Theme: “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”
-- Vince Lombardi
At this time last year Dmitry Orlov was in rookie camp preparing himself for what was expected to be a season in Hershey in which he would develop both on and off the ice. In fact he would be assigned to the AHL Hershey Bears in the first week of October, one of the last cuts of training camp. His ability to stick around through both rookie and training camps was a harbinger of things to come.
Orlov, who already had 19 regular season and six playoff games for Hershey at the end of the 2010-2011 season, would not last that long at Hershey in his second visit. He was recalled from Hershey on November 20th after 15 games with the Bears, the Caps needing a spark in the midst of 3-6-1 stretch. It was a bit much to think that a rookie call-up could provide enough of a spark by himself, and the Caps continued their slide, culminating in the firing of Head Coach Bruce Boudreau a week after Orlov’s promotion.
Orlov stuck, though, playing in 60 of the last 64 games of the regular season. He would finish the regular season fourth in total scoring among rookie defensemen, tied for second in assists, fifth in hits, 16th in blocked shots, sixth in takeaways, and in the top-25 in average ice time. It was a very productive season for a youngster who was supposed to spend the year in Hershey.
His underlying numbers were what one might have expected of a rookie who was not thought of in the preseason as being a lock to make the parent roster. He got a break in terms of quality of competition (173rd of 198 defensemen playing in at least 40 games) and offensive zone starts (82nd among that same group). Even with those advantages his Corsi value relative to quality of competition was 170th of those 198 defensemen, and his offensive zone finishes were 156th (all numbers from behindthenet.ca). There were possession issues in his game that should not have been a surprise.
But with 60 NHL games under his belt he got a jump start on his development. That is what makes the lockout unfortunate in terms of Orlov’s progress. Delaying the chance to build on that experience for a month or two, or worse an entire season, jeopardizes those fortuitous gains.
Let us remember that Orlov is still only two months removed from his 21st birthday. Since the lockout Orlov is one of only 14 defensemen between the ages of 18 and 20 in their first season who played in at least 60 games and recorded at least 19 points. And that list is rather impressive, including as it does: Tyler Myers, Andrej Meszaros, Dion Phaneuf, Drew Doughty, Michael Del Zotto, Cam Fowler, Victor Hedman, Justin Faulk, and Erik Karlsson.
Guys, here are two words for you…”play offs.” Orlov did not play so much as one second in the post season. Jeff Schultz, who dressed for only 29 of the last 55 regular season games, got a sweater for 10 of the Caps’ 14 playoff games. John Erskine, who dressed for one game – one game – out of the last 33 regular season games, got the other four playoff games as the sixth defenseman instead of Orlov. Is he really ready for prime time?
The Big Question… Does Orlov’s absence in the 2012 post-season portend a sophomore slump in 2012-2013?
Base on the company he keeps in terms of his first-year production, the temptation is to say “no.” But of course, this is really a question that has only a speculative answer in advance. His being withheld from the post-season did not appear to be a clear product of any late-season slump. He was 1-8-9, plus-3 in his last 20 games while averaging almost 17 minutes a game. It is certainly harder to shelter a player when the level of competition ramps up, as in the playoffs. It will be difficult to do so this season if Orlov gets some of the minutes that Dennis Wideman took to Calgary. But that is going to be part of the pain to be endured as Orlov develops the defensive side of his game. His offensive game is further developed at this stage than his game in his own end, and one might expect in that regard that he will not suffer such a sophomore slump.
In the end…
In the history of the Washington Capitals franchise, do you know how many defensemen aged 20 or younger played 60 or more games in their first season with the club?
Scott Stevens in 1982-1983, Robert Picard in 1977-1978, and Dmitry Orlov last season. Both Stevens and Picard enjoyed long NHL careers, Stevens playing for 22 seasons and Picard playing for 13 seasons. This is not to say that Orlov’s upside is the Hall of Fame career assembled by Scott Stevens, but he has at least a toe-hold on the ladder to a productive career in the NHL.
Given the state of the Capitals’ roster, Orlov probably gets slotted as the fifth defenseman. He has the offensive game to at least spell Mike Green or John Carlson on the power play squad (he averaged 44 seconds of power play time per game last season). And while it is probably convenient to say he has to work on his game in the defensive zone, he was on ice for only 36 goals against in 60 games last season. His goals against on-ice per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 was second best on the club. That is a value that has to be taken in the context of his advantageous minutes and situations (especially when you consider that John Erskine had the best such mark), but he did not necessarily fail to suggest there is something to work with there.
For Dmitry Orlov the trick is going to be playing this season in a way in which he corrects the shortcomings of his first season. That is how he can quickly become a fixture in the Capitals’ lineup for years to come.
Projection: 67 games, 5-17-22, plus-4