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The Value of the Orlov-Niskanen Pairing

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Since they were united more than half way into the season, Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen have been nothing short of outstanding. Now, they may be being misused.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Toronto Maple Leafs at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

At first, there was a bit of an adjustment period for Matt Niskanen.

Partnered up with Karl Alzner for much of the season, Niskanen now found himself alongside Dmitry Orlov. At the time, Niskanen admitted that playing with Orlov provided Niskanen with a different role within the team. After all, Alzner isn’t quite at the same level offensively as Orlov.

But the pair has blossomed into one of the best combos the Capitals possess. The dynamic Orlov and the steady Niskanen accompany one another wholly.

“He’s a good player, he’s got a lot of great tools,” Niskanen said of Orlov. “He’s got an ability to do things that I can’t do, and I think we just complement each other real well with how we approach the game.”

“We just read from each other, know what we need to do,” Orlov said of Niskanen. “[I] get the puck, try to get open right away, make more options. I can even help him find different options. He’s great player and it’s great to play with him.”

Niskanen has proven his value in years past, but it has been Orlov who has taken the next step to his game.

Prior to the season, Orlov was prone to a costly mistake, generally a misplayed breakout pass that would lead to a goal. During last year’s playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Orlov found himself as a healthy scratch after a giveaway led to a Nick Bonino goal and a Capitals’ loss. In 3-0 loss to the New York Islanders in December of this season, Orlov committed two brutal turnovers in a five minute span, forcing him to essentially take the blame for the loss. At the time, Orlov vowed to minimize the mistakes, and ever since then, they’ve been in short supply.

Instead, moments of Orlov’s devastating hits, his dazzling puck work and the responsible play in his own zone come to mind.

“I think his decision making [has improved], he’s got such a good feel for things,” Niskanen said. “When to use his skills to try to create something, and there’s times where he just manages the puck smartly. He has the ability to do things that nobody else can, and there’s a time when that is really useful. But, then there’s time where you just have to manage the puck, and, depending on the situation, he’s really good at that.”

Barry Trotz agrees.

“Orly has just matured,” Trotz said. “I mean, from year one, when he missed the first year to coming full circle where he’s a really good young defenseman. He’s always had the offensive instincts, but I think his instincts on defending correctly and understanding responsibilities a little bit more, positioning, all that, reads in the defensive zone allowed him to make better choices offensively. And having a veteran guy who makes a lot of good choices in Nisky and who has a great stick, I think you just learn from that example.”

Trotz says that the defensemen succeed together because both have a bite to their game. They both have good sticks, they both have a mutual understanding of what the other is capable of and they respect each other’s game. They also both jump into the offensive play.

That notion to join the offense took a bit of time for the pair. Orlov says that the system the Capitals run allows him to understand that every defenseman his capable of getting up offensively, and he knows when he should and shouldn’t join the rush. Niskanen agrees, but it still took a little time to adjust. After all, both guys want to be the offensive-minded player.

“There’s been a few times, as a rush is developing, where we’re racing each other to get up the ice, and that’s a good thing,” Niskanen said. “As a d-group, you want to be involved, but you just have to read off of each other. If he’s in a better position to join, then he should go, I’ll play more conservatively, and vice-versa.”

That harmony is evident. According to Puck Analytics, the two played 750:31 minutes of 5v5 time together this season. When the two were on the ice, Washington scored 37 goals and only allowed 23. Their on-ice shot attempt total was 752 for and just 586 against, giving them a more than respectable 56.2 shot attempt percentage together as a pairing.

At an individual level, it becomes even more clear. Virtually every player that plays with either one of Orlov or Niskanen reduces their shot attempts against while increasing their total shot attempts for.

Orlov Wowy
Niskanen Wowy

Besides the obvious benefits of the possession game between the two, Niskanen and Orlov work together so well because, as Trotz put it, they understand each another. As the right-handed player, offense tends to flow Niskanen’s way, and the value Niskanen brings offensively is shown below.

