Monday, June 19, 2017

Washington Capitals: 2016-2017 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Dmitry Orlov

Dmitry Orlov

“I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy.”
-- Marie Curie

How many defensemen over the past two years skated fewer than 3,000 minutes and recorded more than 60 points?  It is a short list, five in fact.  A couple of names are surprising only because of so few minutes played due to injury (John Carlson and Kris Letang), but Shayne Gostisbehere and Justin Schultz are on that list, too, a couple of solid offensive defensemen (numbers from  The fifth name on that list is Dmitry Orlov, which might be surprising in two ways.  First, it is an accomplishment, given that he missed the entire 2014-2015 season (save for three games with the Hershey Bears) to injury.  Second, he did it as a second or third pair defenseman who did not miss a single game over those two seasons, the only player on that list to play in all 164 regular season games.

In addition to playing in all 82 games for the second time in his five-year career with the Caps, Orlov set career highs in assists (27), points (33), plus-minus (plus-30), hits (122), blocked shots (94), and he recorded his first power play goal as a Cap.  His ten-game splits, though, had a bit of an up and down quality to them.  He was out of the gate a bit slowly on offense in his first ten games, posting a pair of assists.  Then, he took off, going 4-19-23, plus-19 in his next 40 games.  It put him in the top dozen point getters among defensemen over that span and in the top six in plus-minus.  Only Dougie Hamilton in among those with more points over that span did so averaging fewer minutes per game (19:32) than Orlov (19:34).

Orlov cooled off after that, going 2-6-8, plus-9 over his last three ten-game segments and not recording a power play point after going 1-5-6 on the power play over his first 50 games.  Of course, part of that might be attributed to Kevin Shattenkirk assuming a heavy power play load after being acquired by the Caps from St. Louis for the home stretch of the season.

Something Orlov might have benefitted from was an up-tempo style.  It is worth noting that of the four defensemen with whom he skated at least 50 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, he was under 50 percent Corsi-for only when skating with Brooks Orpik, who is as “stay at home” as stay at home defensemen get for the Caps.  Orpik was also the only one of those four defensemen whose Corsi was better apart from Orlov than with him (numbers from

Fearless’ Take… Getting offensive contributions from the Dmitry Orlov had their benefits this season.  The Caps were 5-0-0 in games in which he recorded a goal and 23-4-2 in games in which he recorded a point.  And ice time had its charms as well.  Washington was 13-2-2 in games in which Orlov skated at least 21:30, but just 4-5-0 in games in which he skated 17 or fewer minutes.

Cheerless’ Take... Goals might have been one thing, but shots were another.  Launching them in volume was not much of an indicator of success.  The Caps were 7-4-3 in games in which Orlov recorded three or more shots on goal.  They were 13-3-1 in games in which he did not record a shot on goal.  And being physical didn’t help.  The Caps were just 8-6-2 in games in which Orlov was credited with three or more hits. 

Odd Orlov Fact… Dmitry Orlov is one of five defensemen in Caps history to skate in 82 or more games at least twice in his career.  Karl Alzner (6), John Carlson (4), Calle Johansson (3), and Matt Niskanen (2) are the others.

Game to Remember… January 23rd vs. Carolina

January 23rd was a homecoming of sorts for the Caps, who were back at Verizon Center after a 2-0-1 road trip to three cities that have not been kind to them over the years – Pittsburgh (the overtime loss), St. Louis, and Dallas.  Their home contest against the Carolina Hurricanes did not provide the stiffest competition, but it was their only home game before setting out on another three-game road trip.  It started as if it was the “trap” game it could have been when Jordan Staal scored less than five minutes into the contest on a power play.  Less than six minutes later, the Caps had their first power play of the game.  In the Carolina zone, Dmitry Orlov pulled the puck from along the right wing wall back to the middle before giving it up to Nate Schmidt at the right point.  Schmidt worked it down to Andre Burakovsky in the corner, and Burakovsky sent it behind the net to Evgeny Kuznetsov in the opposite corner.  Kuznetsov spied Orlov at the top of the left wing circle and fed him for a one-timer that beat goalie Cam Ward cleanly on the blocker side to make it 1-1, 11:49 into the game. 

Justin Williams added a goal to put the Caps up, 2-1, at the first intermission, and mid-way through the second period, Orlov struck again to give the Caps more breathing room. Burakovsky started the play by darting down the right wing wall with the puck, then reversing course.  He found Brett Connolly at the opposite faceoff circle, and Connolly laid off the puck to Orlov stepping into the play.  His one-timer beat a screened Ward low on the right side, and it was 3-1.  The Caps would pour it on from there, taking a 6-1 decision.  For Orlov, it was two goals on two shots (for good measure, he added four blocked shots at the other end).  It was his first and only two-goal game of the season and his second career two-goal game, the other coming in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on March 2, 2014.

