A month ago it was tough to guess whether defensive prospect Dmitry Orlov would ever get into a game with the Capitals this season. But over the past 19 days, Orlov has gone from waiting in the wings to playing a top-four role with the Capitals, first with John Carlson and now Mike Green.
“You’ve gotta earn your ice time, and he’s earned it,” assistant coach Calle Johansson said. “It’s because of my trust in him but he earned my trust, he played himself there. You just don’t get that. He deserves it. He brought the opportunity on himself.”
Orlov, 22, has appeared in eight consecutive games since he was recalled on Nov. 30. With increased ice time during that stretch, his confidence has increased and it’s noticeable when the Russian blueliner makes a smart, crisp pass in his own zone or to help keep the play alive inside the offensive blueline. He’s stepping up to make pinches more than he did at the beginning of this NHL stint and doesn’t hesitate to put the puck on net – like he did when he scored against the Flyers on Dec. 15 to help the Capitals engineer a comeback from a three-goal deficit.
But in the eyes of the Capitals’ coaching staff, Orlov must continue to focus on improving his defensive zone play. Coach Adam Oates has stressed on multiple occasions that he knows what Orlov can do offensively but that it takes consistent, defensive poise to push the young blueliner to the next level.
“I try like play more defensive style, play in our zone and make not mistakes,” Orlov said recently. “If I have chance maybe I make offense, but first my priority to play defense, play easy game, not turn the puck over and not give chance for shot or rebound.
“Close the gap a little bit more in the neutral zone,” Orlov added of the instructions he’s received. “On defensive side, it’s to not give chance for shots, for rebounds. [I need] to notice what’s around, where’s the players and not lose my guy in the defensive zone.”
The learning curve is apparent on certain shifts more than others. For example, against Philadelphia on Dec. 15 when he skated a season-high 21:08, scored a goal and had a generally strong all-around game Orlov still had a shaky shift on a penalty kill. He was danced around by Michael Raffl coming down the right wing boards and later turned the puck over in the neutral zone.
Johansson is working with Orlov on staying on task consistently and being able to read and react to make several correct plays consecutively on a single shift – not getting too caught up in any good or bad play.
“We’ve got to get to that point where, ‘Now I made that good play – [shoot] the play’s not over. I’ve got to make another one right after.’ You can’t relax. You’ve got to be on top of it the whole time, not until you sit on the bench again,” Johansson said. “It takes a while to get used to that. You’re doing two, three things. As a defenseman especially, one play is not good enough unfortunately. There’s always another one coming right after that.”
The key for Orlov, who is one of six defensemen with less than 100 games of regular season NHL experience that the Capitals have used this year, is to keep finding ways to make progress and continue earning that ice time and responsibility from the coaching staff.
“I’ve seen a lot of improvement but I still think he can be even better with that,” Johansson said. “If he keeps playing the way he is and improving every day and expects himself to be better and works on it, he sure can stay here.”