Meet your dark horse of training camp: Dmitry Orlov. Cut time came and went yet again, and the 20-year-old blue-chip defensive prospect is still with the Capitals.
With John Erskine still not cleared for contact and apparently at least a couple weeks away from that, Orlov is the only other defenseman left other than the six who should be in the lineup Oct. 8 against the Hurricanes.
But coach Bruce Boudreau cautioned not to read too much into Orlov’s presence.
“It’s a good sign that he’ll play one more game, though, I would think,” he said. “And that’s the only sign that I would think that we’re trying to give off right now – probably Sunday he’ll be in the lineup.”
Erskine’s long recovery from offseason shoulder surgery prevents him from being the Caps’ insurance policy on the blue line in case one of the top six gets hurt. So it seemed like one guy would need to be kept around as the seventh defenseman: either Orlov, Sean Collins or Patrick McNeill.
Collins and McNeill were sent (through waivers) to Hershey on Thursday. Now the question becomes how beneficial it would be to keep Orlov around just to practice with the Caps if he can’t crack the lineup.
“That’s a decision we definitely have to talk to George [McPhee] about,” Boudreau said. “You got two trains of thought – is it better for him to play or is it better for him just to practice and learn? It’s something that I’m sure will be discussed.”
The Caps’ track record has been to season even the most highly touted of defensive prospects with time in Hershey. Mike Green played 56 regular-season and 21 playoff games with the Bears; Karl Alzner played 104 in the regular season and 30 in the playoffs and John Carlson 48 and 29.
Orlov made an impressive statement by coming over to North America last winter to play for the Hershey Bears and continued that by showing up at Kettler early this past summer for workouts. In between, his play at the AHL level was beyond his age.
“He clearly was our most skilled defenseman in Hershey, and you can see NHL potential,” Bears coach Mark French said. “He does things that guys don’t do. I think those things will define him. I think he’s got to refine some of his game to become a better defensive defenseman – 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.”
Boudreau has said on a number of occasions that Orlov is still around because he deserves it, praising the Russian for being the best player at rookie camp and for being able to play with the big boys.
Wednesday night in Nashville, Orlov was again in the lineup and showed off his ability to get the puck through traffic with relative ease – an area the Caps struggle with, especially on the power play.
“I’m impressed with a lot of things he does. That being one of them. The way he handles the puck. The way he’s got his vision. The way he can move to the inside and move to the outside and get a break and then see people in front of the net,” Boudreau said. “We saw something [Wednesday] night – he’s got God-given talent that you can’t invent.”
It’s entirely possible the Caps go with six healthy defensemen to start the year, because McNeill and Collins – assuming they aren’t claimed on waivers – become quick, easy options from Hershey.
“It’s not hard to get on the phone and call them up,” Boudreau said.
Neither defenseman was going to play in the next two games, according to Boudreau, so there was no sense keeping them around. Orlov, on the other hand, will get another chance to show he belongs in the NHL now.