Game to Forget… December 1st vs. New York Islanders

The Caps opened December at home after a poor effort in Toronto against the Maple Leafs five days earlier, a 4-2 loss.  The fog through which the Caps played that game followed them back home against the Islanders.  The teams played to a scoreless tie through two periods, but early in the third, the Islanders struck.  Casey Cizikas caught Orlov flat-footed at the red line and pushed the puck ahead to Shane Prince, who broke in on goalie Braden Holtby and beat him over his glove to give the Islanders the lead at the 3:15 mark. 

On his next shift, Orlov had another good look at a goal in the wrong net.  Taking a pass from John Carlson in the corner to Holtby’s left, he tried to thread a pass into the middle to Justin Williams, but it was picked off by John Tavares.  Holtby did his best to stymie the scrum that ensued at the top of his crease, but Brock Nelson batted in a loose puck to make it 2-0 off Orlov’s giveaway.  Orlov skated only two shifts after that in what would be a 3-0 loss.

Postseason: 13 games, 0-3-3, minus-1

Dmitry Orlov’s postseason started well enough.  He had two assists in the first four games against Toronto in the opening round and ten shots on goal, while averaging more than 25 minutes per game.  And then…almost nothing.  Over his last nine games of the postseason he recorded just one assist and totaled 11 shots.  It got worse with the passage of time, Orlov skating fewer than 20 minutes in his last six games after not skating fewer than 20 minutes in any of his first seven games.  And, in one of the stranger profiles in numbers, he did not record a blocked shot in five of his last six games after being credited with 17 in his first seven games.

In the end…

Dmitry Orlov was the 20th defenseman selected in the 2012 draft and lost a full season of his development to injury.  Even with that, he is tenth among defensemen in his draft class in games played (283), tenth in goals scored (20), ninth in points (93), and second in plus-minus (plus-43).  The 13 games he played in the postseason, just his second trip to the playoffs, gives him just 24 career games in the postseason.  He is still very much a work in progress, despite the fact that he will be 26 years old when the puck drops on the 2017-2018 season.  There are still elements of his game that need work; he does, for example, remain susceptible to the ghastly turnover that results in a scoring chance, but those instances are fewer.  He has shown glimpses of being a very good offensive contributor with a shot from the blue line that has to be respected.  He can be a solid top-four defenseman for the Capitals for years to come, even if his progress to that role has been neither swift, nor easy.

Grade: B

Photo: Getty Images North America

Washington Capitals: 2016-2017 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Matt Niskanen

Matt Niskanen

“Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened but go on in fortune or misfortune at their own private pace, like a clock during a thunderstorm.”
-- Robert Louis Stevenson

Few defensemen have been as durable and productive over the past three seasons as Matt Niskanen.  In his three years with the Capitals, Niskanen is one of six NHL defensemen to have appeared in at least 240 games, logged at least 5,500 minutes, and recorded at least 100 points (he has 242 games, 5,585 minutes, and 102 points).  And quite a list it is, too.  Niskanen accomplished the feat as an example of consistency.  Although he missed four games in 2016-2017 (his first games missed as a Capital), he recorded five goals (compared to five and four in his previous two seasons) and 39 points (an improvement over the 31 and 32 in his first two seasons with the club).

Niskanen’s consistency extended into his segment to segment production in ten-game pieces.  In eight ten-game splits (12 games for the last one), he recorded between four and eight points, but in five of them he recorded four or five points.  He was a “minus” player in just one of those ten-game splits (minus-2 in Games 11-20).

In 2016-2017, Niskanen was one of two defensemen for the Caps to average at least 1:30 per game on both special teams, averaging 1:47 per game in power play time and 2:35 in shorthanded ice time (John Carlson was the other).  It was entirely consistent with his per game averages over his three seasons with the Caps – 1:45 in power play ice time and 2:34 in power play ice time per game.

Where Niskanen’s performance numbers were down was in his shifts per game.  With 26.0 shifts per game this season he averaged the fewest in any of his three years with the Caps, although it was still the eighth-highest number of shifts per game for Caps defensemen over the last three seasons.  And those shifts were a reflection of the team’s success.  Washington was 34-6-8 in the 48 games in which he skated 26 or more shifts, 21-13-0 in the games in which he skated 25 or fewer shifts.  As far as ice time was concerned, 21 minutes was a reasonable threshold as an indicator of wins and losses.  The Caps were 45-9-7 in games in which he logged more than 21 minutes, 10-10-1 in games he logged fewer than 21 minutes or did not dress.

Fearless’ Take… Niskanen has been one of the most durable and productive defensemen of the last decade.  He is one of only 11 defensemen over the last ten seasons have appeared in at least 700 games and recorded at least 250 points.

Cheerless’ Take… Matt Niskanen has played a lot of games, logged a lot of minutes, and even has a fair number of points, but as a Capital, efficiency hasn’t been his thing.  This was the third straight year of declining shooting percentage – 3.2 percent after 3.4 percent and 3.3 percent in his first two years in Washington – after posting consecutive years of 6.0 percent or better with Pittsburgh.  Maybe they just have better setter-uppers.  And this year’s shooting percentage happened as he had his highest shot total (154) with the Caps after a 117-shot year in his first season in Washington followed by a 150-shot season.

