Though the Washington Capitals have struggled through the first 21 games of the 2011-12 NHL season, they have to be pleasantly surprised with the play of a couple of rookies who have taken on big roles in the early going.
Cody Eakin and Dmitri Orlov both earned NHL call-ups after posting impressive numbers at the AHL level, performing admirably during their stints in a Capitals uniform.
While Eakin was considered a good bet to be in Washington at some point this season, it was unclear as to whether Orlov would get his first big-league experience, primarily because the Caps' blue line is stacked with talent and experience, at least on paper.
However, after Mike Green went down with a troublesome groin injury November 13, Orlov's number was called by GM George McPhee, and the 20-year old Russian has taken advantage of his opportunity in a big way so far.
In just three games, Orlov has registered two assists, while also demonstrating the offensive skill and foot speed that has made him the latest hot prospect in what has become a long line of talented young defenseman coming out of Hershey.
The 2010-11 Season was a breakout campaign for Orlov, as he posted a respectable 12 points for Metallurg Novokuznetsk of the KHL, but his true coming-out party was the 2011 World Junior Championships in Buffalo. There, Orlov was the top defenseman for the Gold Medalist Russian squad, notching nine points en route to a spot on the tournament All-Star team.
At the end of the year, Orlov took his talents to Hershey, playing the final 19 games of the regular season and six postseason contests for the Bears. Though he performed well given the fact that it was his North American professional debut, the Caps didn't expect the speedy rearguard to challenge for a lineup spot the following season.
It's too early to tell whether Orlov is ready to take on a regular shift on the Caps' blue line, but what is clear is that he will be there in the near future, which is a welcome sight for Washington's brain trust. Mike Green and Dennis Wideman, the team's two best point producers (with all due respect to John Carlson) up for free agency on July 1, Orlov's offensive abilities will be a valuable asset going forward.
So far, Orlov has looked like a young Sergei Zubov, as he's been composed with the puck and quick enough to compensate for the vast majority of his errors, which are inevitable for a rookie defenseman.
Though Orlov may finish the season with Hershey, he'll be back soon, ready to fill an even larger role on the Caps' back end.