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Barry Trotz makes clear Nate Schmidt remains the Caps’ No. 7 defenseman

Barry Trotz makes clear Nate Schmidt remains the Caps’ No. 7 defenseman

Nate Schmidt made Barry Trotz’s lineup decision tougher with his recent play, but not tough enough to stay in the lineup.

After serving a two-game suspension, Kevin Shattenkirk will play in Thursday’s game against the Nashville Predators. That was not unexpected, but Trotz did hint after Tuesday’s game that perhaps Schmidt could stay in the lineup saying, “We do have a little bit of an interesting scenario here. [Schmidt] stepped in and is making our decisions tougher.”

As the team took to the ice for morning skate Thursday, however, the pairs returned to what they were before Shattenkirk’s suspension.

Karl Alzner – John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov – Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik – Kevin Shattenkirk

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Following the skate, Trotz made very clear the team’s defensive depth chart.

“Our top six are what you're going to see tonight. That's our top six. Nate is seven and what I said is he played very well and made some decisions tougher. And that's his job as a player. He's in that seven hole and that's perfect.”

The Caps snapped a four-game losing streak on Tuesday with a win over the Minnesota Wild in a game in which Nate Schmidt scored. With the Caps back in the win column, some wondered if that meant Schmdit may get another game in Shattenkirk’s place.

But that was never going to happen.

The Caps showed what bringing left-right balance to each defensive pairs meant to them by trading Zach Sanford, a first-round pick and a conditional pick in order to acquire Shattenkirk. That made it unlikely that Schmidt, a left-handed shot, would stay in the lineup over Shattenkirk, a right-handed shot.

“When you make trades you make yourself deeper,” Trotz said. “[Genearl manager Brian MacLellan] did that to make us deeper and give us a better chance and Nate has been in that sort of six hole all year. Shattenkirk, we didn't get him to be the seventh. Those are our six and [Schmidt’s] seventh.”

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NHL Power Rankings: Caps at 20, in search for gold out west

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USA TODAY Sports

NHL Power Rankings: Caps at 20, in search for gold out west

The Caps are a .500 team through their first nine games of the 2017-18 season and that's unfamiliar territory for this team. A 4-4-1 start is Washington's worst start to a season since 2013-14 when the team 4-5-0 in what would be Adam Oates' final year as head coach.

We knew this year was not going to be a Presidents' Trophy year for the Caps after their roster turnover in the offseason led to a few holes on the team. Those holes have been evident in the season's first month of play.

CHECK OUT THIS WEEK'S NHL POWER RANKINGS HERE

A shaky defense has been made worse by an injury to Matt Niskanen that will keep him out at least until the beginning of November. That leaves the team with a top-six that includes two rookies, depends on John Carlson playing huge minutes and a 37-year-old Brooks Orpik taking on a more significant role than last season.

Depth scoring has also been an issue. Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom have combined for 19 of the teams' 27 goals. Washington needs more production from its bottom two lines and even the blue line where Christian Djoos is the only defenseman on the team to score.

It's still early in the season so there's no reason to panic.The good news is that they still have time to work on all of these issues. A 4-4-1 record is not an insurmountable hole for the team to climb out of. The bad news is that the clock is ticking.

Statistically speaking, teams that are in playoff position at Thanksgiving tend to stay there. That gives Barry Trotz and Brian MacLellan four weeks to determine the strength of the team they have and makes some tough decisions going forward regarding lines, trades and future contracts.

One thing's for sure, they will have to play better than they have thus far. See where the Caps have fallen here in this week's NHL Power Rankings.

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Caps' rookie defensemen make rookie mistakes against Panthers

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Caps' rookie defensemen make rookie mistakes against Panthers

Rookie players make rookie mistakes. It happens. When it does, you hope it doesn’t cost the team too much, you learn from it and then you move on.

When you have two rookie defensemen in your lineup, however, those rookie mistakes can turn very, very costly. That was evident in Saturday’s 4-1 loss to the Florida Panthers.

Less than two minutes into the game, Christian Djoos chased after a puck behind his own net while under pressure from two Florida forecheckers. He attempted a backhanded pass that hit off the back of the net and was collected by Jarred McCann who set up Connor Brickley for the easy goal.

“Not the best start, obviously,” Djoos said after the game. “Not a good play.”

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It looks like Djoos tried to chip the puck past the forecheckers into the middle, probably to Lars Eller who was trailing the play. That puck needs to be along the boards. When you try to clear up the middle while under pressure, you risk giving up the puck in a very dangerous area of the ice which is exactly what happened.

With two players on his tail, Djoos should have fired that puck along the boards, preferably with his forehand which is much stronger than the backhand. He may not have had enough time to go to the forehand given the pressure, but that puck still needs to go along the boards with as much power behind it as possible. If it’s a turnover, fine, at least it is in the corner or along the perimeter rather than directly behind the net. If it’s icing, fine. Icing is better than a goal.

But Djoos wasn’t the only player guilty of having a rookie moment. Madison Bowey's inexperience was on display late in the first period as he tried to defend Florida forward Vincent Trochek.

Trocheck skated the puck into the Caps’ defensive zone. Bowey forced him to the outside which is the right way to play it, but he couldn’t rub him out along the boards. Instead, Trocheck was able to shake Bowey off and turn the corner on him to get in alone on Philipp Grubauer prompting the desperation hook from Bowey.

When Bowey is able to force him to the boards, he needs to finish off Trocheck and snuff out the rush.

Florida would score on the resulting power play to take a 2-0 lead at the end of the first, a deficit the Capitals were not able to overcome.

The good news is that both Djoos and Bowery are going to continue to get better with every passing game. They are both young players at 23 and 22 respectively and mistakes are expected for players in their first NHL season. They will develop and improve which we already saw through Saturday's game.

Djoos scored the Capitals’ lone goal on the night and Bowey played strong defensively the rest of the way. The coaches seemed to reward their play as well with more minutes. Djoos played 3:02 in the first, 3:16 in the second and 6:06 in the third while Bowey played 4:04, 6:09 and 6:18.

“The young guys have been fine,” Barry Trotz told reporters. “They're going to make mistakes. They make the same mistakes some of the older guys are making.”

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The question is do the Caps have enough time to wait for them to continue to develop this season or do they need to improve the defense now?

There’s no question having two rookies in the team's top six is not an ideal scenario. It is hard for the coaches to shelter them as they normally would like. It is also having a strain on the other veteran defensemen who are taking on a heavier workload as a result. The 37-year-old veteran Brooks Orpik played 16:56 through two periods and John Carlson finished the game with a season-high 29:48 on Saturday.

You can’t win a Stanley Cup in October and November, but you can lose it if you get buried too far in the standings. The Caps are 4-4-1 through nine games and have six games between now and when Matt Niskanen is eligible to return from LTIR, assuming he is ready at that point.

Can the defense as it’s currently constructed keep the Caps afloat until Niskanen’s return? Is it good enough with Niskanen in the lineup? Those are questions Trotz and general manager Brian MacLellan are going to have to answer quickly.