As associate coach Todd Reirden considered the Washington Capitals’ defensive pairings for the upcoming season, he reached out to players during the summer to keep them abreast of his plans. Washington intended to promote Dmitry Orlov into the top four, which meant he likely would need a new partner.
Matt Niskanen instantly volunteered to be paired with Orlov. He wasn’t the only one.
“All of the guys I talked with about switching partners were excited to play with Dmitry,” Reirden said. “They know the things that he’s able to do. Day in and day out, he shows them in practice his work ethic, his dedication to trying to get better, how important the game of hockey is to him. They all feel like he was in a situation where they wanted to be a part of helping him take the next step, and I think that’s a real admirable quality.”
Thirty games into the season, Orlov, 25, has displayed his most consistent play under Coach Barry Trotz, and he has done so while playing more minutes with more challenging defensive assignments. Reirden said Orlov is “the most raw player in terms of where his overall game is headed” on Washington’s blue line, and an elevated role this season is another step toward developing that.
“From where we were to where we are is miles,” Trotz said. “The problem is those miles have already passed. But I can remember having a thought process when we first started this process that, ‘Oh my Lord, we have a lot of work to do with this young man.’ He’s done the work.”
Orlov missed the entire 2014-15 season because of a wrist injury, and he had to catch up last season. The offensive upside was evident, but his defensive awareness needed work. He played in every regular season game, scoring eight goals and 21 assists, almost all of his production coming at even strength when he was playing on a third pair.
In prolonged contract negotiations this summer, one of the sticking points was that Orlov wanted a greater role on the blue line. His ice time has jumped from 16:02 last season to 19:04 this season. He has one goal and 11 assists through 30 games, and he’s first on the team in even-strength goals-for per 60 (2.85), according to stats.hockeyanalysis.com. But he also allows 2.13 even-strength goals per 60 minutes.
“You can be like, ‘Oh, they gave me a chance . . . I can do whatever I want.’ But I’m not that way,” Orlov said. “I know if I do mistake, I’m going to worry a lot about this. The next day, I will try to do my best to keep it away from that.”
In a 3-0 loss to the New York Islanders on Dec. 1, Orlov committed two turnovers that resulted in goals. After the game, he stood in front of his stall in the locker room and said his mistakes cost the team. In the postseason, costly errors by Orlov resulted in his being scratched for a first time all year. But Trotz didn’t pile on after the Islanders game, as he said any one player’s errors were the whole team’s.
“He never makes excuses for anything,” Niskanen said. “He knows what he’s good at and what he can bring. . . . The best way to learn is a few bad things happen to you and then your coach keeps throwing you out there, so you learn from it.”
After starting the season paired with John Carlson, Orlov has played with Niskanen for four games. Niskanen said he has been impressed with Orlov’s ability to beat players on his own, evade a forecheck and start a breakout without any help. After Reirden coached Niskanen in Pittsburgh and saw his influence on young Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta, he was hopeful Niskanen would have a similar effect on Orlov.
Niskanen was more than willing to play a role in helping a talented defenseman develop.
“I try to be a good partner for him,” Niskanen said. “I always give him an easy out, an easy pass if he needs it. . . . If I can be a positionally good partner for him and move the puck efficiently with him, then we have the makings of a pretty good pair maybe.”