Shots With Niskanen On Ice
Shots With Niskanen Off Ice

Orlov, the left-handed player, has to naturally take more responsibility in the defensive zone. Sure, he has offensive ability, but opposing offenses gravitates towards his left side. And it’s evident that Orlov is comfortable in his own zone. He tends to allow fewer opportunities in the high-danger sections of the ice.

Attempts Against With Orlov
Attempts Against Without Orlov

In the first two games of the playoff series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Orlov and Niskanen haven’t been relied on as the shutdown pairing. That distinction has instead belonged to Alzner and John Carlson, who have seen lots of time against the Leafs’ top pairing of Zach Hyman, Auston Matthews and William Nylander.

Instead, Orlov and Niskanen have seen the majority of their ice time against the technical third line of James Van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Mitch Marner (though in Game 2, Orlov and Niskanen’s ice time was pretty evenly spread among the Leafs’ four lines. In Game 1, it was primarily against that third line combo). For the sake of narrowing it down to a single player, we’ll refer to this as “Marner’s” line. In this series, Orlov and Niskanen have been +9 and +7 in shot attempts, respectively, against Marner’s line, according to our very own Muneeb Alam.

While that pair appears to be locking things down, Alzner and Carlson have struggled. Again, for the sake of narrowing it down to a single player, we’ll refer to the Leafs’ top line as the “Matthews” line. Against the Matthews line, Alzner and Carlson are -10 and -7, respectively, in total shot attempts.

Now, the explanation may seem simple. The Matthews line possesses a bit more skill than the Marner line. However, both Orlov and Niskanen have seen some time against the Matthews line. In the first two games, Orlov and Niskanen have been +1 and +5, respectively, in total shot attempts against the Matthews line.

In total, Orlov and Niskanen have been +11 and +18, respectively, in total shot attempts.

Alzner and Niskanen have been -3 and -2, respectively.

Two games, equating to just a handful of minutes, is an admittedly small sample size. However, Alzner and Carlson’s struggles this season have been well documented.

Just two weeks ago, J.P. wrote of Alzner and Carlson’s struggles against top competition, citing the following graph as a clear indication of these difficulties versus Orlov and Niskanen’s success when it comes to defending quality of competitition. Note, to read the following graph, the greener the green, the better, and the purpler the purple, the worse. The higher you look on the vertical axis, the more difficult the forward competition. The more right on the horizontal axis, the better the teammates. The larger the circle, the larger the more minutes.

Q of C

That could have served as a forewarning towards Alzner and Carlson’s difficulties with the Maple Leafs’ top line. Alzner and Carlson (more Alzner than Carlson) have a tough time against high-end competition. In an excerpt from J.P.’s article.

What we see here is that Alzner has struggled against... well, a lot of varied competition. He’s been able to tread water at times against ~16-minute opposition when skating with the top line or the third line, but against better competition, he’s been comfortably on the wrong side of 50%. (The picture is a bit better for Carlson, generally).

Contrast that to Niskanen, who has generally outperformed above-16-minute competition when skating with the first or third line. Ditto Orlov when skating with the first line (and there’s reason to think he’d do just fine out there with the third line as well).

In other words, Niskanen and Orlov have performed better against top competition than Alzner and Carlson. This shouldn’t come as much surprise, but it serves as confirmation, to an extent, that the reason Niskanen and Orlov are outperforming Alzner and Carlson so thoroughly isn’t simply a difference in the minutes they’re playing - they’re just better defensemen by these metrics.

Trotz has expressed a lot of gratification towards the success of Orlov and Niskanen, and for good reason. We know that the pairing has historically succeeded against top competition, and we have early indications that that trend is continuing into the playoff series against Toronto.

By knowing how effective Orlov and Niskanen can be together, knowing the historical struggles of Alzner and Carlson that have begun to creep into the opening series against the Maple Leafs and noting the early success within the series of Orlov and Niskanen, it may be time to switch things up and consider a new “shutdown” pairing.

A pairing that complements and understands one another so well.

Graphs Provided by Micah Blake McCurdy’s Hockey Viz.