ARLINGTON, Va. -- After the Washington Capitals' first preseason game against the Carolina Hurricanes on Sept. 21, coach Barry Trotz stopped defenseman Dmitry Orlov as he was leaving the ice.
"He had a big ol' smile when he was coming off the ice against Carolina," Trotz said. "He had a grin from ear to ear. I said, 'Hey, finally back.'"
It was the first NHL game in almost 18 months for Orlov, who missed last season following wrist surgery. He'll play his first regular-season game Saturday when the Capitals host the new Jersey Devils in their season-opener.
Orlov fractured his left wrist at the 2014 IIHF World Championship. Doctors estimated it would take 4-6 months to heal, but Orlov experienced complications from infection and difficulty with wrist mobility after having surgery.
Those setbacks pushed back his return by several months, and by the time he was healthy enough to play, there simply wasn't enough room for Orlov in the Capitals' lineup, Trotz said.
"It's hard to see him come in and try to smile every day and go out and kill yourself on the ice for an hour," defenseman John Carlson said. "Then he didn't play."
The focus during the preseason was getting Orlov as much playing time as possible to help get him back in shape. Orlov has not played in an NHL regular-season game since April 13, 2014, when Adam Oates was coaching the Capitals, so there was plenty of rust to shake off. He had three assists and was minus-3 in three late-season games with Hershey of the American Hockey League in 2014-15.
"They're like a backup quarterback," Trotz said. "They don't get enough reps, and therefore it's just a little bit slower and not quite as fluid."
Selected by the Capitals in the second round (No. 55) of the 2009 NHL Draft, Orlov has 31 points in 119 NHL games, all with Washington.
There will be an adjustment period while Orlov re-acclimates himself to NHL hockey and gets used to playing under Trotz. Although he's never coached the 24-year-old defenseman in a game that counts, Trotz already has a good sense of Orlov's abilities.
"I think he's going to be a big piece of the puzzle," Trotz said. "It's beyond evaluation, it's a belief. We believe he can play and we know he can play. We've seen it."
Orlov's role this season will be a big one. He's expected to be on the third defense pair with Nate Schmidt, who played 39 games for Washington last season.
The Capitals' third pair last season included Mike Green, who had 45 points and averaged 19:06 per game. Green signed with the Detroit Red Wings as a free agent July 1, leaving lots of minutes to fill and points to earn in Washington.
Though Schmidt and Orlov won't be expected to make up the deficit on their own, they will have a chance to contribute. Each is offensively skilled, but of the two, Orlov is the most likely to find a niche on the power play like Green.
"We have the ability to do things that Mike [Green] did, maybe not to the elite level that he does it, but not a lot of people can," Schmidt said. "We can bring a lot of things to the table. It can be both of us getting up in the play. It's kind of a dual threat type of situation."
Orlov's teammates are happy to see him back on the ice and eager to see what he is able to do in his first full NHL season since he played 54 games in 2013-14.
"It's just fun to see him handle the puck out there and do some of the things he does," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "He's a very highly skilled player and he can be a game-breaker for us."