Before his inaugural season atop the Washington Capitals’ front office, General Manager Brian MacLellan envisioned a deep defensive corps bolstered through the free agent acquisitions of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik.
He saw the two former Pittsburgh Penguins anchoring the top two pairs and mentoring younger blue-liners such as John Carlson and Karl Alzner. He hoped the trickle-down effect would give the Hershey Bears one of the American Hockey League’s most seasoned blue lines, stuffed with players who tasted the NHL last season but were no longer needed. And for the NHL club’s third pair, he slotted Mike Green and Dmitry Orlov.
But that was before Orlov’s recovery from wrist surgery extended well beyond its estimated time table, and now MacLellan found himself considering the idea of shutting down Orlov altogether. The 23-year-old defenseman already battled a post-surgery infection and several plateaus in his progress. His operation was exactly eight months ago Thursday. Together, Orlov and the Capitals are approaching the crossroads.
“The potential’s there,” MacLellan said Tuesday. “It’s been a frustrating situation for us with his injury. I’d love to see our team with Orlov and Green on the third pair. That’s six really good defensemen. It’s frustrating from that point of view. I’d like to have him come back here. It’s going to be hard for him to get his timing, to get in shape.
“You miss three-quarters of a year, it’s not easy to make that time up, but I’d like to see him try it. I think we’ll get a clearer picture of where he’s at over the next couple weeks, whether we do have a shot at that or we don’t have a shot at that.”
Speaking briefly after a recent practice, Orlov said his wrist has continued to improve – strength and flexibility have been the biggest issues – and a follow-up doctor’s appointment had been scheduled for Wednesday. That jibes with the one-month window the Capitals recently gave for Orlov before they would decide whether a second surgery might shut his season down for good.
“Just the recovery,” MacLellan said. “The recovery’s taken way longer than we thought it would, and whether there has to be a further surgery to help him recover.”
Without Orlov, defenseman Nate Schmidt spent 31 games on the left side, mostly with Green, but he recently suffered a fractured shoulder blade while on a conditioning stint with Hershey, dispatched there following some confidence issues and sporadic mistakes with the Capitals. In his stead, a healthy Jack Hillen has started 13 of the past 15 games on the third pair.
Asked whether Orlov and Schmidt’s respective injuries have prohibited him from considering trade offers for Green, who will become an unrestricted free agent next summer, MacLellan said no.
“I don’t think it affects Mike Green at all,” he said. “It affects our overall depth. I expect to have Schmidt back. At the beginning of the year, we would’ve had Orlov and Green slotted for the third pair, we would’ve had Hillen as a second and we would’ve had Schmidt as a call-up. I think everyone took advantage of situations. Schmidt had a good camp and he moved up and Orlov’s hurt. I think it all works its way through. It’s the benefit of having good depth at defense, that we can survive that kind of stuff.”