Offensive Defensemen and the Orlov Myth

Photo: Chris Gordon

First, a quick literature review.

“Orlov is a talented, smooth skating offensive defenseman who prefers to press the attack and create scoring opportunities at all times.”

 – Hockey’s Future. No date provided.

Q: The public at large in the U.S. knows only that Orlov is a D-man. Is he a “stay-at-home” defenseman or an offensive defenseman?

A: I would say it’s offensive… But we don’t know what the coach says in the locker room. He’s not a “stay-at-home” defenseman, that’s for sure. His attacking skills have actually led him to play some games as a forward. He scored twice that game.

- Evgeni Starikov, a Metallurg Novokuznetsk fan, to RMNB. January 2010.

“He loves to attack on the rush and this will lead to him earning points on a team like the Capitals (though they have become more defense-minded).”

Dobber Hockey. April 2012.

He’s a great offensive player. He’s very effective on the power play and everything. It definitely hurts when he’s not there.”

Cam Schilling to the Washington Times. December 2012.

Since even before Dmitry Orlov made his Caps debut back in 2011-12, we’ve heard that he’s an offensive defenseman, the eventual successor to Mike Green’s throne as the Caps blue liner most likely to attack.

I’m not so sure.

(Note: whether or not Orlov is an offensive defenseman is not a value judgment. It’s a matter of what kind of player, not how good of a player. I personally think he’s totally nifty.)

Let’s define our terms. To me, an offensive defenseman is a defender who regularly participates in the attack. He enters the offensive zone, takes shots, and– hopefully– scores goals. The best examples of offensive defensemen I can think of are Erik Karlsson, Kris Letang, and Mike Green. They’re all great players, and they all love to score.

When playing with Mike Green over the last three season, Dmitry Orlov has seen 54.5 percent of shot attempts belong to his team. That’s an awesome possession score, but he is not the one generating those shots.

Possession scores alone won’t reveal who is an offensive defenseman. A blue liner who is great at dealing the puck to forwards in neutral but doesn’t join them in the offensive zone might rank high on Corsi charts, but wouldn’t merit the title of an offensive defenseman. Instead, let’s look at how they generate shots individually.

I grabbed the 285 defensemen who played at least 500 minutes in the last three seasons, and I ranked them by their individual shot attempts during 5v5. Then I grouped them into quintiles. Here they are, from lowest to highest.

Group Shot Attempts / 60 Examples
I  5.79  Regehr, Smid, USS Hal Gill
II  7.23  Oduya, P. Martin, Suter
III  8.23  S. Jones, J. Johnson, Stralman
IV  9.17  Phaneuf, Ehrhoff, Subban
V  11.34  Karlsson, Yandle, Letang

There is some selection/survivorship bias in the numbers (crummy defenders rarely play offense and are less likely to hit 500 minutes over three seasons), but I think this stands up.  Group V is your elite offensive defensemen. Erik Karlsson and Kris Letang are in there.  Down in Group I, the most hermetic of the stay-at-homes, you find guys like Robyn Regehr and Lanislav Smid. That’s kind of what you’d expect.

Now here’s how the Caps defense corps sorts.

image (13)

Orlov is in group II. He is not an offensive defensemen; he’s the opposite. He shoots less than Karl Alzner, who may or may have an acute puck-shooting allergy. Orlov’s reputation (evidenced in the quotes above) do not match his stats, which otherwise fit our expectations.

Orlov has played 45% of his NHL career next to Mike Green, the 20th most aggressive defender on the list. Maybe Green sucks up all the shot-attempt oxygen when they’re together. That’s totally possible. And Orlov is in the 65th percentile when it comes to primary assists, which might suggest he’s a bit more involved than his personal shots indicate. Still, I wonder with some anxiety about what would happen if Orlov and Brooks Orpik, the two least aggressive Caps defenders, were to get paired together next season like I mused last week.

Let’s do the literature review one more time.

  “He looks at himself as an offensive defenseman. I look at him as an all-around defenseman.”

That’s ex-coach Calle Johansson speaking to the Washington Post last September. I think he nails it. All the scouting reports and buzz about the Orlov– even his own reported characterization of himself– have missed the mark, but Orlov is still a solid player with a bright future.

