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How do the Caps recover from the loss of Nate Schmidt?

How do the Caps recover from the loss of Nate Schmidt?

All of Caps nation is reeling over the loss of Nate Schmidt to the expansion draft. A fan-favorite and budding top-four defenseman, his departure stings not just because of the loss of his personality, but because of the role he was expected to take next season.

Schmidt was ascending to a top-four role on the Caps next season, but that plan is in shambles and rebuilding the defense now becomes one of the team’s top priorities for the offseason.

Among the team’s current defensemen, there is no clear candidate to take Schmidt’s spot. Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson stand as the team’s top three. Behind them are Brooks Orpik and Taylor Chorney, neither of whom anyone could reasonably expect to take on a top-four role.

In a statement released on Tuesday, MacLellan said, “We feel we have a young group of up-and-coming defensemen who will now have an opportunity in Washington and are ready to make the jump with our club.”

RELATED: Holtby falls short of claiming second Vezina

MacLellan is no doubt referring to Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos. Both players were expected to compete for a roster spot this season, but it was thought there would be room for only one on the third pairing. Now the Caps have two spots in the lineup open.

At the end of the season, the Caps had a choice of what direction they would go in next year. They could start over and rebuild or try to retool the team on the fly. Rather than start over they chose to retool, meaning they are still gunning for postseason success. A rebuilding team can afford two rookie defensemen in the lineup, but a team looking to make the playoffs and push for a deep run likely cannot. That is not a knock on either Bowey or Djoos both of whom have high ceilings and could develop into very good NHL players, there just seems to be a disconnect between the direction the team wants to go in next season and having to play both Bowey and Djoos regularly in the lineup.

If the Caps cannot replace Schmidt internally, what about externally?

With Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky and Dmitry Orlov all in need of new deals, the Caps are not expected to have much money to work with this summer and top-four defensemen don’t come cheap. Schmidt was at the end of his contract, but as a restricted free agent, the team could have signed him for much cheaper than any top-four defenseman they can find in free agency. Even if the Caps could make a splash in free agency, there is not a whole lot to work with among the players available.

Does this reopen the door for the team to re-sign Alzner? Washington is the only team he has ever known and he made clear at the end of the season that he is not looking forward to being a free agent. The Capitals, however, will likely not be able to afford what Alzner could get on the open market. He may be willing to take a discount to stay in Washington, but MacLellan must also consider the changing landscape of the NHL. The league is moving more towards speedy, puck-moving blueliners and farther away from stay at home defensemen like Alzner. Can the Caps really afford a top-six that includes both Alzner and Orpik in today’s NHL? Probably not.

So what are the Caps to do? The answer may come in the form of a trade.

Losing Schmidt means that Philipp Grubauer remains in the fold. His position in the team, however, has not changed. Braden Holtby remains the starter and prospect Ilya Samsonov is still seen as the team’s future starter. That makes Grubauer, a high-value asset, expendable.

Having a dependable backup is important, but a top-four defenseman is more so. One will play 20-30 games per season unless the starter suffers an injury, the other will be expected to have a major role every night.

When MacLellan spoke to reporters in May, it did not sound as if he was planning on making any major moves this offseason. The loss of Schmidt may now force his hand.

MORE CAPITALS: MacLellan says prospects 'ready to make the jump' to replace Schmidt

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3 reasons the Caps beat the Sabres

3 reasons the Caps beat the Sabres

The Caps could not shake Buffalo for two periods, but a dominant finish on Saturday helped them pull away for a 5-1 win. Here's how they finally put away the Sabres.

A quick start

Strong starts go a long way towards helping a team in the middle of a slump. It's a confidence boost for a group in desperate need of one and the Caps got that boost on Saturday from Evgeny Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov used his wheels to zip in behind the defense and score just 50 seconds into the game. Washington led 1-0 at the end of the first, just the second time in 19 games they have held a lead after the opening 20 minutes.

RELATED: SEE THE 3 STARS FROM CAPS-SABRES HERE

Andre Burakovsky snapping a second period slump

It looked in the second period like the Caps were caught trying to protect the lead again, but Andre Burakovsky woke the team back up with his incredible highlight end-to-end goal. It really looked like Buffalo was going to tie the game at one, but instead, Burakovsky extended the lead to two. Going end to end the way he did shows a player who is starting to play with some confidence, something Burakovsky has lacked for much of the season.

Ovechkin's two-goal third period

Buffalo would not go away. Sam Reinhart got the Sabres on the board just 14 seconds into the third period and suddenly the Caps found themselves in a one-goal game again. But Ovechkin ended any hopes for the comeback as he struck in the top corner of the net on the power play from the office. He would later add a deflection goal to extend the lead to 5-1, giving a scuffling Washington team the dominant win they so sorely needed.

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3 stars of the game: Caps erupt in 3rd for dominant win over Sabres

3 stars of the game: Caps erupt in 3rd for dominant win over Sabres

The Capitals needed a win in the worst way and they got one, dispatching the Buffalo Sabres in dominating fashion with a 5-1 win.

Washington was locked in a tight game leading 2-0 heading into the third period when Sam Reinhart scored just 14 seconds into the period to pull Buffalo to within one. The Caps then slammed the door shut, scoring three unanswered goals to put away the Sabres.

Here are the three stars of the game.

1. Alex Ovechkin: This was career game No. 983 for Ovechkin, tying him for the franchise record for most games played with Calle Johansson. Ovechkin very fittingly celebrated the occasion with two goals. The first came on a power play goal from the office, but there was no need for a one-timer on this one. The Sabres gave him all the time he needed to aim up the shot and wrist it into the top corner.

He added a second goal late off a deflection from a John Carlson shot.

2. Evgeny Kuznetsov: To say the Caps have struggled at the start of games would be an understatement. In the last 18 games, Washington has held the lead after the first period only once. Kuznetsov made sure this game started off on the right foot as he scored just 50 seconds into the game. He turned on the jets in the neutral zone to turn the edge on Jason Pominville then easily skated around a weak, ill-advised challenge from Robin Lehner before flinging the puck into the yawning net.

It was the fastest goal to start a game by the Caps this season. It was just the start of what would be a four-point night for the Caps' center as he added three assists.

3. Andre Burakovsky: Burakovsky had the highlight of the game with his end-to-end goal in the second period to put Washington up 2-0. He looked like he was shot out of a cannon as he launched himself from the defensive zone, streaked down the center of the ice and in on net to slide the puck through the Lehner's five-hole.

Look how Burakovsky was able to slice through the Sabres' defense. Buffalo had him surrounded, but his speed caught the Sabres off-guard and they were not able to recover in time to actually slow him down.