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Orlov growing into role as top Capitals defenseman

Game has evolved to where he's ready to play 'big minutes and in big moments'

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- When the Washington Capitals opened training camp two years ago, Dmitry Orlov was an unknown commodity.

The Russian defenseman was coming off a lost 2014-15 season, when a lengthy recovery from surgery on his left wrist limited him to a three-game conditioning stint with Hershey of the American Hockey League. It would have been impossible to envision then how important Orlov is to the Capitals now, with their first on-ice sessions of training camp beginning Friday.

By the end of last season, the 26-year-old was playing on the Capitals top defense pair alongside Matt Niskanen. After the departures of defensemen Karl Alzner (signed with the Montreal Canadiens), Kevin Shattenkirk (signed with the New York Rangers) and Nate Schmidt (claimed by the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft) this summer, Orlov is expected to play an even bigger role this season with potentially expanded duties on the penalty kill and power play.

He is looking forward to the challenge.

"Of course, every player wants to play big minutes and in big moments," Orlov said. "It's what we play for."

The Capitals demonstrated how highly they think of Orlov by signing him to a six-year, $30.6 million contract on June 30, the day before he was scheduled to become a restricted free agent. The $5.1 million average annual value of Orlov's contract ranks third among Capitals defensemen behind Niskanen ($5.75 million) and Brooks Orpik ($5.5 million), who each signed with the Capitals as an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2014.

Orlov transformed his game last season from being a "high-event player," the term general manager Brian MacLellan used to describe his penchant for making positive and negative plays at both ends of the ice, to someone coach Barry Trotz often matched against the opponent's first line. Orlov worked hard to earn Trotz's trust after his defensive struggles led to him being a healthy scratch for one game in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Video: Dmitry Orlov signs a new deal in Washington

He finished sixth in the NHL in plus-minus last season with a plus-30 rating along with an NHL career-high 33 points (six goals, 27 assists). Orlov had 29 points (eight goals, 21 assists) and was plus-8 playing mostly on the Capitals' third defense pair against weaker lines in 2015-16.

"The way he changed his game this last season compared to the one before that it was amazing how hard he worked to become an all-around, extremely strong defenseman," goaltender Braden Holtby said. "He was consistent all year long."

MacLellan now speaks glowingly about Orlov's growth as a player and believes he has yet to reach his ceiling.

"He hasn't been given much responsibility on the penalty kill yet and I think he's got ability," MacLellan said. "I'm hoping with Alzner gone he can fulfill that role for us. And then on the power play, he's been more our No. 2 power-play guy, and I think he has enough skill to play a little more minutes on the power play and increase his offensive production also."

Last season, Orlov averaged 19:32 in ice time per game, up from 16:01 in 2015-16, but his 1:08 per game on the power play ranked fourth among Capitals defensemen behind Shattenkirk (3:29), John Carlson (2:38) and Niskanen (1:47). Orlov rarely played on the penalty kill over the first three quarters of the regular season, averaging four seconds per game shorthanded, before getting 44 seconds per game in the last 20 games.

In 13 playoff games, he averaged 55 seconds on the penalty kill.

"Two years ago, he was kind of protected and got the favorable No. 5 [defenseman] matchups, and last year that wasn't the case and I thought he had a really good year," Niskanen said. "He's going to be counted on more and more. The good thing for him is I think he's still got room to grow."

Video: Discussing the expectations for the Capitals

After winning the Presidents' Trophy and losing against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Second Round each of the past two seasons, the Capitals aren't being discussed among the Stanley Cup favorites heading into this season. They have holes to fill from losing Alzner, Shattenkirk and Schmidt on defense, along with Justin Williams (signed with the Carolina Hurricanes) and Marcus Johansson (traded to the New Jersey Devils) to clear salary-cap space at forward.

But Orlov hasn't given up on winning the Stanley Cup, and plans to be part of the solution.

"It's going to come from our team, from everybody helping the young guys coming up to feel comfortable with our team," he said. "I think we have a good leadership group -- older guys, younger guys -- and we just need to come together, learn from last year's loss and move forward. It's how sports is."

It's possible the Capitals will begin the season with two rookie defensemen, and they're expected to lean heavily on Orlov, Niskanen and Carlson to log important minutes in their top four. Though Orlov said he is naturally "kind of shy and quiet," he believes he can help young defensemen such as Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey and Lucas Johansen, who will be competing for jobs in training camp, by sharing his experiences with them.

"When you get older, you get experience on the ice and in life and everything," he said. "I've been through different stuff in the past six years in North America. I've had injuries and new coaches and every year is different. … I think it's a good experience for me. I've come through a lot of things and it's helped me, and I think it's made me better as a person.

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