Brooks Orpik wants Andre Burakovsky to be his best self

AP Photo/Nick Wass

In the most trying season of Andre Burakovsky's professional career, there was nobody harder on the Washington Capitals winger than teammate Brooks Orpik.

"He's on me," Burakovsky says. "Every single day." In fact, it's almost every time Burakovsky opens his mouth.

If the Capitals have a long practice, Burakovsky sometimes takes a treat to the locker room -- a can of soda. "He's all over me for that," Burakovsky says.

If Burakovsky is chewing on a protein bar, Orpik will sometimes grab it out of his hand, read the ingredients on the wrapper and lecture Burakovsky if there's too much added sugar.

"[Orpik is] always watching [Burakovsky] at the dinner table, giving him the eye when he eats bread," teammate Brett Connolly says.

"Orpy is always saying don't eat too much pasta," Burakovsky said. "When we eat pregame meals and I put dressing on the salad, he's like, 'Cut down on that a little bit.'"

It may sound harsh, but it's all in good spirit -- and all because Burakovsky asked for some help.

"He's a guy who is always asking why he's so tired," Orpik says. "I know he gets enough sleep, so I told him it's probably his diet. So I've tried to help him work on that."

Says Burakovsky: "He's the oldest player on the team. He's been around awhile and he knows what it takes. He's a true professional, the way he acts -- he knows when to be serious, when to joke around, he has that on-and-off switch. But he's also a professional for the way he takes care of his body after a game and in recovery, so I try to follow him and watch what he's doing."

If it seems like an odd couple -- a methodical American defenseman nearing the end of his career and a speedy young European winger -- well, it is. But the friendship, which straddles the line between older brother and nutritionist, illustrates why the Capitals are such a tight-knit group.

Burakovsky, 24, was born in Austria but grew up in Sweden. He's a talented first-round pick (No. 23, 2013) who has yet to reach his potential and struggled at times in a contract year. Burakovsky was a healthy scratch for a string of games in December, saw diminished ice time and was the subject of countless trade rumors.

Orpik, 38, was born in California, raised in upstate New York and schooled in Massachusetts. After winning his second Stanley Cup last season, nine years after his first with the Penguins, he was dealt by the Capitals to the Colorado Avalanche along with backup goalie Philipp Grubauer. The Avalanche bought out Orpik's contract, he briefly hit the open market, then he returned to Washington on a team-friendly deal worth $1 million, which is about a quarter of his original cap hit.

Orpik has become a beloved mentor for many Capitals players. Evgeny Kuznetsov actually calls Orpik "batya," which is Russian colloquialism for dad. (It was Orpik who first helped Kuznetsov learn some funny English phrases, which Kuznetsov has obviously mastered.) When Orpik scored the overtime goal that won Game 2 of the first-round playoff series against Carolina, the team mobbed him with the enthusiasm of a series-clincher.

"We don't know how much more he's going to have in the tank, how many years he has left," Connolly says of Orpik. "If this is it, he'll be missed, if this is his last year with this group. A lot of guys need him around to kind of keep us in check."

Orpik is a guy who believes his body is a temple and treats it as such, "but I wasn't always that way," he adds.

"Gary Roberts was the guy who probably had the biggest influence on me," Orpik says. "He changed me. I know for sure if he didn't have that influence on me, I wouldn't be playing at this point. Especially with some of the injuries I've been through." That includes an arthroscopic knee surgery that kept him out of the lineup for two months this season.

Roberts joined the Penguins at the 2007 deadline.

"When Gary came in, he was pretty appalled by our team diet -- what they served us on the plane or in the arena," Orpik said last year. "It was funny, because usually when a new guy comes, he tries to blend in, and Gary came in, and right from day one with a big voice. At first I was like, 'This guy is out of his mind.' It was such a drastic change, and he didn't ease us into it -- one extreme to another. Guys listened to him because of what he had done in his career."

So began a series of edicts, including no more sugar on the plane, unless it was coming from natural sources, such as fruit. Within days, coconut water replaced soda as an offering.

Orpik has since become obsessed with nutrition and the proper habits for recovery.

"Part of it is maturation, part of it is that you need to educate yourself on it, so it takes some time and effort," Orpik says. "I don't know if it's my duty to pass along information, but if guys come to talk to me about it, I try to tell them what works for me. And what works for me might not necessarily work for everyone else. That's what you always have to be conscious of. Everybody's a little bit different, their body is a little bit different. Guys always ask, 'What works for you?' I always preface it by saying it works for me, but it might not work for you, but you should try it."

Orpik says he's lucky the Capitals are a team that spoils its players. "Anything that they think is necessary, this team gets pretty much what it asks for," he says. So while there is typically pizza or greasy options available after games, there's also fish and vegetables, Orpik's preferred meal. (Unsurprisingly, Orpik says, "I'm not a big pasta guy.")

Burakovsky is a big pasta guy, and Orpik is helping guide the youngster on portion size and when it is best to eat it for optimal recovery. Orpik also introduced Burakovsky to his favorite company for protein products. It's called About Time, and it's non-GMO, gluten-free and has no sugars.

Burakovsky has been ordering it over the summer for his training.

"I want to follow what he tells me," Burakovsky says. "I am feeling better; especially if we have a practice and I don't eat what I want to, but what Brooks says to, I always feel better the next day. I think I will owe a lot to him in the long run."