Last week, Barry Trotz said he envisions Dmitry Orlov playing in the Caps’ top four this season, paired with either Matt Niskanen or John Carlson. If Orlov were to be deployed as a top-four defender, it would have a ripple effect on the rest of the defense. For one, Brooks Orpik would likely be playing on the third pairing. It could also mean a reunion of Carlson and Karl Alzner, a pairing we’ve seen much less of since Niskanen and Orpik came to town.
But the part of this possible deployment I’d be most interested in seeing is Orlov paired with Niskanen. Doing this would not only mean more minutes for Orlov, who drove shot attempt differentials better than any other defender on the team last season, but it would mean minutes with a player whose steady defensive style could be a great compliment to Orlov’s high-risk, high-reward style.
Among the Caps seven regular defenders last season, Orlov and Niskanen finished near the top in a few important categories, including first and third in shot attempt percentage and first and second in shot attempts against per 60. And while Niskanen is generally thought of as a very solid defender or better by the majority of those around the Caps, people are much more divided on Orlov.
Before getting into what divides people on the Russian blue liner, it’s important to note that last season, Orlov, after missing the entire 2014-15 campaign to injury, not only was one of the team’s better puck possession players, but was also one of the most productive defenders in the entire league at 5v5.
But Orlov draws plenty of criticism for the rather noticeable mistakes he sometimes makes as a result of his high-risk, high-reward playing style. And, while I’d contend that — despite his faults — Orlov is still a net positive for this Caps team, there’s plenty of game film and some stats that justify criticisms for his play.
But here’s the good news: there’s reason to believe Niskanen might be just the defensive partner to help minimize Orlov’s weaknesses, leaving Orlov free to be the creative offensive weapon he’s shown he can be. While they haven’t spent enough time skating together to draw any worthwhile conclusions, the early returns are encouraging. In 64 minutes together last season, the duo posted a shot attempt percentage of 59.3 percent.
A look into Niskanen’s strengths and how they align with Orlov’s weaknesses provides even more reason for optimism.
Last season, only Orpik was worse than Orlov at preventing goals at 5v5, but Niskanen was better than any other defender on the team (all stats from here forward via Corsica):
However, it should to be noted that the ranking of these players for on-ice save percentage is identical. So, it’s safe to say luck has something to do with the goals against numbers over the course of a season.
But luck isn’t the only factor at play here. Taking a look at Corsica’s xGoals, a model used to try to gauge shot quality, again shows an area where Niskanen may be able to help minimize Orlov’s weaknesses. The chart below shows the expected goals against per 60 for each defender:
While the spread among the seven players here is small, this again shows an area where Niskanen is at the top and Orlov, likely at least in part due to his style of play, ranks near the bottom. Additionally, Niskanen ranks first and Orlov seventh in Corsica’s scoring chances against per 60, which is built off of the xGoals model.
Some of the stability Niskanen appears able to offer could be in part due to playing so many minutes with Alzner. While Niskanen has only skated 434 minutes away from Alzner at 5v5 since joining the Caps, he’s posted a 54.5 percent shot attempt percentage during these minutes, so it’s not as if Niskanen is being propped up by Alzner.
Early indications are the Caps may shake up the depth chart on the blue line next season. While it remains to be seen if the coaching staff follows through with the potential changes, the ideas being tossed around could potentially maximize the strengths of the defense. One particular change that could do this is pairing Orlov with Niskanen, as there’s evidence to suggest that the latter could be a stabilizing force for the former.
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