It kind of makes you wonder what else the conventional wisdom gets wrong. Are there other types of players who get miscast? Are there any lone wolves who are actually terrific teammates? Are there any scoring forwards who actually stifle offense? Are some types of players routinely overvalued?

If only there were some way to test ideas through repeatable observations…

Bill-Nye-science

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  • Patrick Neimeyer

    Although Peter makes a valiant assessment on what Orlov brings to the table, I think his skill-set may at times translate differently. Consider him the “opportunist,” jumping in on odd-man rushes and flashing the occasional Russian toe-drag. But much to Peter’s credit, Orlov still remains a mystery for alot of fans, more or less finding his identity among the caps faithful hopefully this year.

  • Ben Reed

    This is interesting, thanks. I wonder whether his shooting hesitation stems from Oates/CalleJo’s coaching, either directly (telling him he can’t/shouldn’t shoot) or indirectly (his fear of being sent down for not “focusing” on D).

  • Timberly

    Great article! With limited space for up-and-coming defensemen next season, I really hope we get to see more Dmitri Orlov. Also, I think you meant Calle Johansson, not Marcus, when you were referencing the WaPo article.

  • Shaun Phillips

    I think he gets mistyped because he is such a great first pass guy and such a smooth skater. Also, I wonder if he suffered more from the Oates effect of minimal skating/puck carrying by d-men than the other guys.

    EDIT: If we’re lumping him in the same group as Suter, I think we got a keeper.

  • Ash

    Ten million points to RMNB for not using the word “enigmatic”.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    Well, I’d argue that he’s NOT been a mystery for fans. He’s consistently been classified as an offensive defenseman. There might be ways to detect that in stats that I’m not doing here, which I’m totally open to looking at.

  • Bobandy

    He’s is still an idiot for taking that charging/ boarding/ hit from behind/ whatever you want to call it on Schenn last year. Was a game we should have won, and a turning point in the season IMO…..not that we would have made a splash, even if we had made the playoffs, but that was one of the biggest boneheaded plays of the year.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=waYZWi-Fkso

  • Patrick Neimeyer

    Oh he definitely is, I’m not arguing that. But more or less just hockey player looking forward, and perhaps waiting for the right opportunities. Similarly, Alex Ovechkin’s stalk-and-pounce approach might be similar with that of Orlov’s. Is this a habit of all-ruskie defensemen and maybe players as well?

  • Fred

    #EnigmaticRussian

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com Ian Oland

    This is such a great analysis of his play thus far. Eye-opening stuff.

    Now because I’m a big nerd, last night, I saw that through the first 120 games or so of their careers, Orlov and Green have almost the exact same dashboard stats. So while as a young, developing player Orlov hasn’t displayed that offensive knack – I think that’s something that comes with moar confidence (Orlov and from his coaches) and moar power play time.

    Keep in mind, Oates yo-yo’d him between Hershey and Washington and repeatedly dissed him in the media saying he wanted to see Orlov succeed in the defensive end. It was almost like he was trying to guilt him into it. Hunter would point out the same things when he coached him. So I think there’s a little bit of some tough love going on here and the player just trying to be what other people want him to be to succeed and stay in the NHL.

    The biggest thing is: I think he’s going to be more of a complete defender in the end and not as much as an offensive defenseman. But still we’re early. For him to improve at this point, he’s going to have to shoot more during his ES opportunities and put the puck on net. It’s these little patterns he needs to improve on.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    Except Green’s first 120 games didn’t presage an offensive breakthrough. That happened only after and explicitly *because* he was given the most offensively minded coach the league has seen in a long time.

    G/A/P in Orlov’s first 120 games don’t suggest he’ll be like Green in his next 120 or that his style will be any different. Actually, you’d find more players whose boxcars looked like Green but didn’t end up becoming him than otherwise.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com Ian Oland

    How dare 20 year old player make mistake!!!!! GRRRR!!!!! NOW IAN ANGRY TYPE KEYBOARD jklasdfjklasdfjkkl;asjklsfdalk;kl;adsjlkadsgj;klasdg;lads;lkldsaf;lkdsafl;kjsdafl;kdsfadsalk;sadjksdakl;sealijksafk;wen;fkojkpsera; http://stream1.gifsoup.com/view/257866/keyboard-smash-o.gif

  • hedgehog

    Unrelated but still #fancystats: It would be cool if the NHL had SportsVu and stats similar to those in soccer that track distance covered. A fivethirtyeight article on Messi and his work rate got me thinking the same way about Ovechkin (i.e. that there isn’t as strong a correlation between production and work rate as you might think)

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com Ian Oland

    (Is a presage the thing that the girl puts on the guy’s suit when they go to prom?)

