“For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.”
-- Leonardo da Vinci
Assuming Dmitry Orlov is on the Opening Night roster for the Washington Capitals, it will have been 545 days between NHL games for the young defenseman. Since he appeared in 60 games in his rookie season in 2011-2012, one in which he went 3-16-19 and finished fourth among rookie defensemen in scoring, Orlov has missed 153 of the Caps’ last 212 games over three seasons, including the entire 2014-2015 season to a broken wrist. It is hard to remember that Orlov, as a rookie, was third among Caps’ defensemen in scoring despite being only sixth in average ice time and appearing in only those 60 games.
After missing all that time trying to comeback from a broken wrist, and before that the after effects of a concussion suffered in November 2012, Orlov has to demonstrate he is durable enough to shoulder the load of an 82-game season. He will come into the 2015-2016 season penciled in on the third pair for the Caps, where he might be expected to skate 15 minutes or so a night.
For the moment, Orlov is what he was back in those days in 2011-2012 – mostly “potential.” The reason he is not all potential is that despite all the time missed he is still 14th in his 2009 draft class in games played (119) and points (310 among the 70 defensemen selected.
If you are an optimist, there still is not much to go on with respect to Orlov and his potential to nail down that third-pair responsibility. There is this, though. He had 65 games of experience at Hershey where he was 9-26-35, with another ten games of playoff experience with the Bears, going 1-3-4. It suggests at least the possibility that he could be a contributor in the offensive end of the ice. And, he can throw the occasional open-ice hip check, if folks have forgotten…
There is the 545 days between games played, there is the fact that two of the five defensemen Orlov played with in his last game for the Caps are no longer in the organization (for the record: Julien Bruoillette and Tyson Strachan) and a third (Connor Carrick) seems unlikely to start the season in Washington. In fact, only eight skaters with whom Orlov played the last time he dressed for an NHL game are likely to be taking the ice with him on Opening Night. One might expect that there will be rust. Not “rust dripping off the bow of the Titanic wreck” thick, but some nonetheless.
The Big Question… Is it reasonable to think Dmitry Orlov can put together a complete season in his first after missing so much time?
The problem for Orlov is that his injury bug hit right in the middle of his early development phase. He is still just 24 years old, but he is going to be asked to assume a full share of ice time having missed the better part of three seasons in his development. That could mean that he looks more like a 22-year old rookie for long stretches this season than one might normally expect, especially early in the season. On the other hand, he does have those 119 games of regular season experience, and that could lead one to think (hope?) that the rust falls off quickly and that he resumes his climb upward on his development arc.
In the end…
Playing teams that have legitimate shots at a championship usually means that one has to find those soft spots to exploit to be successful in defeating them. Dmitry Orlov could be a soft spot for the Caps, at least in the early going. He has missed a ton of games over the last three seasons, and he is still a developing player, one with his development stunted by those injuries and time missed. In a sense, he is, if not starting over, than starting a couple of squares back on the game board.
It is probably not reasonable to think that he is going to come out of the gate prepared to be a consistent performer. He and Nate Schmidt on that third defensive pair could be a pairing that opponents seek to exploit on a nightly basis. In an odd way, it makes Orlov a suitable measuring stick for how the Caps are doing as the season progresses. They are a team than cannot have good work done elsewhere negated by mistakes made by a young defensive pair. In that respect, the objectives for Orlov’s season as it progresses are durability and improvement. He exhibited the latter over the early part of his career, but has struggled with the former. What makes it especially important for Orlov to be more durable is that, for the moment, the Capitals do not have very attractive options at the sixth defenseman position if he is unavailable.
That it has been a long time coming for Orlov to be healthy and in the Caps’ lineup is something of an incentive for Orlov to perform, and there is a danger there of trying to do too much before he has his game legs under him and sturdy once more. Still, it would be hard to think that Orlov would lack for effort as he assumes a regular spot in the lineup; it is a place he has missed and Caps fans have longed for him to return. That could help him to a productive season in the end.
Projection: 62 games, 5-13-18, plus-2
Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images North America