With the Capitals’ 2015-16 season now in the rearview mirror, we continue with our numerical player-by-player roster analysis.
No. 88 Nate Schmidt
Age: 24 (turns 25 on July 16)
Penalty minutes: 16
Time on ice: 18:04
Playoff stats: 10 games, 0 goals, 1 assist, minus-3, 2 PIM, 7 shots, 12:30
Contract status: One year remaining on 2-year, $1.625 million contract. ($812,500 cap hit, $875,000 salary in 2016-17).
For the first time in his professional career Nate Schmidt has a full NHL season and a 10-game body of work in the playoffs to evaluate this summer.
Overall, it was a breakout season for the happy-go-lucky 24-year-old defenseman from St. Cloud, Minn., complete with its share of peaks and valleys.
“I played a lot more than I had been,” said Schmidt, who played in 29 games as an NHL rookie in 2013-14 and 39 games in 2014-15. “I liked my year. I thought there were some growing pains in there, especially a little more towards the end. It was the first time I played 70 or so games and that made it a little harder to play that consistent level. Otherwise, I thought I grew not only on the ice but what it takes for a whole year.
“My first two years (in the NHL) I got hurt in February so I never went through that grinding moment. It was good. That’s something I have to work off of.”
Schmidt was a healthy scratch in five of the Capitals’ first eight games but found a home alongside Dmitry Orlov by the start of November. When Brooks Orpik was injured in mid-November Caps defensive coach Todd Reirden gave Schmidt a chance to play alongside John Carlson and he ran with it, seeing his ice time jump from about 12 minutes a night to roughly 20 minutes or more, especially against free-wheeling teams like the Penguins, Stars and Lightning.
When Carlson missed 25 games with a fractured ankle, Schmidt took turns playing with Orlov and Taylor Chorney, seeing his first real ice time on the penalty kill, where he averaged 1:20 a game, well above the 9 seconds he averaged the season before.
“I felt like I had weights in my pockets,” Schmidt said when asked about logging heavier minutes against some of the NHL’s top lines. “It’s something that you want. You never want to see a guy go down, but as a player you want that opportunity to show you can do that. Given what happened I thought all the guys played really well. I think it showed how good (Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner) are. They really took a couple steps elevating their game, and so did (Chorney and Orlov). There was no other way to do it. It hurt us that (Carlson and Orpik) weren’t playing, but it also kind of helped us as well. I got to play with a lot of different guys, which made us more versatile with our D pairs, and for me getting to know more tendencies and what makes guys click.”
Schmidt’s overall play seemed to dip near the end of the regular season and he was a healthy scratch three times in the final month. He looked fine in his first career playoff series, a six-game win over the Flyers, but he struggled against the Penguins with a minus-3 rating in the first three games of the series and was made a healthy scratch in two of the final three games of the series, including the Penguins’ overtime series clincher in Game 6.
“It was hard,” Schmidt said. “Ask any of the guys who were up there watching (healthy scratches Michael Latta, Stan Galiev and Mike Weber). It was tough. It’s hard to not have the power to at least have a hand in it. It made it hard, but I believe in the guys we had to get the job done. It’s a game of inches.”
Despite his reduced role in the post-season, where he averaged 12:30 in ice time, Schmidt said it was “great” to get his first playoff experience after having just 13 games of Calder Cup playoff experience.
“I just think things happen even faster than they do in the regular season,” he said. “Every little play impacts the game. Maybe it doesn’t impact that game in particular, but it impacts the next game or the next game. Giving an extra hit or taking an extra hit or bluffing a guy. Those things add up over the course of a series.
“I really enjoyed being able to be a part of it. It’s the best time of the year. They always say that and you never really know what they’re talking about until you actually dip your feet in and have an opportunity to do something like that. It was a lot of fun, all up until that last goal.”
At 6-foot, 191 pounds, Schmidt said he also learned the physical and mental demands that go into playing a full NHL season. Before this year, he had never played in more than 67 games in any season, college or pro.
“It’s still tough to be reeling from this year,” he said, “but there are things I’ll highlight. Like how I treat my body away from the rink, whether it’s working a lot longer on flexibility, which is one thing I need to work on. On the ice, I (now) understand the mental side of this game impacts me a lot. I’m a very emotional guy and I’ve got a lot of energy and sometimes I run myself out by the end of practice. I don’t want (that energy) to ever go away, but being a little more consistent with that is where I’m at.”
With general manager Brian MacLellan looking for a bigger role from Orlov next season, there’s a good chance Schmidt will go into next season with Brooks Orpik as his full-time defense partner. He said that even though he’s about to turn 25 (he will be a free agent after next season) he understands this team’s window to win a Stanley Cup is now.
“Every time you have a chance to do it, it’s something you want to capitalize on because you never know when the clock will run out,” Schmidt said. “You can’t just say there’s going to be a next time. You never know. There’s so much parity in this league, teams are too good. Top to bottom there’s not a whole lot of difference between teams. Any team can win and you never really know when you can do this again with a team like this.”
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