DENVER — Dmitry Orlov tapped the cell phone and checked the calendar, wondering whether this much time had really passed since doctors operated on his broken wrist, whether the upper limit of their estimated recovery time frame already had been reached. “The 22nd of November should be six months,” the Washington Capitals defenseman said to no one in particular. “We’ll see how it goes.”
He had already cleared the latest hurdle, returning to practice during Washington’s recent trip, a joyous occasion after three months skating alone at 7 a.m. at the team’s facility in Ballston. “Boring,” he called those individual workouts. But now the smiles, from both Orlov and his teammates, revealed a patience-testing process reaching its end.
“I’m so excited to be a part of the team,” he said following Wednesday’s practice at the University of Denver. “The last few months were hard for me. Not a lot of improvement. But I stay focused and positive for when I can play.”
The road began at the International Ice Hockey Federation world championships in May, when Orlov suffered a broken wrist during Russia’s preliminary-round game against the United States. He underwent surgery May 22 that included pins being placed in the wrist.
The summer brought a setback, when Orlov flew to New York in early July to have the pins removed and cast taken off. Everything seemed fine until Orlov developed a fever. He took Tylenol at night but couldn’t sleep, so the doctors took another look. They found an infection in Orlov’s swollen wrist, checked him into the hospital and stuck an IV in his arm.
The recovery took its toll. He still spent time with fellow Russians Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, and his girlfriend kept him company stateside, but there were still those long mornings skating and conducting lower-body lifts while the Capitals prepared for the upcoming season.
“It’s very hard because you think about hockey every minute, every day,” Kuznetsov said. “You want to come back fast as you can, have good recovery. It’s very hard for any athlete.”
The Capitals initially predicted Orlov would be cleared in late September or early October, offering an outside hope the 23-year-old could appear in some exhibition games before his fourth NHL season. But the estimates kept getting pushed back. The season began, and Washington put Orlov on long-term injured reserve. The six-month mark loomed.
Orlov held high expectations for this season after a strong 2013-14, when he and defenseman Mike Green formed the most effective puck possession tandem on the roster, amid a year of instability on the blue line. Orlov registered 11 points in 54 games and hoped to challenge for the sixth starting spot after the Capitals fortified their corps by signing Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik.
Coach Barry Trotz pegged Orlov’s potential as “a top-four defenseman in this league,” and assistant coach Todd Reirden called his style “perfect for the way we want to break pucks out,” but Orlov will enter a crowded situation upon returning. Nate Schmidt has emerged as Green’s stable partner, and Trotz has not wavered from his belief that Orpik, Niskanen, Green, John Carlson and Karl Alzner will, barring injury, be in the lineup every night. They will need to decide where Orlov fits in.
“Obviously he’s a great skater, and his hands and skill set is really top-notch, and he’s got a big bomb for a shot, and he’s got a little bit of that nastiness, a little bit of an edge,” Trotz said of Orlov. “I’m hoping when he gets back, he can start using those assets.”
But when, exactly? Once he can absorb contact and can play in games, the Capitals plan to ship Orlov to their American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey for a conditioning stint allowed by the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement. But the wrist still needs strengthening.
“When I feel [ready] to play, when I can play, when the right time, doctors give me green light to play, I will play.”
So for now he spends each game watching from the press box, dressed in a suit amid reporters and hockey brass. He, like Trotz, sees a long NHL career ahead, beyond when his current two-year contract expires following the 2015-16 season, and feels no need to rush. But Orlov also feels the wrist getting stronger, his powerful shot coming back, six months gone and not much ahead.
“We’re getting there,” he said.