One of the biggest weaknesses of the Capitals for the entire 2019-20 season has been the second defensive pair, specifically the right side. Neither Nick Jensen nor Radko Gudas, both right defensemen, have been able to lay claim to that sport over the course of the season. Now, head coach Todd Reirden is looking elsewhere. As Washington prepares for the return to play, the team has been primarily skating Brenden Dillon and Dmitry Orlov as its second defensive pair with Orlov, a left-shooting defenseman, playing on the right.
Is it a big deal to have a defenseman playing on his off-side in the team's top four? Not to Reirden.
"I think it's something that we spend quite a bit of time talking about is guys playing their off-side," Reirden said. "Defensemen are so active on every team now whether it's an offensive zone play or joining the rush that sometimes they need up on the wrong side a lot more than maybe you might totally realize within a game. It's not as foreign as it sounds, especially in particular for a European player that has spent a lot of time on their off-side as defensemen."
In North America, left shooting defensemen typically play on the left with the rights staying on the right. Sometimes you get players on the off-side (usually left-shot players on the right because there are way more lefties than righties) out of necessity, but that's about it. In Europe, it's different and players routinely play both sides.
"I used to play on the right side for the most of my career," Orlov said. "In Russia it is defense differently, you know? Lefty play right and righty play left. Obviously I played growing up and here they put me right away on the left side. It is not a problem."
If Europeans do it, why does it matter?
Obviously how a player defends changes depending on where their stick is. That's a given. The two biggest factors beyond that are puck retrieval and puck movement.
Being able to retrieve the puck along the boards is a big part of playing defense. Think of how much the boards are utilized in hockey. A right-shot player playing on the right side near the boards is going to have a much easier time retrieving and distributing the puck off the boards than a left-shot defenseman because the right defenseman can retrieve on the forehand. A left-shot defenseman would have to switch to his backhand in order to get the puck, thus giving himself less time to distribute as he has to move from backhand to forehand. Receiving a pass on the off-side is difficult as well because the player is not in a natural position to receive the puck on his forehand.
The need to move from backhand to forehand both on the boards and when receiving the puck takes up valuable time. In the European game where the ice is bigger, that is not as much of an issue as players have more time to distribute the puck before feeling any pressure. Against a strong forecheck in North America, however, this could potentially become an issue.
"It really relies on your skating and your positioning, the angles you play are a little bit different on playing rushes for that are coming against you," Reirden said.
There is a benefit to this, however, and it comes in the offensive zone.
"Obviously it opens up a number of things offensively in terms of ability to be able to use your one-time shot in the offensive zone play when you're joining the rush in the offensive," Reirden said, "Supporting the rush now you're stepping into one-timers as opposed to catching it on your forehand and shooting a wrist shot."
Think of Alex Ovechkin in his office. He playes his off-side because it opens him up for one-timers.
In the Caps' defensive system, defensemen switch sides in the offensive zone frequently and are then expected to defend against the rush on that side until the defense can get reset. Some defensive structures are much more rigid, but with the Caps it is understood that you will spend time defending on both sides. It's inevitable. That's why the addition of defenseman Brenden Dillon, another lefty, at the trade deadline can still be beneficial to Washington.
Left defenseman was not the Caps' biggest need at all, but Dillon can still help the team because defending on the left will allow Orlov his offensive chances on the right. That's a pair we did not see much of prior to the season pause, but now they are getting time to work together in training camp.
"Good player and right now we kind of work every day together," Orlov said. "We doing some practice drills and during scrimmages we try to talk and communicate after shifts what he want to see or what he want to see from me. I think it is help us and will help us in the future."
Moving Orlov to the right is not a perfect solution by any means. While Reirden has been adamant that Orlov is comfortable playing on the right, he sure has not looked like it in the few times he was put there during the season. He and Dillon will have a lot to prove when the team takes the ice for actual games.
But while moving Orlov to the right may not be ideal, it may also be the team's best option to shore up its defense.
Said Orlov, "It's harder to recover from that side, but I have time and I practice right now and I think we are going to be fine."
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Is Dimitry Orlov the solution for the right side of the Capitals's defense? originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington