Dmitry Orlov is the face of the Washington Capitals' future on the blue line. That face is a little dented now, as evidenced by a broken nose, but that's just another example of the defenseman's toughness and ability to be unfazed in the NHL.
At 20 years old, he hasn't looked out of place despite concerns in the preseason that he needed more seasoning. But after 35 games with the Capitals, he has become a key piece and still is growing into a substantial role.
"As it's gone on, he's done more and more to prove that he's fitting in really well. From the start, it's really hard to say because you don't really get to see exactly what he does because no one wants to come in and try to make plays that they might mess up on," fellow defenseman Karl Alzner said. "And now he's got the confidence and he's doing those things: He's handling the puck well, shooting the puck well and playing good defensively. So I think he's surprised probably a few people with the way he's been able to figure it out so quick."
Assistant coach Jim Johnson, who joined Washington on Nov. 30, called Orlov a "bright surprise," though he wasn't stunned by his ability to adjust quickly to playing in the NHL. He watched Orlov shine with Russia in the world junior championships and could see the raw ability.
"I was very impressed with his skill level and his ability to read the play, and his anticipation skills are exceptional," Johnson said.
Last summer, Orlov talked about his desire to better manage the risk-reward aspect of his game, such as when to jump up into the offense and when to lay out a big hit. At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, he's not the most physically imposing figure, but a background in rugby and instinctively knowing when to make hits allows him to be lethal.
Coach Dale Hunter likes Orlov's "spunk."
"His grit — down low he separates guys from pucks," Hunter said. "And he's not a tall guy, but he's got big legs, he's got a good base on him that you can't hardly knock him off his skates."
Orlov has had some body and hip checks this season worthy of a highlight reel, but not because of brute force as much as excellent timing. That awareness to know when to take the body has drastically improved even from rookie camp in September.
"He's getting experience. He is reading the play better and better," Hunter said. "And he steps up, and he can jump up in the rush when he's allowed and when it's the right opportunity. He's figuring it all out now."
Figuring out the English language, too. He isn't comfortable doing interviews in English, but he chats with reporters and teammates and is very coachable, according to Hunter.
Orlov again will wear a full cage shield Thursday night when Washington faces the Winnipeg Jets as a way to protect his nose, which was broken Saturday. He joked that taking pucks to the face two straight days was the result of "bad karma," though his willingness to play through it speaks to his toughness.
"He's a hockey player," winger Troy Brouwer said. "It kind of just comes with the territory and comes with the job. He's a pretty tough kid. But for the most part, it's hockey."
Orlov, who has one goal and seven assists, has no trouble playing hockey. And though the reins appear to be on him offensively to keep him from trying to do too much, the Caps are impressed with how he's rounded out his game.
"We at some point are going to want him to be a little bit more offensive, depending on the flow of the game and what the score of the game is and all that," Johnson said. "It's just important to him to understand how important it is for him to play in his own end, and just by playing good, sound, defensive hockey in his own end and creating offense from his good play and creating chances from his good breakouts and good reads. And his anticipation skills are really what's going to help us generate more chances on the offensive end."
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