Once a playo≠ scratch, Orlov is fix­ture for Caps

The Washington Post - - SPORTS - BY IS­ABELLE KHURSHUDYAN

Cap­i­tals Gen­eral Man­ager Brian MacLel­lan of­fered a frank eval­u­a­tion of Dmitry Orlov af­ter last sea­son: “A high-event player — at both ends there’s some events go­ing on,” MacLel­lan said.

His coach didn’t trust him, even scratch­ing him from a play­off game. He fre­quently stood in front of a throng of re­porters and an­swered for his costly turnovers.

Fol­low­ing an 82-game reg­u­lar sea­son in which Orlov skated 19:32 per night, MacLel­lan’s tune on the young Rus­sian de­fense­man has changed. And so has Orlov’s stand­ing in the Cap­i­tals’ blue-liner hi­er­ar­chy.

“With more ice time, he’s proved that he has the abil­ity to play at that level, to be a top-four guy,” MacLel­lan said.

A year af­ter los­ing his pa­tience with Orlov and bench­ing him, Cap­i­tals Coach Barry Trotz trusted him against top com­pe­ti­tion in piv­otal Game 4 of Wash­ing­ton’s first-round se­ries against Toronto. That coach­ing de­ci­sion was praised as one of the rea­sons the Cap­i­tals beat the Maple Leafs, 5-4, to re­turn to Ver­i­zon Cen­ter with the post­sea­son se­ries tied at two games apiece.

Once con­sid­ered a de­fen­sive li­a­bil­ity, Orlov has es­tab­lished

him­self as one of the Cap­i­tals’ stead­i­est blue-lin­ers. While play­ing the most even-strength min­utes of any Cap­i­tals skater against Toronto, Orlov has tilted the ice in Wash­ing­ton’s fa­vor, with the team tak­ing 52 per­cent of the shot at­tempts when he has been on the ice, ac­cord­ing to hockey data site Cor­sica. With de­fense­man Karl Alzner out with an undis­closed up­per-body in­jury, Orlov and Matt Niska­nen have be­come the Cap­i­tals’ top duo.

“Orly looks like a to­tally dif­fer­ent player this year,” Trotz said. “You have to go through it. You’ve al­most got to get knocked down so you can get up, and when you get up, you find your­self in a bet­ter place, if you will. You see that in Orly. . . . He’s earned the right. I couldn’t have said that last year.”

In the Cap­i­tals’ open­ing game in their sec­ond-round se­ries against the Pitts­burgh Pen­guins a year ago, Orlov mis­played a goal by Ben Love­joy, and Trotz scratched him the fol­low­ing game for a first time all sea­son, a de­ci­sion Trotz still stands by and one that was agreed upon by the coach­ing staff.

“It’s al­ways not easy when your coach sit you,” Orlov said be­fore the start of the playoffs. “You know, I don’t want to think about that time. It is what it is. Noth­ing changes from that. It’s go­ing to be a les­son from me on that time. Right now, I’m not look­ing back.”

Af­ter Orlov missed the en­tire 2014-2015 sea­son be­cause of a wrist in­jury, his devel­op­ment was a year be­hind en­ter­ing last sea­son. While he con­sis­tently flashed of­fen­sive up­side, his de­fen­sive gaffes would of­ten lead to Trotz cut­ting his min­utes.

A re­stricted free agent dur­ing the sum­mer, Orlov had his con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions pro­longed be­cause the 25-year-old wanted the op­por­tu­nity for a big­ger role on the team. The Cap­i­tals agreed and moved him into the de­fense corps’ top-four while bump­ing vet­eran Brooks Or­pik to a third pair.

The 31/2-minute in­crease in ice time this year ben­e­fited Orlov be­cause he no longer feels the need to force any­thing of­fen­sively dur­ing his lim­ited op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“He was caught in the mid­dle a lit­tle bit where he was try­ing to make some­thing hap­pen, and as a re­sult, things were com­ing the other way, and the coach didn’t trust him and didn’t put him out as much,” MacLel­lan said.

“His game just con­tin­ues to grow,” as­so­ciate coach Todd Reirden said. “It’s not just of­fen­sively. It’s his abil­ity to de­fend and his un­der­stand­ing of when to make high-risk plays and times to make plays that some­times just get out of the zone.”

The abil­ity to pick his spots bet­ter is what landed Orlov, with Niska­nen, the chal­lenge of fac­ing Toronto’s top line fea­tur­ing star rookie cen­ter Aus­ton Matthews, a 40-goal scorer. Play­ing con­sis­tently also has bred a new con­fi­dence. Orlov scored six goals with 27 as­sists for a ca­reer-high 33 points and was a plus-30 this sea­son.

Niska­nen rec­og­nized Orlov’s raw tal­ent early and vol­un­teered to play along­side him at the start of the sea­son.

“He knows he’s go­ing to get his shifts and is go­ing to get back out there, even af­ter a mis­take, be­cause he’s proven him­self at this point that the guy’s a player,” Niska­nen said. “I al­ways be­lieve that a player plays his best when they have that free­dom to make a mis­take and go right back out there the next shift. Be­cause then you’re not wor­ried about it, you’re not hes­i­tant. You have to play with a free mind. But that’s not some­thing that can be just given. That has to be earned. You have to earn the coach’s trust, and I think he’s done that now.”

There was once some ques­tion whether the Cap­i­tals would ex­pose Orlov, a re­stricted free agent again this sum­mer, to the new Las Ve­gas fran­chise in the ex­pan­sion draft. There now seems to be none. Asked whether Orlov is in the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s plans, MacLel­lan said, “Oh, def­i­nitely.”

“He’s hav­ing a hell of a year,” Niska­nen said. “He’s re­ally com­pet­i­tive and want­ing to get bet­ter and still wants to get bet­ter yet. I don’t think he’s done im­prov­ing yet. He has the po­ten­tial to be an ab­so­lute stud this spring.”

PA­TRICK SMITH/GETTY IMAGES

Dmitry Orlov, shown dur­ing Game 1 against the Maple Leafs, has de­vel­oped into a re­li­able top-four de­fense­man for the Cap­i­tals.

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