    Bruce is a great point. Orlov will never have that kind of coach and Green has not come close to those numbers since he left too. And I know dashboard stats aren’t the greatest thing to pull out in a discussion, but I just think he’s still rapidly growing as a player.

    Let’s also consider this too: Green and Orlov’s stick-handling and puck-carrying skills are high-echelon and very similar. Orlov’s shot is harder than almost everyone else’s on the team. So the offensive defenseman skills Orlov most definitely possesses. He’s closer in skill set to Mike Green and John Carlson than John Erskine. It’s just up to him and his coaches to put this whole puzzle together as he continues to develop next year and beyond.

  • Daryoush

    In terms of pure skill he’s one of the most talented players on the Caps. I’d argue he’s a solid all-around defenseman (with a physical edge) and he’s capable of playing with anyone in any situation. Also, the last couple of years there have been periods of time where he doesn’t shoot enough- he has an absolute cannon. I think he’s a smooth-skating, superbly talented, two-way defender that has the potential to be a top-pairing guy in the future. I’ve also been really high on him since I started scouting/watching him in 2008. People seem to forget he’s only 22. I think he has the potential and skill-set to one day be playing at an elite level- it’s all about him being more consistent which will come with playing more simple at times, being confident in his own abilities, and playing a more patient game.

  • Shaun Phillips

    I think he could be a lot like Kronwall is with the Wings. Definitely has top pairing potential. I think we’ll see him blossom this year with Trotz.

  • Daryoush

    What I love about Orlov is that he can play very physical and will take the body. He has gotten a lot more disciplined (minus the Schenn hit), about when to step-up and when not to. Great attribute to his game.

  • TM

    Maybe he’s been coached in WSH to play defense first and as a 2nd/3rd pairing on a team that had some pretty awful defense, having him rip some clappers and try and sneak his way past the opposing team (which we’ve seen from him) had most probably, especially from Oates, been frowned upon.

    Orlov I would say is the just about the only Defenseman on the Caps I could see actually playing a forward position. We’ve seen him make a few people look foolish with his hands. It’s rare but I’ve never seen it from Carlson or Alzner.

    How often did we hear from coaches just in the last two years about Orlov needing to play a more disciplined game or something like that. I think they’ve tried to limit how he plays the game.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    I think he’s closer to Mike Green in skill but miles away in style.

  • Sarah

    I agree. I’m not sure we know what we know about any of these guys, especially our D, until we see what Trotz does. Should be interesting!

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    it’ll happen soon!

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    Dammit. Yes. Thank you.

  • Jonathan Cribbs

    Yeah, he doesn’t take shots, but he certainly loves jumping in on the rush. My limited memory says he likes to dish the puck off to breaking forwards instead of taking a shot.

  • dylan wheatley

    nice that we’ve got three defensemen in that 5th quintile

  • dylan wheatley

    do you still have the spreadsheet pete? i’d like to see where teams that do well sit on a ranking of the teams based on the number of 4th and 5th quartiles guys (above some arbitrary TOI number to settle on what a team’s “top six” have been, were, etc)

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett
  • Amykins

    Do we need to start calling you Smokin’ Peter Hasset?

  • Amykins

    And an extra million for blinding us with science.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett
  • dylan wheatley

    lol boston

  • Sarah

    Some of us already do

  • dylan wheatley

    teams with d-men in the 4th and 5th quintiles, using pete’s 500 min TOI cutoff:

    BOS 9
    PHX 7
    COL 6
    LAK 6
    NYI 6
    VAN 6
    CAR 5
    OTT 5
    PHI 5
    SJS 5
    WPG 5
    DAL 4
    DET 4
    NYR 4
    TBL 4
    CGY 3
    CHI 3
    CBJ 3
    FLA 3
    PIT 3
    WSH 3
    ANA 2
    EDM 2
    NSH 2
    NJD 2
    STL 2
    TOR 2
    BUF 1
    MTL 1
    MIN 0

    next i guess i’d like to see what percentage of each team’s SH/60 comes from their blue liners and see if theres any correlation.

