ARLINGTON, Va. – Washington Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov had become all too familiar with the trip from Washington to Hershey, Pa., constantly shuttling between the NHL and American Hockey League during the early portion of the 2013-14 season.
Between Oct. 30 and Nov. 26, Washington recalled and subsequently reassigned the 22-year-old Russian four times without ever having him dress for a game. It was a peculiar situation to be sure, especially considering that the Capitals' defensive corps had been besieged by injuries and that Orlov appeared in 60 games in 2011-12. (An unearthed clause in his contract that stipulated that Orlov could leave for the KHL if he did not accumulate 30 days of NHL service by Jan. 1, 2014, further complicated matters.)
Orlov finally made his season debut on Nov. 30, and through his first six games, he has been silently solid in 17:03 of ice time per game. In Washington's 3-2 shootout loss against the Florida Panthers on Friday, Orlov played his best game to date, flashing glimpses of his potential by using his smooth skating ability and deft puck-handling skills to create several quality scoring chances.
Though Capitals coach Adam Oates is fully aware of Orlov's offensive skill set, he has continually stressed that he must improve in his own end in order to remain a viable option on defense.
"Yes and no. At times," Oates said Saturday when asked if he has seen improvement from Orlov in that area. "The play he made in overtime at the blue line [to set up a shot on goal with nine seconds left], I know he can do. That's a fantastic play, almost won us the game.
"It's our end. If he becomes a good player in our end, heads up, could be a great player."
With the help of Oates and assistant coach Calle Johansson, Orlov is making the necessary adjustments.
"I tried like play a more defensive style and playing in our zone, making no mistakes," Orlov said. "If I have chance, yeah, maybe I make offense, but I try to play defense and play like easy game, not turn the puck over."
Washington's coaching staff simply wants consistency from Orlov, having him focus on effectively closing gaps and, as Johansson described it to NHL.com, "multitasking."
"Just focus on knowing where the opposition is when he doesn't have the puck and things like that," Johansson explained. "As a defenseman, you can't only do one thing, you always have to do a couple things at the same time. That's what he has to get used to. When he's looking at the puck, he has to still know behind him what's going on and where the guys are."
In Orlov, the Capitals know that they have a young player with raw, game-changing talent, but one that still needs to be molded into a steady presence in their defensive corps.
"He's a great skater," Johansson said. "He's very strong on his [skates]. Not many guys in this League [are] as strong when he wants to be, but I'd like him to be more consistent and use it more to his advantage than he does a lot of times. I think we've got to help him build his confidence and become even better.
"It's not going to happen overnight, so we just have to have patience and he's going to have to have patience too and be willing to learn and do the right things. He's coming along. It's going [in] the right direction."
Here are the lineups for the Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers for their game Sunday at Verizon Center.
Notes: Erskine, who has not played since Oct. 26 while working himself back into game shape following offseason knee surgery, is expected to make his return to the lineup Sunday.