The long, endless summer is only halfway done. The Capitals last played a game on April 24 and will not play another one until Oct. 2.
But with free agency and the NHL Draft behind them now, the 2019-2020 roster is almost set and it won’t be long until players begin trickling back onto the ice in Arlington for informal workouts.
With that in mind, and given the roasting temperatures outside, for four weeks NBC Sports Washington will look at 20 burning questions facing the Capitals as they look to rebound from an early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs, keep alive their Metropolitan Division title streak and get back to their championship form of 2018.
The list will look at potential individual milestones, roster questions, prospects who might help and star players with uncertain futures. Today we look at Dmitry Orlov.
Will Orlov rebound from a rough 2018-19 season?
Last season was not a good one for the Caps’ second defensive pair of Orlov and Matt Niskanen.
According to Natural Stat Trick, there were 55 defensive pairs who played 500 minutes or more together at 5-on-5 last season. Of those pairs, Orlov and Niskanen ranked 38th in Corsi-for percentage, 45th in goals-for percentage, 42nd in scoring chances-for percentage, 54th in high-danger chances-for percentage (second to last) and 55th in high-danger goals-for percentage (last).
Analytics are not everyone’s favorite means of measuring player performance, but if the job of a defensive pair is to limit goals and scoring chances, Orlov and Niskanen really struggled.
Whether it was Orlov who was dragging down Niskanen, Niskanen who was dragging down Orlov or just both players having a tough season is debatable and, at this point, irrelevant. Niskanen is now gone and Orlov is slated to remain on the second pair for Washington. If the Caps have any legitimate shot of making another deep playoff run this season, he will have to be much better than he was.
The good news is we know that he can be.
Orlov gets a bad rap at times because of his penchant for horrific turnovers in his early years. Replays of those turnovers and quotes like Brian MacLellan calling him a “high event player” are what sticks out when many think of Orlov, but he is a much better defenseman than many give him credit. The Orlov-Niskanen pairing was a huge factor in the team’s Stanley Cup run and it was not because Niskanen was just carrying Orlov through the playoffs. He is a top-four defenseman in his own right.
So while Orlov certainly can play better than what we saw last season, the real question is will he?
If Niskanen was returning next season, I would say the answer depends largely on whether Niskanen could rebound or if he was simply on the decline as a 32-year-old and would drag Orlov down with him. But Niskanen is not returning.
Instead, Orlov is expected to play with Nick Jensen and it is hard to know what to expect from them. They played only 33:16 together last season over the course of 20 games so there is not much data there to look at.
On the one hand, Orlov and Jensen look like a good fit. Orlov is a left-shot, Jensen a right-shot. Orlov has a high offensive upside, while Jensen’s offense is very limited. Jensen struggled in his short time with the team after getting traded from the Detroit Red Wings at the trade deadline, but it is reasonable to expect someone so important to Detroit’s defense to play better in Washington with a full training camp and preseason to prepare.
On the other hand, Jensen’s biggest struggle in Washington was getting caught on his off-side. He played on the left very little with the Red Wings, but in the Caps’ system where defensemen are expected to play both sides in the flow of play, Jensen has been caught flat-footed at times while trying to cover the left. Sometimes offensive-minded defensemen like switching to their off-side when they are in the offensive zone because it opens their bodies more for one-time shots. Orlov needs to be aware of his partner and the position he puts him in when he tries to get involved in the offense so as not to leave Jensen hanging.
All of this is to say that my answer to the question is I don’t know. Orlov can be better than last season, he has the skill to be a dependable top-four defenseman, but there are inconsistencies in his game. Either those will be exacerbated by a lack of chemistry with a new defensive partner or Orlov and Jensen will thrive together giving Washington an incredibly formidable blue line.
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