SAN JOSE — Near the midway point of the second period against the Calgary Flames earlier this week, Dmitry Orlov’s defensive assignment managed to shake him. Tim Jackman out-muscled Orlov and wound up with a key scoring chance in the slot. The Washington Capitals’ rookie defenseman scrambled to recover.
Orlov got up, realized how the play was developing, slid into the crease and stretched out his stick. The 20-year-old’s effort wound up preventing what would have been a sure goal for Jackman as the puck deflected off Orlov’s stick.
It was the type of play that demonstrated that while Orlov is learning on the fly as a rookie in the NHL, his work ethic and willingness to improve has helped him earn a regular spot on Washington’s blue line each night. And even now that Mike Green has returned to the lineup, Orlov likely will remain with the Capitals for the majority of this season.
“I’m very impressed with his play at this point and his progress,” said assistant coach Jim Johnson, who works with the defensemen. “He’s very coachable. He understands everything out there. He’s a player who has adjusted well to the speed of the game, and he processes that speed very well. His decision-making has been excellent, beyond his years, and that’s a big reason why he’s played as much as he has.”
Orlov was recalled from the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears on Nov. 20 when the Capitals were in search of a spark after dropping four consecutive games.
Since being recalled, Orlov has played in 20 games, recorded six assists and a minus-1 rating while averaging 16 minutes 19 seconds of ice time per contest. To be certain, Orlov isn’t being matched up against an opponent’s top six forwards, but his on-ice performance could lead many to forget that he is playing in his first full season in North America in addition to making the leap to the NHL.
“You can see how he’s growing up. I think he’s growing up faster than normal D,” winger Alex Ovechkin said of his countryman. “Of course sometimes he doesn’t have that kind of experience. He’s young. He’s still learning, but he’s going to be one of the best D on our team and maybe the league as well. He plays so easy and just sometimes he plays with confidence that I don’t think lots of 20-year-old guys can.”
Part of the reason Orlov blends into the NHL game easily is his affinity for physical play, which has earned plenty of praise from the coaching staff. Listed at 6 feet, 210 pounds, he doesn’t exactly possess the size of a defenseman who at first glance will stand out as a tough hitter. But Orlov is solidly built, and when he decides to separate an opponent from the puck, he is aware of it.
“You see him hitting, but he’s not a big guy,” Coach Dale Hunter said. “He’s really solid on his skates. He knocks people off the puck a lot in his own end, separates guys from the puck and gets the puck out. For not a big man, he’s really got a good foundation.”
Orlov is one of five home-grown, drafted and developed defensemen on the Capitals’ roster along with Green, John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Jeff Schultz. So there are plenty of players in the room who understand the challenge of adapting to the NHL while minimizing mistakes. It’s not an easy adjustment for many. Considering that the left-handed shooting Orlov has played a lot on his off side with the Capitals and has been working with an English tutor weekly to help improve his ability to communicate, it can be even tougher.
“He’s shown flashes of brilliance at times,” said Alzner, who noted Orlov’s English has improved a great deal over the course of the season. “The mistakes that he does make, sometimes are turnovers that aren’t needed, but he’ll learn to make the right play at the right time. We all did. It just comes with more experience. . . . I think he’s starting to figure out what he can and can’t do. I think he’s stayed pretty level, which is really tough for a young guy. It’s nice to see.”
Orlov’s reputation has always been that of the offensive-minded defenseman, and during training camp his willingness to take risks in order to add to the scoresheet was discussed as something that might need to be reined in. But while he does make mistakes, Orlov’s errors have rarely been egregious.
Evidence of his offensive skill is apparent, though, particularly when he unleashes thunderous shots from the point whether at even strength or on the power play. The force of the shot is unquestioned, but the coaching staff is working on his accuracy so that Orlov hits the net more often. Ovechkin said he has suggested to the young defenseman that using wrist shots a little more from the point than relying on the slap shot could help him hit the net more as well.
“It will take some time to get to his full potential, but he’s really been great. He’s been very steady,” said Green, who has skated with Orlov regularly in practice since returning and knows a thing about being a young, offensively gifted blue-liner. “He seems to know a little more, or at least he’s been told a little more, how they want him to play and find that balance. . . . At a young age, it’s all about finding that balance and knowing while you’re going to make those rookie mistakes you’ve just got to showcase what you can do and help the team. He’s doing that.”
Capitals notes: Nicklas Backstrom took part in the team’s practice in San Jose, marking the second straight day that he worked out on the ice with his teammates since absorbing an elbow to the head earlier this week. His status for Saturday’s game against San Jose is ultimately up to the team’s athletic training staff, but Backstrom said, “I feel pretty good actually. I think I’m ready to go. That’s my thoughts.” . . .
Hunter said Alexander Semin, who missed Tuesday’s game against Calgary with neck pain, said he is “ready to go now.”