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Sturdy Emergence

Dmitry Orlov has emerged as a reliable veteran

by Ben Raby @BenRaby31 /

Life is pretty good for Dmitry Orlov. The Capitals top-pairing defenseman is coming off the best season of his NHL career and was rewarded with a lucrative contract extension over the summer. Orlov signed a six-year deal in June.

As the 2017-18 Capitals integrate prospects like Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos along the blue line, Orlov has emerged as a reliable veteran for a unit in transition.

"As he's matured," says head coach Barry Trotz, "his game has gotten more deliberate, more precise, and better thought out. He's a pretty complete defenseman and he's going to be a big part of our success."

With the offseason departures of Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt, plus an early-season injury to Matt Niskanen, a case can be made that Orlov's value in Washington has never been greater.

But to fully appreciate Orlov's current spot on the team, one has to look at how far he's come.

"There were some very difficult days," Orlov concedes.

Orlov first came to North America in February 2011 for a late-season cameo appearance with the AHL's Hershey Bears. He was 19 at the time, hardly spoke English and was homesick. The Capitals second-round pick in the 2009 draft latched on to Hershey teammate Dmitry Kugryshev, the only other Russian on the team.

After making his NHL debut in 2011-12 and impressing in 60 games as a rookie, Orlov was a healthy scratch for all 14 playoff games.

Although the Capitals were high on their defensive prospect, injuries later stalled his development. Over the next three seasons, Orlov was limited to just 59 NHL games. A broken wrist suffered at the 2014 World Hockey Championships was the most significant injury, forcing him to miss the entire 2014-15 campaign.

As the Capitals came together that year under a new coaching staff, Orlov grew restless.

"It was a tough time in my career," he says. "I shouldn't remember these things- you try to forget when you have negative in your life. It was hard."

Orlov says the most difficult parts were the recurring setbacks, the isolation and the constant unknown of when he would play next.

"It's always hard when you come in the morning to skate by yourself," he says. "You're not playing, you're not with the guys, and at that time, I didn't know if I'd be able to play again."

Orlov admits that although he wondered about his long-term future, support from his wife, his parents and his agent helped ease those concerns.

Orlov finally returned in 2015-16, suiting up for all 82 games, albeit in limited minutes on Washington's third defensive pair. Although he showed flashes, Orlov was turnover prone and couldn't always be trusted in late-game situations. General manager Brian MacLellan called him "a high-event player," suggesting there was both risk and reward.

"There was a lot of junk in his game," Trotz recalls. "It wasn't in order yet. We didn't have trust in it. It was very sporadic."

The coaching staff challenged Orlov to be better in 2016-17, providing him with an opportunity to crack the Capitals top four and climb the defensive depth chart. It proved to be a turning point in his career.

Orlov responded with a career-best season. His game steadied and he finished with six goals and career-highs of 27 assists and 33 points. His plus-30 rating ranked second on the team. By season's end, he was skating alongside Niskanen on the No.1 D pair for the Presidents' Trophy winners.

 "The coaches are a big help," Orlov says. "[Associate coach] Todd [Reirden] always helps us and talks to us to make us better players."

Orlov also says that simply playing more - he skated nearly three-and-a-half more minutes per game - and knowing that he had the trust of the coaches contributed to his breakthrough season.

"I feel good, not so much worried about making mistakes," says Orlov. "It's more confidence to make plays."

"There's less risk in his game; or more-calculated risk," MacLellan says. "I think he's more comfortable. Played a good two-way game and played great with Niskanen. It seemed to be a really good solid pair for us."

Trotz has also seen steady growth in Orlov's play.

"When I got here he was obviously coming off an injury season and he was basically not playing, he was an extra," Trotz says. "His growth, we talk about a young player being patient, allowing him to grow, allowing him to make mistakes, allowing him to get to the next level. And with a good plan and his work ethic and him buying into it, he's turned himself into a pretty good player, a good piece for us."

After years of waiting for his turn to be among Washington's defensive leaders, Orlov is embracing the opportunity.

"I'm ready for it," he says. "When you play more it's better to grow. You get more confidence, you start to play more situations and you know how to better handle those situations."

Adds Trotz: "He's a pretty complete defenseman and he's going to be a big part of our success. His defensive game has gotten so much better. He plays with a little bit of an edge. So, all that being said, he's developed nicely from a little bit of a broken player with an injury to a really well-rounded, solid defenseman in this league."

In addition to more even-strength ice-time for Orlov, he is also skating more on both special team's units this season.

"I thought he's had really good growth as far as his consistency and how he's approached the game," Niskanen says. "He still utilizes his talent and his instincts to do things that not a lot of defenseman in this organization can do. And then defending, through reps and getting consistent minutes every game, he's gotten better and better since I've been here with him."

Niskanen was once at a crossroads in his career too, struggling with the Dallas Stars during the 2010-11 season before being traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins provided Niskanen with an opportunity to move up the depth chart with increased ice time on special teams. As player turnover and injuries decimated Pittsburgh's blue line in 2013-14, Niskanen emerged as a top-pairing defenseman.

Four years later, Niskanen sees Orlov taking advantage of a similar opportunity and experiencing a similar surge in his play.

"He's grown to be a really exceptional defenseman. It's just a continued growth and trust in his game and consistency in his game that's allowed him to chew up those minutes and allowed him to feel comfortable he could do it and manage it.

"And the good thing with Dmitry is that he's got room to grow still. He's young enough and he's just scratched the surface of his potential. He'll be a real high-end player for us for a while."

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