Olympic Games in 2010, understands he has become a player from whom other players take their cues. It is not a role he sought out, but one he accepts willingly.
"I think you embrace it," he told ESPN.com. "I don't think I ever think about it too much or get caught up in it too much, but you just have to be aware of it all the time."
"Younger guys, when they come up, they just watch how you carry yourself on and off the ice, how you treat people, how you act in different situations," Orpik added. "Maybe when you're younger it goes unnoticed, but now you're older and you've got a lot of eyeballs on you."
The funny thing is it doesn't seem all that long ago to Orpik that he was a guy looking across the dressing room at a player like Gary Roberts, taking note of how he prepared, what he ate, how he interacted with people on and off the ice.
"You remember how you viewed those guys, and I think you're naïve if you don’t think people view you in the same light," Orpik said. "Hopefully people view me somewhat close to how I viewed Gary."
The 32-year-old has one year left on a six-year deal, and it’s difficult to imagine him in any other jersey.
"When you’re younger, you always hear older guys say that, 'Oh, it all goes by so quick,' and you just kind of laugh at that," Orpik said. "But it does go by quick. I think the biggest thing is just enjoying it as much as you can. I know it obviously helps when you're winning, and it helps with the kind of people we have around here. There's not a lot of bad days around here, that’s for sure. Even when you’re losing."
7dScott Burnside and Craig Custance