The Washington Times - October 3, 2011, 10:53AM

Every step along the way, Dmitry Orlov has been a pleasant surprise for the Capitals. He shined in rookie camp, was the star of the game against the Flyers and earned a spot with the big boys.

Then he showed he could hang there, too, getting into a few games along the way and seemingly delaying his inevitable assignment to Hershey. But now the preseason is over, and Orlov is still around.


The question becomes: Will he be around Saturday when the Caps open vs. the Hurricanes? And if he is, will he be in the lineup?

Sunday’s exhibition finale against the Blackhawks at least gave the hint that Orlov could crack the top six. The 20-year-old Russian was in the lineup as the sixth defenseman in place of Jeff Schultz and it appeared possible that the Caps could start with the pairings of Karl Alzner and John Carlson, Roman Hamrlik and Mike Green and then Orlov and Dennis Wideman.

But then came Bruce Boudreau’s postgame press conference, when he called Orlov’s performance “mediocre.”

“Every game is a game-by-game assessment, sort of, with the young guys, anyway,” the coach said. “That comes in with the consistency, and at this level, you have to bring your A-game every night – or at least nine out of 10 nights.”

Orlov saw a little bit of penalty-killing time against the Blackhawks and was noticeable with hits on Jamal Mayers and Daniel Carcillo on the same shift. But there were blunders, too, like an ill-advised pass behind the net to Wideman that tied up the veteran with two Chicago forecheckers coming.

Boudreau knows that “risk and reward” is part of Orlov’s game.

“It was just flashes – flashes of his talent. That you’re willing to say, ‘OK, listen, we have to take another look at this guy.’ There’s also flashes of, there’s things he needs to learn,” Boudreau said. “You get caught between the ‘Wow, that looks really good’ – between that and ‘Wow, he needs time to understand the game a little bit better.’ ”

But will Orlov understand the game better with the Caps or the Hershey Bears? Hershey coach Mark French called Orlov his team’s best defenseman down the stretch last year but was quick to point out that the young defenseman needs to improve on a lot of things – namely being defensively responsible.

“I think he’s got to refine some of his game to become a better defensive defenseman,” French said. “That will never be his calling card, but I think to play at the next level, he’s got to get more comfortable with defending in a number of areas.”

That learning curve is still present, but there might be an opportunity for Orlov to grind it down while sticking in Washington. John Erskine still hasn’t been cleared for contact, so the job of the Caps’ seventh defenseman would be vacant assuming the team puts Erskine on the injured list or long-term injured reserve.

Even so, would it be worth it for the Caps to keep Orlov around if he’s not getting regular game action? That’s a debate Boudreau, McPhee and their staffs will have to have sooner rather than later, unless Orlov is deemed ready to slide into Schultz’s spot this week.

If that happens, Schultz could be one of the better – and better paid – seventh defensemen in hockey. And Orlov would be the biggest surprise of the preseason in Washington.

Actually, he already is.