If there are any glimpses into the future, of what may result from the years-long process to push Dmitry Orlov to the peak of his potential, they were evident in an otherwise discouraging three-goal loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday night.
There was the Washington Capitals defenseman matching up with star center Sidney Crosby and the Penguins’ top line for most of the game. There was Orlov asserting himself into the offense by trailing the rush as a quasi fourth forward, knocking the puck around the zone and seeking out opportunities to fire shots at the net. There was his slap shot that found the net, launched by his swinging stick and past Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray before the goaltender even began to react.
That is the Orlov the Capitals are molding, and they don’t think he is far away from achieving a place among the league’s top defensemen. The 5-foot-11, 212-pound blue-liner is following a meticulous plan that Capitals assistant coach Todd Reirden believes will ultimately establish Orlov in that upper echelon of defenders, as a player that shuts down top lines, consistently produces on offense and contributes to the Capitals’ power play.
After missing all of the 2014-15 season with a broken wrist, Orlov has gradually worked through Reirden’s blueprint and continued his upward trajectory. He has seven goals, one short of a career high, and 12 assists in 52 games this season. He leads the team in even-strength ice time at 19:46 per game. He and Matt Niskanen spend a lot of that time matched against the opposition’s top skaters, and Orlov is also a fixture on the Capitals’ second power-play unit.
Now the 26-year-old defenseman is looking to layer more offense back into his game, a proven ability that has been dampened since he took on a tougher defensive workload.
“It’s just mind-set really,” Orlov said. “Everyone wants to be in the offensive zone, joining the rush, all that. But when you take on top lines you have to also put defense ahead of that always, and it can be tough to get your offense going. But I will get there, just sticking to the plan.”
The plan comes up a lot.
Reirden, who works with the Capitals’ defensemen, has one for each of his players tailored to their age, ability and fit in the Capitals’ system. Orlov’s plan started in what, from the outside, may be seen as a lost 2014-15 season. Orlov and Reirden spent hours alone on the ice together that year, working through Orlov’s frustration and a rehab process that lasted longer than expected. There was doubt, at times, that Orlov would fully recover, moments that it seemed like his wrist could keep him from ever shooting or stickhandling as he did in the past or becoming the player he wanted to become.
“I think it helps you reconnect with how important the game of hockey is and how much you miss being around your teammates and being the player you once were,” Reirden said of what that season meant for Orlov. “It’s a situation we’ve used as growth, and we’ve referenced it in the last couple years. When things got bad or if games didn’t go well, when things weren’t moving in the right direction, occasionally you’d be like, ‘Remember two years ago, we weren’t sure you’d be able to play at this level again.’ ”
That isn’t referenced anymore. Orlov doesn’t need to hear it to find another gear. He is driven by his own ambition to succeed and Reirden’s vision for him, which has added another element to his game in each season since the injury.
Step 1: Build Orlov’s confidence by giving him favorable matchups and a lot of offensive-zone starts. Check.
Step 2: Build his role and move him into a place among the team’s top-four defensemen, which heightens his competition, but measure the ice time at first. Check.
Step 3: Add ice time and challenge him to bump up his offense within that role. He finished with a career-high 33 points (six goals, 27 assists) last season. Check.
Step 4: Raise his level of competition to matchups with top lines and lessen his offensive responsibilities. Check.
Step 5: Keep skating him against top lines and add that high-level offense back in. Pending.
“That’s at the top,” Reirden said, his right hand raised well above his shoulder. “That’s where he becomes a top guy. He’s had growth every year. He’s on track for that goal, absolutely.”
Adding that offense back in is not a matter of conditioning. Orlov’s preparation and work ethic is what stands out most to his fellow defensemen — from 22-year-old rookie Madison Bowey to the veterans of the bunch — and he sometimes skates so hard in practice that his laces split open. His average ice time, 23:07, is the highest of his career by almost four minutes, and it hasn’t slowed him down.
Finding the right balance between jumping into the offense and carrying out the team’s most important defensive assignments is what Orlov has to figure out. He feels like he is close to doing so. Reirden feels it, too. And when he does, when this plan is complete, another will be put in place to see just how much Orlov’s game can grow.
“He is a great guy to follow, a great guy to look up to and model my game after, I feel like,” said Bowey, who is just 44 games into his own plan. “Dmitry just does everything and does it so well. I want to be like that.”