No, that is not a hot young prospect out of Moscow, that is the trio of Jeff Schultz, Tom Poti, and Dmitry Orlov. In another time, these three defensemen might have been stalwarts among the top-six blueliners for the Caps. Schultz, the quiet, stay-at-home defenseman with the long reach and use of position and angles more than brawn to defend. Poti, the veteran who developed a solid two-way aspect to his game after years of being primarily an offensive defenseman. Orlov, the up-and-comer with a heavy shot and a heavier hip check.
The 2013 season was not “another time” for these three defensemen. Combined they appeared in 47 games, going 0-6-6, minus-3. In no game this season did all three dress for action. Orlov and Schultz dressed for the March 19th contest against Pittsburgh – a 2-1 loss in which neither was on ice for any of the three goals in their combined 22:47 of ice time. Schultz and Poti appeared in 11 games together, the Caps going 4-7-0 in those contests and allowing 41 goals in the process. Poti’s season ended on March 17th, the game before Orlov would play in his first of the season on March 19th.
None of the three appeared in the post season, all have question marks heading into the off-season.
Jeff Schultz is signed to the Capitals through next season at a $2.75 million salary cap hit. Here is the thing, though. Schultz appeared in 29 of the first 31 games of the 2011-2012 season (0-5-5, plus-1), but has appeared in only 51 of 99 regular season games since (1-3-4, minus-9). Forty seven of those 48 absences were healthy scratches (he was out due to illness for the February 1, 2012 game against Florida). For all intents and purposes he has been passed on the depth chart by Orlov, Tomas Kundratek, and Steve Oleksy from within the organization, and Jack Hillen came in from Nashville to occupy a top-six spot that otherwise might have gone to Schultz…in another time. Even prospect Cameron Schilling, who got a sweater along with Schultz for a March 12th contest with Carolina in Schilling's only appearance of the season, might be in a position to pass him on the depth chart shortly.
Schultz is almost to the point of being “dead money” laying in plain sight. He would have a bulls-eye on his back as a compliance buyout, especially with the Caps having to find cap room to re-sign restricted free agent Karl Alzner. But the Caps are not a team with a lot of depth on the blue line. When John Erskine – a capable third-pair defenseman – is getting a lot of second-pair minutes, you have depth issues.
The Caps have 20 players on the parent roster signed for next season (assuming Philipp Grubauer spends the season in Hershey and Dmitry Orlov rejoins the club), including Schultz, with a cap hit of $58.934 million (numbers from capgeek.com). That leaves the Caps with $5.526 million in cap room to fill up to three roster spots, including the re-signing of Alzner and either signing or replacing Mike Ribeiro at center. If Schultz is bought out, that makes up to four roster spots to fill and $8.276 million in cap room. Even if Schultz is bought out, resigning Alzner and Ribeiro could eat up the entire remaning cap room and still leave the team needing a seventh roster defenseman. Ribeiro might or might not be in Washington in September. It seems almost a betting certainty that Schultz will not.
Tom Poti has 37 regular season games on his resume over the last three seasons, 16 of them this year before an injury to his ribs that ended his season. The question for Poti is not whether he will return to the Capitals’ lineup – he will not -- but whether he has anything left in the tank to find a suitor for next season. If a guy deserves such a shot, it is Tom Poti. Fractured pelvis, multiple groin injuries, neck and back injuries. That has been his recent history with the Caps. Through it all, he was uncommonly dedicated to his craft, persevered when others would have called it a day and retired, and exemplified the highest level of sportsmanship and professionalism when after recovering from injuries found no playing time available. He is a fine nominee for the Bill Masterton Trophy. One hopes that it is not the capstone of his career and that there is more hockey from Poti to come.
Dmitry Orlov had an impressive rookie season in 2011-2012 – tied for eighth among rookie defensemen in goals, tied for second in assists, fourth in points, one of only 11 rookie defensemen with at least one game-winning goal, and he did this with only the 23rd highest average ice time among rookie blueliners. And there were the thundering hip checks…
His sophomore season was jinxed from the start. There was the lockout that affected everyone, and Orlov started his season in Hershey. In his first 17 games with the Bears, Orlov was a respectable 1-8-9, plus-2, although the Bears were only 7-9-1 in those games. Then the Bears came to Verizon Center to “visit” the Norfolk Admirals, the home team for purposes of the AHL Showcase on December 6th. With the teams tied at a goal apiece late in the first period, Orlov sustained a double barreled hit that dropped him to the ice and might have been the one that left him with a concussion.
That would be the last game Orlov would play until March 9th, when he returned to action for the Bears against, who else, Norfolk. After a four-game get well tour, he was called up to the Caps for a game against Pittsburgh on March 19th. Orlov lasted five games, going 0-1-1, plus-5, averaging a few ticks fewer than 15 minutes of ice time. In the midst of a lot of personnel movement along the blue line at the end of the month and beginning of April, Orlov was returned to Hershey for the rest of the 2013 season, where he was 2-3-5, minus-2 in nine games to close the regular season and 1-2-3, even, in four playoff games in the Bears’ five-game loss to Providence in the first round.
The question going forward is whether Orlov suffers any lingering effects of his concussion. Assuming Karl Alzner is re-signed, Orlov will likely be battling Steve Oleksy and Jack Hillen for ice time on the parent roster next fall. The three constitute a bargain, salary cap-wise, consuming just over $2.1 million in combined cap room for the 2013-2014 season (more than half a million less than Jeff Schultz’ cap hit, by way of comparison). But is there a reliable, healthy third-pair to be cobbled together out of that group? Hillen and Orlov missed significant time to injuries this season.
In the end…
“Schulpotorlov” did not have the season wished for, not by a long shot. Jeff Schultz became a regular scratch, Tom Poti could never quite come all the way back from injury, and Dmitry Orlov would experience what amounted to a lost season. None are guaranteed a sweater on a regular basis – with Washington or with another NHL team – for the 2013-2014 season. All of them have a common goal in the season to come – “a comeback.”