Another playoff disappointment—as well as a host of expiring player contracts—has left the Capitals with a ton of questions to answer this offseason. Over the next month, Jill Sorenson, JJ Regan and Tarik El-Bashir will take a close look at the 20 biggest issues facing the team as the business of hockey kicks into high gear.
Always the happiest player on the ice, Nate Schmidt looks poised for a bigger role next season. Schmidt was pushed out of an everyday role by the acquisition of Kevin Shattenkrik, but an injury to Karl Alzner put him back into the lineup and he made the most of it. Even when Alzner was ready to return, Barry Trotz elected to dress seven defensemen rather than take Schmidt out. Now with an aging Brooks Orpik and the likely departure of Karl Alzner, general manager Brian MacLellan told reporters Schmidt will have a top-4 role next season. But is he ready for that or being thrust into that position too soon?
Today’s question: Is Nate Schmidt ready for a top-4 role next season?
Sorenson: The fan favorite and Minnesota Sunshine Nate Schmidt is poised to enter next season as one of the Caps’ top four defensemen. Schmidt’s speed and skating ability are certainly two of his biggest assets and he has worked closely with Todd Reirden to improve his offensive game. Reirden helped Schmidt pick the most effective route for his rushes into the offensive zone and Schmidt responded immediately, using that method every opportunity he has to jump in on the offense. The blueliner is exceptionally coachable and his intelligence helps him read plays, teammates, and opponents' moves quickly. Schmidt found himself on the outside looking in when the team acquired Kevin Shattenkirk at the trade deadline, but his professionalism and positive attitude served him well while sitting in the press box. When presented with an opportunity in the playoffs, Schmidt more than delivered. He was one of the Capitals’ best defensemen night in and night out. I look forward to seeing the soon to be 26-year-old as a top defenseman not only for the Capitals but in the league as well. Stay tuned for another season of Schminutes as well!
Regan: Schmidt’s impact on the team last season has been a hotly debated topic. The analytics said he was one of the top defensemen in the entire NHL, but the eye test said he was not even one of the top defensemen on the team. Whatever metric you have that says Schmidt is one of the top defensemen in the league, let’s pump the brakes. You’re putting him on a pedestal that includes players like Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns. Not only is that ridiculous, that’s putting undue pressure on a young, developing defenseman and setting the bar absurdly high. That’s not to say Schmidt isn’t ready for the next step, however. He absolutely is. Schmidt’s skillset is well suited for today’s NHL and he showed that with his strong play in the playoffs. But I do have some concerns. First, Schmidt played the most protected minutes of any defenseman on the team in 2016-17 with a defensive-zone start rate even lower than that of Alex Ovechkin (26.1-percent compared to 26.6-percent). Schmidt must play better in his own zone and Trotz must learn to trust him. You cannot have a player in the top-4 if you feel you need to protect him to that extent. Second, will Schmidt be playing a top-4 role for Washington or Vegas? If the Caps don’t protect him in the expansion draft – and they may not with Carlson, Orlov and Niskanen in tow – you would have to think he would be an attractive target for the Golden Knights.
El-Bashir: After seeing the way Schmidt played as an injury replacement at the end of the regular season and then again in the playoffs, it sure looks to me like he’s ready for a role in the top-4 next season along with Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson. That’s good for Schmidt, who has diligently polished his game over the past few years, and great for the Caps, who need a few young, affordable players to step into bigger roles because of a tight salary cap situation. Schmidt is a restricted free agent and figures to count somewhere between $2-3 million against the cap in 2017-18. A fast, puck-moving blue liner with underrated offensive instincts, Schmidt was good in a third pairing role during the regular season. Late in the year and into the playoffs, though, more was asked of him due to injuries. First, Schmidt stepped in for Carlson over the final four games of the regular season and played solidly in his own end and chipped in with a goal and an assist as the Caps went 3-1-0. In fact, he was on the ice for six of the Caps’ goals during that stretch and none against. It was eye-opening. When his number was called in the postseason due to Karl Alzner’s injury, he picked up right where he had left off, playing so well that he forced the coaching staff to deploy seven defensemen when Alzner returned. Schmidt was used in critical junctures, too, underscoring the staff’s growing trust in him. The bottom line: Schmidt, who turns 26 in July, proved in April and May that he’s ready to make the leap that Orlov so successfully completed a year ago.
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