When Brooks Orpik was younger and still establishing himself as a physical defenseman, he had to find a balance. Hitting was part of his game, but slamming into everything in sight wouldn’t always help his team. For Orpik, it was about timing, learning when to do it and when not to.
Orpik used that analogy last Friday night, trying to explain a very different balance that Dmitry Orlov is trying to master. The Capitals want him to be offensively creative, but sometimes, the situation calls for a more direct play, one that doesn’t lead to a turnover going the opposite way.
As Orlov steps into a greater role with defenseman John Carlson out three to four weeks after an unspecified lower body “procedure,” there’ll be more of a spotlight on how Orlov manages his offensive upside with occasionally being a defensive liability.
“Every play is different,” Orlov said. “If I see I have the time or chance to make a play in D-zone or offensive zone, I will do it. But if I’m under pressure or something, I need to make simple play. … It’s experience, you know? The more games you play, the more confidence you have and the more ice time you have. It’s going slowly, but I think it’s going the right way.”
Let’s take two games last week as an example. On Wednesday, his defensive zone pass was intercepted, leading to Montreal’s first goal of the game in what was ultimately a loss for the Capitals. But Orlov then scored in the third period as Washington attempted a late-game rally. On Friday, Orlov scored the game-winner, maneuvering around a Minnesota player. Some defensemen wouldn’t make that move given the risk of the puck getting picked off.
“If you have guys behind you, you can be a little more aggressive and take your chance,” Orpik said. “I think it’s the exact same with him, just kind of knowing the situation that you’re in, what the score is, how much time is left and obviously, I think he’s pretty comfortable knowing that I’ll probably be behind him, if he does turn it over.
“You’ve got to give him that freedom. Obviously, you see that goal he scores. If he doesn’t play with that confidence, that never happens. He probably just throws it back behind the net or something. It’s one of those things where you’ve got to kind of take the good with the bad. I think as the season has gone on, the good has gotten a lot more and he’s decreased the chances that he’s given up. It’s all about just kind of picking your spots, I guess.”
Said Capitals Coach Barry Trotz on Friday morning: “You don’t want to take the creativity out of Orly. I just said, ‘Make real good hockey decisions.’ He’s best when he makes good hockey decisions coming out of our zone, and I give all the players lots of freedom to do what they do offensively. That’s the only thing, just make good plays and good instinctive, solid plays coming out of our zone, so that we don’t have any turnovers that can end up in the back of our net.”
Missing all of last season with a wrist injury followed by related complications caused Orlov’s development to take a step back. He started the season rusty, and his place in the lineup seemed tenuous early in the season. But Trotz stayed patient with him, and Orlov has played in every game this season. He has seven goals and 18 assists, and sports a plus-15 this season.
Orlov is averaging 15 minutes and 28 seconds per game, playing on the third pair all season until now, as he and Orpik comprise the team’s second pairing with Carlson out. Getting paired with Orpik has seemed to benefit him, as Orpik’s defensive style complements Orlov’s aggressive one. Orlov can take chances because Orpik will usually be able to cover him if something goes awry. Orlov ranks first among the team’s defensemen in Corsi-for percentage (53.6) and third in the league of defensemen with at least 750 minutes played in points per 60 (1.39) at even strength.
“Starting the year, we needed a replacement for Mike Green,” Trotz said. “That was Orlov. I think, offensively, he’s doing that part. We still manage his game in the other parts, and he’s still a young player who I think is tremendously talented. He plays with some injury and he’s got a physical element to him, so there’s a lot of positive things to say about Orly.”