Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik celebrates his 32nd birthday today. Upon hearing that this morning, I had to double-check to be sure. It’s not that turning 32 qualifies Orpik for Social Security, but it just seems like he has not been around all that long.

Then again, the more I thought about it, the more the fond memories of Orpik started to pile up. In wishing Brooks a happy birthday, we will not know what kind of gifts he has received today, but we can certainly remember and appreciate the gifts he has given to us as Penguins fans.

The Penguins drafted Orpik out of Boston College in the first round of the 2000 NHL Draft. Beginning three years later, the names of Penguins’ first round picks read Fleury, Malkin, Crosby, and the now-departed Staal.

Because he will likely never top the 30-point plateau, Brooks is an oft-overlooked member of the Penguins’ first-round “core” players. Orpik has been and will continue to be vital to Penguins success.

While Orpik does not fill up the statistics sheet in goals and assists, that is not the say he does not excel statistically. Since the 2008-09 season, Orpik has not finished outside the top 8 total hitters in the league (with the exception of an injury-shortened 2010-11 season where he still managed to throw 194 hits in just 63 games) – according to ESPN NHL Statistics.

Brooks has dished out memorable hits dozens of times.
In a series simply known as The Shift, Orpik threw 4 hits in less than 15 seconds as the Penguins salted away a Cup Final game against Detroit.

Who could forget Daniel Paille getting a taste of some “Free Candy” on this big hit just last year?

And even though we lost the series, my personal favorite Orpik hit was in the Tampa Bay Lightning series of 2010-11 on Steven Stamkos.

There is no doubt that Orpik brings the fans to their feet by removing opposing skaters from theirs. But Brooks’ contribution to the Penguins clearly goes much deeper than the devastating checks he throws.

Orpik is a gifted skater, though recently he has become a bit more of a stay-at-home guy. This has allowed Kris Letang to become a bigger offensive threat. Letang is much more willing to move up as he knows Orpik is able to cover up on the back end while Letang carries the puck and advances into the offensive zone.

Orpik has been an absolute staple in the Pens’ lineup since his first real call-up in 2003-04. He has played in at least 63 games in each of the subsequent 8 seasons. He is a model of consistency just in his ability to suit up night in and night out.

Along with his consistent, steady play, Brooks provides an great sense of veteran leadership to a locker room where being 32 years of age places him among the older Penguins. With very talented young defesemen waiting in the wings, Orpik’s leadership and poise will doubtless be valuable, especially with defensive defensemen like Olli Maatta and Scott Harrington on the way.

While it’s difficult to say that a defenseman who has hoisted a Stanley Cup and represented his country at the Olympics is “overlooked” or “underappreciated,” I do feel that Brooks is sometimes taken for granted in a way. However, I think that part of that is a testament to the strong, steady level of play he provides each and every night he laces up.

With the regular season in jeopardy and the possibility of games being missed, team togetherness and morale are something that could suffer. But with a guy like Brooks Orpik in the locker room, accountability and commitment will not waver for long.

Happy birthday, Brooks Orpik! And may the hits just keep on comin’...

(videos via YouTube – “The Shift” courtesy of CBC Network, “Paille” and “Stamkos” courtesy of Root Sports Network)