Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan offered a frank evaluation of Dmitry Orlov after last season: “A high-event player — at both ends there’s some events going on,” MacLellan said.
His coach didn’t trust him, even scratching him in a playoff game. He frequently stood in front of a throng of reporters and answered for his costly turnovers.
Following an 82-game regular season in which Orlov skated 19:32 per night, MacLellan’s tune on the young Russian defenseman has changed. And so has his standing in the Capitals’ blue-liner hierarchy.
“With more ice time, he’s proved that he has the ability to play at that level, to be a top-four guy,” MacLellan said.
A year after losing his patience with Orlov and benching him, Capitals Coach Barry Trotz trusted him against top competition in a pivotal Game 4 of Washington’s first-round series against Toronto. That coaching decision was praised as one of the reasons the Capitals beat the Maple Leafs, 5-4, to return to Verizon Center with the postseason series tied at two games apiece.
Once considered a defensive liability, Orlov has established himself as one of the Capitals’ steadiest blue-liners. While playing the most even-strength minutes of any Capitals skater against Toronto, Orlov has tilted the ice in Washington’s favor with the team taking 52 percent of the shot attempts when he’s been on the ice, according to hockey data site Corsica. With defenseman Karl Alzner out with an undisclosed upper-body injury, Orlov and Matt Niskanen have become the Capitals’ top duo.
“Orly looks like a totally different player this year,” Trotz said. “You have to go through it. You’ve almost got to get knocked down, so you can get up, and when you get up, you find yourself in a better place, if you will. You see that in Orly. … He’s earned the right. I couldn’t have said that last year.”
In the Capitals’ opening game in their second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins a year ago, Orlov misplayed a goal by Ben Lovejoy, and Trotz scratched him the following game for a first time all season, a decision Trotz still stands by and one agreed upon as a coaching staff.
“It’s always not easy when your coach sit you,” Orlov said before the start of the playoffs. “You know, I don’t want to think about that time. It is what it is. Nothing changes from that. It’s going to be a lesson from me on that time. Right now, I’m not looking back.”
After missing the entire 2014-15 season because of a wrist injury, Orlov had his development a year behind entering last season. While he consistently flashed offensive upside, his defensive gaffes would often lead to Trotz cutting his minutes. A restricted free agent over the summer, Orlov saw his contract negotiations prolonged because the 25-year-old wanted the opportunity for a bigger role on the team. The Capitals agreed and moved him into the defense corps’ top-four while bumping veteran Brooks Orpik to a third pair.
The three-plus minute increase in ice time this year benefited Orlov because he no longer feels the need to force anything offensively during his limited opportunities.
“He was caught in the middle a little bit where he was trying to make something happen, and as a result, things were coming the other way and the coach didn’t trust him and didn’t put him out as much,” MacLellan said.
“His game just continues to grow,” associate coach Todd Reirden said. “It’s not just offensively. It’s his ability to defend and his understanding of when to make high-risk plays and times to make plays that sometimes just get out of the zone.”
The ability to pick his spots better is what landed Orlov and Niskanen the challenge of facing Toronto’s top line with star rookie center Auston Matthews, a 40-goal scorer. Playing consistently has also bred a new confidence. Orlov scored six goals with 27 assists for a career-high 33 points and was a plus-30 this season.
Niskanen recognized Orlov’s raw talent early and volunteered to play alongside him at the start of the season.
“He knows he’s going to get his shifts and is going to get back out there, even after a mistake because he’s proven himself at this point that the guy’s a player,” Niskanen said. “I always believe that a player plays his best when they have that freedom to make a mistake and go right back out there the next shift. Because then you’re not worried about it, you’re not hesitant. You have to play with a free mind. But that’s not something that can be just given, that has to be earned. You have to earn the coach’s trust, and I think he’s done that now.”
There was once some question whether the Capitals would expose Orlov, a restricted free agent again this summer, to the new Las Vegas franchise in the expansion draft. There now seems to be none. Asked if Orlov is in the organization’s future plans, MacLellan said, “Oh, definitely.”
“He’s having a hell of a year,” Niskanen said. “He’s really competitive and wanting to get better and still wants to get better yet. I don’t think he’s done improving yet. He has the potential to be an absolute stud this spring.”