Theme: “Our brightest blazes of gladness are commonly kindled by unexpected sparks.”
-- Samuel Johnson
(click pic for larger image)
On October 8, 2001 – opening night of the 2011-2012 season for the Washington Capitals – defenseman Dmitry Orlov finished a plus-1 with one shot on goal… for the AHL Hershey Bears, in a 3-2 win over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
Orlov, a second-round draft pick of the Capitals in 2009 was starting his first full year in hockey in North America (he signed a tryout contract with Hershey in February 2011 and played in 25 games there, including six playoff games). The expectation was that he would spend a year (or more) of apprenticeship in Hershey to grow familiar with the North American game and develop his skill set at a difficult position.
The plan took a turn when injuries hit the blue line (that is, Mike Green) and cut the defense squad to six healthy players. The call was made for Orlov to join the team on November 20th. At the time he was showing signs of advanced development: 4-5-9, even, in 15 games, including a 1-2-3 effort against Albany in the game immediately preceding his recall.
He was thrown right into the mix. He skated just under 12 minutes in his NHL debut and recorded three hits and a blocked shot in the Caps’ 4-3 win over the Phoenix Coyotes in what would be coach Bruce Boudreau’s 200th career NHL win. But all was not gumdrops and accordions, either. He was, as one might expect, somewhat uneven in his early going. In his pre-Christmas shakedown period he was 0-5-5, minus-1, in 15 games and was averaging almost 17 minutes of ice time a game, but mixed in there were were four “plus” games and an equal number of “minus” games. While he was going through his growing pains, the Caps were just treading water at 7-7-1 over those 15 games.
It wasn’t as if his after-Christmas performance was markedly better, at least not for a time. In 22 games after the holiday he did record his first NHL goal (a game-winner in a 2-1 win over Carolina), but he was just 1-2-3, minus-4. Then came an otherwise forgettable game against San Jose on February 13th. While the Caps were skating to a 5-3 loss to the Sharks, Orlov scored his second goal of the season. It touched off a run of games in which he was 2-9-12, plus-6 over his last 23 games.
Overall, he would finish the season with 19 points in 60 games, good for third on the club in scoring. It would be the sixth highest point total for a rookie defenseman for the Caps in franchise history and the most since Mikhail Tatarinov was 8-15-23 in the 1990-1991 season. Among those top-six rookie scorers among defensemen, only Orlov and Scott Stevens finished in “plus” territory for the season (Orlov was plus-1, Stevens a plus-14 in 1982-1983; although that speaks more to the difficulties the teams of the others had).
Not that Orlov was not protected. Only John Erskine faced a lower quality of competition among Capital defensemen playing at least 20 games (numbers from behindthenet.ca). And only Erskine had a larger percentage of offensive zone starts (54.9 percent) than Orlov (51.1 percent). Perhaps a good thing – only Erskine had a worse percentage spread between offensive zone starts and offensive zone finishes.
We would offer a comparison to his previous season, but there not being one in the NHL, there is not one to compare.
Odd Orlov Fact… Orlov had only three goals, but they came on only 51 shots for the season. In fact, his three goals came on his last 37 shots of the season and that percentage (8.1 percent) would have ranked ninth among league defensemen in shooting percentage over a full year.
Game to Remember… January 15, 2012. With the Capitals and the Carolina Hurricanes locked in a 1-1 tie early in the third period, Tomas Vokoun made a save on a shot from Hurricane forward Jeff Skinner. Orlov collected the long rebound and started the play the other way with a pass to Jason Chimera on the left wing. As Chimera was skating with the puck down the left side, Orlov kept going, heading down the middle to the Carolina net. Chimera fed the puck through, and Orlov appeared to try to redirect it past goalie Cam Ward. Orlov missed but stayed with the play, following up his own attempt by sneaking a shot from a very severe angle behind Ward as he was about to circle behind the net. It was his first NHL goal and a game-winner in a 2-1 Capitals win.
Game to Forget… February 12, 2012. The record will show that Brandon Prust scored a shorthanded goal for the game-winning tally in a 3-2 New York Rangers win over the Capitals at Madison Square Garden. But Orlov was on the ice for each of the first two Ranger goals, both times being this close to getting into position to sweep the puck away from danger when goalie Tomas Vokoun was down, and both times not being quite close enough.
Post Season… Orlov was a healthy scratch for all 14 games in the post-season.
In the end… Despite the ups and downs, it was a season that no one might have expected when the season began last October 8th. The plan might have been for Orlov to spend his apprenticeship in Hershey logging a lot of minutes for a contending AHL team. But circumstance led to his being called up in November, and he would never return to Hershey. He would prove to be durable (he missed one game to illness) and would show improvement over the course of the season based on his ten-game splits. But there was room for improvement. For example, his 48 giveaways in 60 games was fourth most on the team, more than Roman Hamrlik had (43) in more games (68).
What Orlov did this year was provide a look into the future, a look at what could become a third pair fixture next season (assuming Dennis Wideman is not resigned) and perhaps a top-four, two-way defenseman down the road. That he would have provided that glimpse this year – and in 60 games of action – was among the most unexpected happenings for the club this season.