  • Larry E. Ramey

    Individual shot attempts are probably a bad marker. Lets look at corsi. Oh look… Orolv’s corsi is through the roof.

    The kid is a great skater who gets the puck up ice. The fact that he passes to a forward to shoot, is not, to me, a problem. We have freaking Ovi. If I played with Ovi I would certainly pass it to him too.

  • John Bolt

    I think this is a case where the SCIENCE! is misleading.

    Hunter wanted nothing to do with him, he clearly wasn’t one of Oates’ preferred choices. Why? We assumed it was because his defense was lacking. If we were correct wouldn’t it stand to reason that once given the chance last year, he would be a little gun-shy offensively?

  • http://batman-news.com Dim Shady

    Orlov has the ability to be an offensive defenseman as he shows flashes of it… Once he starts to feel comfortable maybe gets hot and scores a few goals then he’ll get the confidence it takes. I think he second guesses himself sometimes and plays it safe, not always a bad thing but he’ll learn to pick his spots better and feel the game out as he plays more.

  • http://batman-news.com Dim Shady

    It was poor judgement on that play but if it weren’t for him the Caps probably wouldn’t have had the lead anyway… Plus I think he’s used it as a learning experience

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    The science isn’t misleading, you’re just making a guess (a reasonable one) that’s immaterial to what the data are telling us. Orlov might sometime in the future be an offensive defenseman. That’s totally possible, but for now there is no evidence of that. We can poke at reasons why that might be, but it doesn’t make it less true. If Orly’s arm is all healed up by October, we’ll have more information from his usage under Trotz and get an even better pictures.

    Still, I bet you and I both wonder what Orlov would’ve been like under Bruce.

  • John Bolt

    Yup, I’m totally making a guess. It’s why I said “I think…” Perhaps I should have said: “I think the data is misleading.” Which I still do.

  • Luke Anthony

    Think it comes from his solid shot and good puck handling abilities. He’s only 22, just be patient. He has the potential to be a good D with decent offensive skill, he’ll never be an Erik Karlsson or P.K. Subban, but not many are at this level.

  • Barrett

    I don’t think he’s a pure offensive defenseman or a typical shutdown defenseman, he’s somewhere in the middle, but leaning more toward the offensive side of the spectrum. I think the label we might want to use is “Puck-Moving Defenseman”.

    You don’t see the shutdown guys carrying the puck up the ice from the goal line through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone while throwing out some nifty dekes and curl-and-drags on defenders. With more time he could be just like the top offensive guys of the past and present. (Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith, Kris Letang, PK Subban, Mike Green, Brian Campbell, Sergei Gonchar, Dan Boyle and Erik Karlsson)

  • Matt Lauer

    I hate to say this, but as long as Ovi is in the Ovi Spot for the powerplay, Orlov will not be the PP quarterback. This is perhaps one of the few moments where I will actually agree with Oates’ obsession with handedness: you need a right-handed shot at the point to get the pass to Ovi smoothly. With Orlov there, he would have to corral the puck and re-position his body before passing off, which gives the goaltender the opportunity to move to the side of the net more quickly and therefore block the Ovi Shot. Orlov’s point stats may suffer because of the inherent preferability of having one of Carlson, Green, or Niskanen in that spot. Ouch.

  • OvechkinFiresAndScores08

    put him on the second unit when ovechkin is off

  • OvechkinFiresAndScores08

    I think he will be more of a two-way D-man who will maybe put up 10-15 goals.

  • Matt Lauer

    That’s all well and good, except Ovi is usually off the powerplay for all of 20 seconds or so. Doesn’t really offer a solution for Orlov.

