“Come what may, all bad fortune is to be conquered by endurance.”
When the Washington Capitals drafted defenseman Dmitry Orlov out of Mettalurg Novokuznetsk in the KHL with the 55th overall pick in the second round of the 2009 NHL entry draft, he was the 20th defenseman taken to that point. In what was obviously a draft heavily weighted to that position, Caps fans might have wondered just what the team had, a steal at the position, or a reach. Then, we had to wait. Orlov spent another two seasons with Mettalurg, finally arriving in North America at the tail end of the 2010-2011 season to join the Caps’ AHL affiliate in Hershey.
After that brief stint with the Bears to close the previous season, Orlov started with the Bears in 2011-2012. He did not stay long. He was promoted to the Caps in late November and skated in 60 games for the parent club in his rookie season. And as it turned out, Orlov was one of only three rookie defensemen to play in 60 games, skate for at least 1,000 minutes, and record at least 19 points (Jake Gardiner and Justin Faulk were the others). He was fifth in hits among all rookie defensemen (bringing back the little-used these days hip check). It appeared he might be, if not a yet a steal, then certainly a defenseman to watch moving forward.
Orlov’s progress came crashing to a halt in 2012-2013 when he suffered a pair of concussions that limited him to just 31 games with Hershey (18 of which came during the NHL lockout) and just five with Washington.
The 2013-2014 season started with a whole different set of challenges for Orlov, illustrated by this list:
- September 30: Assigned to Hershey
- October 30: Recalled from Hershey
- November 3: Assigned to Hershey
- November 4: Recalled from Hershey
- November 13: Assigned to Hershey
- November 17: Recalled from Hershey
- November 22: Assigned to Hershey
- November 25: Recalled from Hershey
- November 26: Assigned to Hershey
In none of those four recalls did Orlov appear in a game for the Capitals. It made for some tension between the club and at least the player’s agent. Orlov was recalled one more time, on November 30th. Starting with that night’s appearance against the New York Islanders, Orlov went on to play in 54 games, going 3-8-11, minus-1. Despite the shuttling between Hershey and Washington and the whiff of ill will it produced, the club re-signed him to a two-year contract extension in March.
Two months later, playing at the world championship, he broke his left wrist in a game against Team USA. At the time he said, "My arm is broken and I can't turn it, so there is no point in suffering and trying to play. I'd only be a burden to my team.” Really? He was considering playing with a broken wrist? Tough kid. Unfortunately, the broken wrist is still not healed sufficiently for Orlov to skate in games for the Capitals as the pre-season winds down.
Fearless’ Take… The injuries aside, a mid-second round pick, still only 23 years old, averaging 4-17-20 per 82 games. If the Caps got that level of production out of him this season, they would probably be thrilled, given the hurdles set before him the past couple of years. If anything, he might be a late bloomer. Not having put up much in the way of offense with Mettalurg, he put up passable numbers in Hershey, averaging 11-33-44 per-82 games with the Bears over three seasons. It would be quite a stretch to think Orlov has the talent or would get the ice time to come close to those numbers, but it suggests there is room for growth in his offensive production.
He also had very respectable possession numbers last season (90th in Corsi-on ice at 5-on-5 among 237 defensemen playing in at least 20 games, eighth in Corsi-relative among that same group).
About those possession numbers, cuz. He played 54.4 percent of his 962 5-on-5 minutes with Mike Green last season, with whom he had a 55.9 Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5. With other defenseman he did not fare as well. In order of his share of minutes, with Tyson Strachan (15.3 percent of his time) his Corsi-for percentage was 40.4. With Connor Carrick it was 10.6 percent of his time and 45.5. With John Carlson it was 9.7 percent of his time and 45.5. Get the point?
The Big Question… Is Orlov ready (injuries notwithstanding) to be a regular top-six defenseman?
There is a widely held assumption in Capitals Nation that Dmitry Orlov is going to be a regular third-pair defenseman this season. At the moment, that would seem to be just that, an assumption. He still has just 119 games of NHL experience, plus 65 games at the AHL level. He is still very green, and it would seem more than a bit unclear whether he will grow into a tall and strong (well, strong… 6’0” seems to be where he will top out, height-wise). He hasn’t really shown that he can consistently: a) stay healthy, b) provide an offensive option from the blue line, c) pick his spots wisely when it comes to stepping up to make a hit, d) reliably defend in his own zone.
In the end…
Dmitry Orlov is still a prospect. Folks have him penciled in as the sixth defenseman, and that is probably a reasonable assumption. Absent injury, it would be his position to lose to start the season. But by the same token, it is not a given. Injuries have occurred with horrible timing in his young career, first keeping him from taking advantage of prep work at Hershey during the 2012 lockout to jump start his 2013 season with the Caps, now keeping from him from cementing his spot on the top six to start the season.
Those lost games mean lost development time as well, stunting his progress further. His absence could provide an opportunity for another defenseman to step up. Jack Hillen, another defenseman with a history of injury, has been reasonably effective when he has been healthy. Another left-handed shooting prospect such as Nate Schmidt might sneak into the mix.
Dmitry Orlov has made progress, but the games over which his has come has been stretched out over a longer period of time, and even with that progress, there is a certain “passenger” aspect to it – his much better possession numbers with Mike Green than with any other defenseman last season, for example. It indicates there is more progress that needs to be made. The Caps have a much deeper defense this season than last, and that provides a bit of a shield as Orlov continues his development, so long as he can remain in the lineup.
Projection: 58 games, 4-11-15, plus-1
Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images North America