Photo: Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports
After missing 40 games with a lower body injury, 35-year-old Brooks Orpik returned to the Capitals line-up in mid-February. In his return, Orpik had a new defense partner in Dmitry Orlov.
The pairing was fascinating, at least for me, because it combined the Caps’ strongest and weakest defensemen, according to possession. Orpik and Orlov had rarely been a tandem before, with Orpik spending most of his Caps career beside John Carlson (currently injured) while Orlov had mostly been with his right-hand man Nate Schmidt.
Orlov’s and Orpik’s styles could not be more different. They’re defensemen from different eras, informed by different philosophies. Orpik is a physical player expected to clear the crease and limit opponent shot quality. Orlov, meanwhile, endeavors to move the puck out of the defensive zone quickly.
“Everybody’s changed a little bit right now,” Orlov told me after a recent Caps practice. “Everybody’s trying to do fast game and everything should be made fast. Make fast plays and, for sure, skating is a big part of this game right now and everyone should be a good skater.”
Orlov’s goal is to start an attack and generate shots in the offensive zone. There the 24-year-old Russian can be a game-breaker with his dangling ability and cannon of a shot from the blue line. His game is fast, fast, fast.
But Brooks Orpik is old school: the late 90’s definition of a shutdown defenseman. Like Scott Stevens before him, Orpik looks to rail players and inflict a physical toll on them in the defensive zone. The former Stanley Cup champion can be a steadying influence for a younger defenseman with limited minutes, but his best skating days are behind him. Orpik wants to slow the game down and play a war of attrition.
Over the last few weeks, Orlov and Orpik have had limited time together (fewer than 100 minutes of 5v5), but the early returns are both captivating and concerning. Orpik had arguably his greatest offensive stretch of his career in February, tallying six points in six games (February 16 to February 26). Orlov also had a hot stretch in late February as well, putting up five points in six games and tallying the game-winning goal against the Minnesota Wild.
But then there’s the possession. Before February 16, Orlov had led all Caps defensemen in shot suppression and relative possession; he halted opponents and set his team up in the offensive zone. But paired with Orpik, Orlov’s possession has drifted into the red. Even more worrying: the pace of the game has skyrocketed above 120 shot attempts per 60 minutes when they’re on the ice. That blistering shot rate might be indicative of poor chemistry or just bad communication. It could also be something else altogether.
In a potential pre-Stanley Cup showdown Sunday, the Caps took on Chicago Blackhawks. That game illustrated some of the defensive pairing’s deficiencies.
Patrick Kane has torched most of the NHL’s defensemen this season, and Orpik was no exception. Kane routinely skated around Orpik.
Kane vs. Cone pic.twitter.com/l7xnw6J8bD
— Ian Oland (@ianoland) February 28, 2016
In contrast, Orlov, at times, looked lost and uncomfortable with the speed of Chicago’s game, showing his inexperience in the defensive zone.
In Tuesday’s 3-2 win over the Penguins (a potential first-round match-up), the Orlov-Orpik pairing had a different problem: they were too aggressive.
In the first period, Orpik left the blue line to deliver an unnecessary hit at center ice, leaving Orlov alone to defend a two-on-one between two of the best offensive players in hockey: Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. Orlov looked tentative on how to guard the play, throwing Braden Holtby into chaos. With Holtby unable to fully challenge the shooter, Malkin used his patience to eventually flip a puck from close-range into the net.
I asked CSN Mid-Atlantic analyst and former Capital Alan May what he thought of the pairing.
“They can be really good without gambling,” May said. “But Orpik must be patient with his physicality; he can’t chase big hits. He plays best when he’s under control in-between the blue lines.”
“Orlov is best when the puck is on his stick,” May continued. “He’s great at rushing the puck up the ice and his shot is the best of any Caps defenseman. But he can sometimes get himself in trouble in the defensive zone. Sometimes he reaches too much and sends soft backhand passes up the right side boards that lead to turnovers. Others times he’s guilty of puck watching. Orlov’s best when he mirrors an attacking player with the puck and takes away their free ice.”
May said that he believed the pairing could be good in time, but they both must be more firm with their puck movement and simplify their games.
John Carlson, Orpik’s original partner, is expected to return from injury at the end of March. If the Orlov-Orpik pairing lasts until then, Carlson would likely end it and reunite with Orpik, though the Carlson-Orpik pairing may no longer occupy the “top-pairing” slot.
Both Carlson and Orpik have missed long stretches of this season to injury, and Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner have arguably been the Capitals’ most reliable shutdown pair anyway. Nate Schmidt, second only to Orlov in possession metrics, has excelled in his bigger role and may be a good foil for John Carlson.
Maybe Orlov and Orpik could perform admirably as the team’s third pairing with an easier deployment. Once they get the feel of one another, Orlov could shorten Orpik’s defensive-zone sloughs, and Orpik’s experience could be helpful to Orlov’s development.
They’re struggling now, but Orlov and Orpik may become the Caps’ secret weapon: big plays and big hits from the back line.
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