  • jalabar

    I would choose to call Orlov a very good PUCK MOVING defenseman. He’s awesome skating the puck out, he’s very good passing. I think they refer to him as an offensive defenseman because of his SKILLS, not how he has thus far chosen to deploy them. Karl Alzner isn’t EXHILIRATING when he grabs the puck and starts the rush up ice. Orlov certainly is, and would seem to have the skills to be a great offensive defenseman. But thus far he has assumed a more defensive posture, and perhaps that is because Oates and friends harped on Orly concentrating on his own end, etc. If he is healthy, and Trotz loves his potential as much as I do, I hope we’ll see a much more offensive Orlov next year. If I’m Reirden, I’m chomping at the bit to unleash this guy on the lesser competition he’ll see on the third pairing (whether as the #5 or #6).

  • RESmith

    “How often did we hear from coaches just in the last two years about
    Orlov needing to play a more disciplined game or something like that.” I think that is the next step in Orlov’s development. His problem, as is not uncommon with young players, is that he is trying to do too much. (It is also hard to discourage because you would rather have a player hustle and commit “sins of commission”rather than the opposite.) He needs to dial it just a tad back, let the play come to him more and trust in his skills to take over. The was a week and half after his late season suspension where he did just that and he made twice as many plays and breakups simply because he was in better position.

  • RESmith

    “‘He looks at himself as an offensive defenseman. I look at him as an all-around defenseman.’
    That’s ex-coach Calle Johansson speaking to the Washington Post last September. I think he nails it.”

    I now I have said this repeatedly before, both in terms of his skating and style of play, Orlov reminds me a lot of Alexei Zhitnik who was a solid, all-around defenseman who ended up with 1,085 NHL games under his belt. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexei_Zhitnik) (http://www.legendsofhockey.net/LegendsOfHockey/jsp/SearchPlayer.jsp?player=11794)

    Zhitnik was never an elite player, but was definite solid first and second pair guy that logged a lot of important minutes for all the teams he played on. He also was pegged as an offensive defenseman early in his career but he ended up being a better defensive player than an offensive one. Orlov has better hands but he has the same solid skating base and a bit of grit to his game as Zhitnik did and see him developing into the exactly the same type of dependable all-around player. He will not be an elite scorer in the Karlsson or Green mold. Orlov might be second only to Marcus Johansson on this team in how they have been miscast in their development.

  • Pat Magee

    I would say hes a two-way D with an offensive upside. He’s very hockey smart. Being paired with Mike Green, he knew they both can’t attack constantly, so he would hang back a bit and let Greenie do all the attacking.

  • Dcsportsfan85

    Great article. I think people really underestimate his defensive upside. I would agree “all-around” or “two-way” would be the best way to describe his game. I also buy into the theory that playing with Green forced him to play less of an aggressive role. I’d be curious to see his shots generated/60 stats in 2011-12 compared to 2013-14.

    Adam Oates’ system also placed a lot of restrictions on his game and lets not forget that Oates’ was not Orlov’s biggest supporter. McPhee basically had to force Orlov into the line up. That can definitely have a physiological effect on how aggressive a young defender will play.

    If I had to point out one game last season that best displayed Orlov’s game and potential it’d have to be either the OT loss to the Florida Panthers or LA Kings. In both games he looked great offensively and defensively. He played an aggressive, physical brand at both ends of the ice. He was excellent at puck retrival and using his skill & speed to lead the breakout with accurate passes or carrying the puck up ice. He was creating turnovers defensively and scoring chances offensively.

    The biggest thing I noticed in those games was his confidence and he avoided costly turnovers and maintained good positioning. I know I am a homer but I think Orlov has a ton of upside and that Trotz could do wonders for him.

  • Mal

    The numbers don’t lie, but the conclusions are incorrect, IMO.

    I think the true measure of an offensive defenseman is how well he is at generating his team’s total offense — which is reflected by the SUM of zone entrances, his shots, his teammates shot, assists, etc.

    I think Orlov has easily shown that he’s already the best Caps’ D-man at carrying the puck (at least compared to current version of Green) into the offensive zone. That in itself is probably a more valuable contribution to the team’s offense than any shots a defenseman might take.

    And of course it’s still very early in his career, so he should learn to pick his spots better. Still, his shot % last year was same as Green’s.

    No doubt in my mind that Orlov is an offensive defenseman, as in his best attribute is helping the team create offense.