Odd Niskanen Fact… Matt Niskanen was born in Virginia, Minnesota, “Queen City of the North” (no, there is no “Minnesota, Virginia”), the birthplace of no fewer than eight pro hockey players (three of them named “Carlson,” two named “Cullen”), not bad for a town with a population under 9,000.  And on ice, the Caps did not lose a game in regulation this season in which Niskanen had a multi-point game (9-0-1, the only loss that weird 8-7 overtime loss to Pittsburgh on January 16th).

Game to Remember… January 15th vs Philadelphia

There are games where just about everything goes right for a team and for a player, and it is memorable when one of those times is against a hated rival.  Such was the case on January 15th when the Caps hosted the Flyers in a Sunday afternoon game televised nationally.  It didn’t start that way for the Caps as they and their guests played to a scoreless first period and almost half of a second period without a score.  Nine minutes into the second period, though, Andre Burakovsky scored an unassisted power play goal.  That was the lead the Caps took to the third period, but it did not take Justin Williams long to add to it with a goal with just 1:36 gone.

And then, Niskanen dropped the hammer with a pair of goals barely two minutes apart.  The first came off a sloppy Flyer turnover at the Capitals’ blue line that allowed Nicklas Backstrom to break free.  Reaching the Flyer zone, he fed Alex Ovechkin for what seemed sure to be a one-timer from the left wing circle.  However, Ovechkin spied Niskanen filling in down the middle and fed him for a tap in from the top of the crease to make it 3-0…

Just over two minutes later, Tom Wilson did some of the heavy lifting, carrying the puck down the left wing in the Flyer end and circling around the net.  When he popped out the other side to goalie Steve Mason’s left, he slid the puck out to Niskanen, who stepped into a one-timer from the right point that Masonn misplayed off the top of his glove and into the net to make it 4-0, 5:47 into the third period and sealing the deal in a 5-0 win.  It was one of two two-goal performances for Niskanen this season, and he finished the contest with a season-best plus-4.  It was the second time in his career that Niskanen that Niskanen had a plus-4 game, the other coming in his rookie season with the Dallas Stars in a 6-3 win over the Nashville Predators on February 23, 2008.

Game to Forget…  December 7th vs. Boston

Matt Niskanen appeared in each of the Caps’ first 24 games of the season, extending his consecutive games streak with the club to 188 games.  Taking the ice for consecutive game 189 against the Boston Bruins should have been unremarkable, and it was.  It was the cutting short of his evening that was remarkable.  Niskanen last seven shifts into the game and was already a plus-2 form a pair of Justin Williams goals in the first eight minutes of the contest.  But with less than five minutes in the first period, niskanen was chasing a puck to the end boards and looked to be losing his footing when Patrice Bergeron did the rest, cross-checking Niskanen into the end wall head first.  That ended Niskanen’s participation in that contest, a 4-3 overtime Caps win as it turned out, and he missed the road trip to Buffalo that followed and what would be his first missed game as a Capital. 

Postseason: 13 games, 1-3-4, even

Matt Niskanen had a postseason bordering on the bizarre for the Caps.  The team split the four games in which he had points and lost the only game in which he had a goal.  Then there was the night he skated just 2:09 against the Penguins, in Game 3 when Sidney Crosby sustained what appeared to be a concussion when he was charging to the net, was hit by Alex Ovechkin’s stick, then cross-checked in the head as Crosby was stumbling forward.  Niskanen earned a major penalty for cross-checking and a game misconduct for his infraction, forcing the Caps to play with five defensemen for more than two full periods in what would eventually be a 3-2 overtime win.  That goal he scored – in a Game 2 loss to the Penguins – was his first postseason goal with the Caps.  Then there was the physical play.  His 45 credited hits for the postseason was the third-most in Caps history since hits became a statistic in the 2005-2006 season.  As it was, only four defensemen had more credited hits for the entire postseason, and of that group, only Edmonton’s Matt Benning played in fewer games (12).  At the other end, he tied with John Carlson and Nate Schmidt for second-most points among Caps defensemen in the postseason.

In the end…

Matt Niskanen is among the better two-way defensemen in the NHL, but this season he appeared to display an edgier side to his play.  It was not unwelcome.  The Caps were 11-3-0 in games in which he was charged at least two minutes in penalties; they were 14-4-3 in games in which he was credited with three or more hits.  His postseason was an improvement on 2016, scoring-wise (he was 0-3-3 in 12 games in the 2016 postseason), and he did it while averaging his fewest minutes in the postseason as a Capital (22:38, although that early exit against the Penguins in Game 3 depressed that number).  Niskanen took care of business more consistently than perhaps any other defenseman, if not any other player, over the course of the season.  He rarely had what could be called a poor game, even in the postseason (save for that whole Crosby cross-check thing).  In a way, he was the defense equivalent of Nicklas Backstrom, a player to plays at his own pace and to the extent he can from his position bends the game to that pace.  It was a solid overall year for Niskanen.

Grade: B

Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America