SAN JOSE — Individually reviewing their shifts after games this season, Washington Capitals defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen haven’t recognized themselves on too many occasions. Together they’ve been the team’s most reliable blue-line pairing for the past three seasons, the duo facing the opponent’s top forwards in the most critical of situations, but that sort of stability has eluded them for the first half of this season.
“A little disappointed,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said when asked to assess that pair’s play earlier this month. “I think they were our main pair last year, played great for us in the playoffs, and I don’t think they’ve played at the standard that they’re used to playing at. … I think they both seem to be just a little bit off, and we’re trying everything we can to help them both find their game.”
The good news for the Capitals is that Orlov and Niskanen, both as honest as anyone about their own play, can sense things starting to come around since the bye week. MacLellan has said that he’s comfortable enough with his defensive depth that he doesn’t feel the need to acquire a blue-liner before the Feb. 25 trade deadline, but that depends on Orlov and Niskanen rediscovering the form that made them Washington’s top pairing en route to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup last season.
Outside of a handful of games and shifts that Coach Todd Reirden has paired Orlov with John Carlson and Niskanen with Michal Kempny, he has kept the Orlov-Niskanen duo together, trusting both players to work through their struggles. And while Niskanen acknowledges that if he knew the cause of the problems, he’d try to fix it, he can clearly identify what’s been plaguing them: a combination of not moving the puck and defending as well.
“Just our breakouts aren’t as good, I think,” Niskanen said. “We’re just not as clean. We end up spending extra time in the [defensive] zone where it’s unnecessary, and that’s just execution — moving your feet just a little quicker to make your play easier, or just executing the play when it’s there. It’s amazing what happens; you screw up one pass and you can spend an extra 45 seconds in your zone, when all of that is unnecessary if you just execute the play. We’re getting there, though. We’re on our way to playing how we can, and hopefully we’ll hit our stride when we need it the most.”
In the more than 760 minutes that Orlov and Niskanen have been on the ice together at even strength this season, the Capitals have taken just 45.4 percent of the shot attempts, according to Natural Stat Trick, an indication that the opponent has the puck more when they’re out there. More concerning is that the pair has been deployed for Washington when the Capitals have given up 154 high-danger chances, shots right in front of the net, while generating just 87.
Their underlying metrics have indeed been better since the Capitals returned from their bye week Feb. 1. Over the past eight games, Washington has taken more than 51 percent of the shot attempts with the Orlov-Niskanen pairing on the ice, and the high-danger chances are no longer lopsided with 21 for and against.
“I think they’ve probably played their best stretch of hockey post-break,” Reirden said. “I think it’s still a little bit of a work in progress. There’s been some nights that one is better than the other, and we’re still waiting for the games when they’re both at an above-average rating in the way we break down players’ shifts and how they play. They get tough matchups, and they’re such a key component to whether our team is going to have success or not, but I have been encouraged recently about their play after the break.”
Something that might have been hurting Niskanen in particular is that, of Capitals defensemen this season, he’s gotten the highest percentage of defensive-zone starts with the lowest percentage of offensive-zone starts at even strength, according to Corsica. Oddly, while he hasn’t been as good defensively — he has a minus-seven rating, and while that metric is arguably flawed, this could be the first season in Washington that he finishes in the red — this has been one of his better years for production with eight goals through 56 games, eclipsing his goal totals from the four other years he’s been with the Capitals. Orlov, considered the more offensively inclined of the two, is having a down year with three goals and 13 assists through 58 games after he had 10 goals and 21 assists last season.
Long considered the shutdown pair that was trusted to defend the opposition’s top forwards, Niskanen has noticed more of those challenging assignments going to the Kempny-Carlson pairing, perhaps Reirden’s attempt to lighten the load on Orlov and Niskanen as they work to find their game.
“John and Kemps have played really well, so they’ve kind of taken over that role — rightfully so,” Niskanen said. "They’ve been playing better, so they should. But, yeah, earlier we had some frustrating games for sure, individually and together. The frustrating part is that we know we can do it. We can play a lot better, and we’ve proven it recently, so we’re just trying to get there.”
Said Orlov: “We’re a team, you know? We’re not playing the game by ourselves, so if we’re going to do how we can play, then I think we’re going to be good. We just need to forget negative stuff and bring some more positive and fix our mistakes. And I think we’re going to be good.”