The week leading up to the NHL’s annual free agent feeding frenzy has become quite a period of activity around the league. Just over 24 hours from the opening of the circuit’s randomly stocked free agent emporium, the Caps have inked another of their impending free agents.
On Friday morning, the Caps announced they’ve reached an agreement with defenseman Dmitry Orlov on a six-year contract extension for a total of $30.6 million. The salary cap hit on Orlov’s deal is $5.1 million per season.
Orlov’s career hit a few snags early, most notably when he missed all of the 2014-15 seasons because of complications from surgery to repair a wrist injury sustained in the 2014 IIHF World Championship. But the blueliner bounced back strong with his best two seasons in the aftermath of that lost campaign.
Last season, Orlov totaled six goals and a career-high 33 points while averaging 19:32 per night in ice time. Paired with Matt Niskanen for most of the season, Orlov and Niskanen formed a strong two-way pairing capable of going up against top lines while also contributing at the offensive end of the ice. Both players surpassed the 30-point plateau while posting solid possession numbers as well.
Back in 2013-14, Orlov was so frustrated with his situation here in Washington that he requested a trade. He was yo-yoed back and forth between AHL Hershey and Washington for the better part of the first two months of the ’13-14 season, without seeing any NHL action at all. But once he finally worked his way into the lineup, he stayed there. From Nov. 30, 2013 through the conclusion of the season, Orlov missed only two games, both from an NHL suspension.
“I think it was huge when the coaches gave me an opportunity to play more minutes,” said Orlov, in a one-on-one interview after the Caps were eliminated from the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs. “I think it helped me to get my confidence and to build my game. [Associate coach] Todd [Reirden] always helps me, watching videos and talking about my game and how I changed my game. I try not to do too much on the ice, and just play it by situation. That has worked out for me.”
Niskanen’s contract still has four seasons remaining on it, so Washington’s top blueline pairing is seemingly set in stone for that period of time.
“When the coaches put me with Nisky, I was pretty excited,” says Orlov. “We didn’t play together much before. I knew he was a good player – a two-way defender who can play anywhere. He helped me to find my confidence from him and to grow. I look at him and what he does on the ice, and play by situation like I said before.
“Nisky is a great person, great guy and a great player. I hope we’re going to play together some more.”
With defensemen Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk virtually certain to sign elsewhere in the next few days, and with Nate Schmidt having moved on to Las Vegas in the 2017 NHL expansion draft, the Capitals’ blueline will get a major facelift for the first time in three seasons. Niskanen, Orlov and John Carlson are firmly entrenched in the team’s top four, but there is a spot open there on the left side of a pairing with Carlson.
Brooks Orpik is heading into year four of his five-year deal, and he is the likely lefty on the third pairing. Orpik’s presence and experience is important as the Caps try to integrate at least one and perhaps two rookie blueliners into their lineup.
Including the three defensemen chosen in the 2017 NHL Draft in Chicago last weekend, the Caps now have a dozen blueline prospects in the system who are aged 22 or younger. Ideally, a handful of them can step to the fore and earn multi-year contract extensions of their own before the final installment is paid on the deal Orlov signed on Friday.
Earlier in the week, the Caps made a couple of lower profile signings of players who could factor into Washington’s plans as early as 2017-18.
Goaltender Pheonix Copley is likely to be the starter at AHL Hershey this season, but he will be first in line for recalls at the netminding position, and he could figure into the team’s plans as a backup goalie in 2018-19. Copley inked a two-year deal for a $650,000 NHL base salary in both seasons. It’s two-way contract for the upcoming campaign, but a one-way deal for ’18-19, indicating the Caps’ belief in Copley’s ability to be NHL-ready by then.
Center Chandler Stephenson also signed a two-year extension for a $650,000 NHL base salary for each of the next two seasons. Like Copley’s contract, Stephenson’s deal is a two-way pact for 2017-18 and a one-way deal for ’18-19. Stephenson would have to clear waivers to be reassigned to AHL Hershey this fall, so he’ll have an opportunity to earn his way onto the Washington roster as a 12
th or 13
th forward this fall.
Late last week, the Caps also signed defenseman Christian Djoos to a two-year contract extension under similar terms, a $650,000 base salary and a two-way deal for the upcoming season and a one-way deal for ’18-19. Djoos is expected to compete for a spot in Washington’s top six this fall.
Friday’s signing leaves the Caps with five remaining unsigned restricted free agents: forwards Travis Boyd, Andre Burakovsky, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Liam O’Brien and goaltender Philipp Grubauer. Washington’s roster is likely to be dotted with a few minimum wage rookies for the first time in several seasons, leaving the Capitals with about $10.5 million with which to sign Burakovsky, Kuznetsov and Grubauer, plus another defenseman and another forward. The Caps have laid out nearly $64.5 million in salary to fill 17 roster spots to date.