“After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”
-- Nelson Mandela
There were 85 players in the NHL who appeared in at least 82 regular season games last season. Washington Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov was one of them. It might not sound like a particularly noteworthy accomplishment, but he was one of just seven defensemen 24 years old or younger to play in all 82 games last season, it was his first season having played in all of the Caps’ regular season games, and perhaps most important it signaled a successful return from a wrist injury that cost him the entire 2014-2015 season.
They were not empty minutes Orlov played, either. He was 8-21-29, plus-8 last season. Only Mike Green among Capital defensemen in the post-2004-2005 lockout era posted more goals and more assists with a better plus-minus rating at the age of 24 or younger. And as one might expect from a defenseman who might be thought of among the “secondary scoring” contingent, when he did score, the Caps were successful. They were 6-1-1 when Orlov recorded a goal, 21-4-1 when he recorded a point.
It might have been his working his way back into NHL-playing shape, or injuries to other defensemen, or his performance, but as the season wore on, Orlov got a heavier workload. In his first three ten-game splits of the season he did not post a 20-minute game. In his fourth ten-game segment he had five such games and had a total of 13 games with 20 or more minutes of ice time over his last 47 games of the season.
Even having missed an entire season to injury, Orlov is just the 16th defenseman in Capitals history to appear in 200 or more games by the time he reached the season in which he turned 24 years of age. He is only the 13th Capitals defenseman to record a total of 60 or more points by that milepost of his career. He also ranks high in his 2009 draft class. The 55th overall pick in that draft and the 20th defenseman selected, Orlov is 11th in games played among defensemen in that class (201), 12th in goals scored (14), tenth in assists (46), tenth in points (60), and eighth in plus-minus (plus-8).
Dmitry Orlov posted some rather impressive possession numbers in 2015-2016. His 53.43 percent Corsi-for led all Capitals defensemen logging at least 100 5-on-5 minutes (numbers from Corsica.hockey). He was 17th of 119 NHL defensemen with at least 1,000 5-on-5 minutes. And, it is a fine number in historical context. That 53.43 percent Corsi-for is the 13th-best mark for a Capitals defenseman logging at least 500 5-on-5 minutes over the last nine seasons (53 defensemen overall). His possession numbers have improved in each of his NHL seasons, from 49.50 Corsi-for in 2011-2012 to 50.00 percent (in just five games) in 2012-2013, to 51.20 in 2013-2014, to 53.43 percent last season.
Eleven games, no goals, one assist, benched after playing less than six minutes in Game 1 of the second round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, benched for Game 2 in its entirety. One shot on goal in five games of the Penguin series. He became the eighth defenseman in Capitals playoff history to appear in at least 11 games and record one or no points. That is a list that includes Brendan Witt, John Erskine, Tim Gleason, and Ken Sabourin, none of whom could be thought of as offensive defensemen. That was Dmitry Orlov’s introduction to postseason hockey.
The Big Question… Is Dmitry Orlov a legitimate top-four defenseman on a Stanley Cup contender?
A team that finished the previous season with 56 wins and 120 standings points without suffering any big offseason personnel losses has to be in the conversation of which teams are Stanley Cup contenders. Last season, Orlov was working back and forth between a third and second pairing on defense, depending on the Capitals’ blue line injury situation. This season, it would seem as if he is going to get more consistent second pairing minutes, depending on how the Caps and head coach Barry Trotz intend to deploy Brooks Orpik.
The unknown is as much how he will mesh with his partner in a top-four scenario. Last season, Orlov skated more than 100 5-on-5 minutes with just three defensemen: Taylor Chorney, Nate Schmidt, and Brooks Orpik, none of whom would be a top-four defensemen if Orlov earns a spot. He skated a total of 132 5-on-5 minutes with Matt Niskanen, Karl Alzner, and John Carlson, one of whom would be his partner as a top-four blueliner (numbers from stats.hockeyanalysis.com). If Niskanen and Alzner are reunited as the top pair on defense as far as 5-on-5 ice time is concerned, keep in mind that Orlov skated only 31 5-on-5 minutes with Carlson all of last season. There might be some early get-to-know-one-another considerations here.
In the end…
Dmitry Orlov gets lost in the noise among other Capitals under-25 year old players. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, and even Tom Wilson seem to get more attention. Orlov was not a first round draft pick, as those other three were, which makes his progress a bit more unexpected, but certainly not unwelcome. And, he is part of a solid cohort of under-30 defensemen on the club that includes John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Matt Niskanen, and Nate Schmidt. He does have issues from time to time in his own end and in going for the hit rather than the smart play, still (evidenced by his benching in last spring’s playoffs), but he has improved his game from year to year despite his losing more than a full season to injury. Had that not taken place, one might be talking about Orlov as having among the better early-career resumes among defensemen in Caps franchise history.
Now, Orlov appears likely to be given more responsibility (top-four ice time) commensurate with his developmental arc. The Caps are a deep enough team to be able to suffer the occasional hiccups and mistakes than might come with graduating to that level of responsibility. However, it is something that Orlov has to work to address and overcome. That is the next hill to climb in his development.
Projection: 80 games, 9-22-31, plus-8
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images North America