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20 offseason Caps questions: Is Nate Schmidt ready for a top-4 role?

20 offseason Caps questions: Is Nate Schmidt ready for a top-4 role?

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!

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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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Braden Holtby saved his best performance of the season for when the Caps needed it most

Braden Holtby saved his best performance of the season for when the Caps needed it most

Braden Holtby has been largely overshadowed in the headlines of the Eastern Conference Final by Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

After two games, Vasilevskiy was one of the bigger storylines for how poorly he played in giving up 10 goals in just five periods. The next three games after that, the storyline changed to how well he was suddenly playing and how he had helped the Lightning steal two wins in Washington and take a 3-2 series lead after Game 5.

Holtby was not mentioned much. His play was not the reason the Caps went up 2-0 or the reason they went down 3-2.

But if the Caps hoped to force a Game 7, they needed him to at least be a reason why they won Game 6.

Holtby responded in a big way. With his team facing elimination, Holtby registered his first shutout of both the regular season and the playoffs.

"It's a perfect time," Devante Smith-Pelly said after the game. "He's been great all year. Obviously an up-and-down year for him personally, but the way he's bounced back, he's been amazing all throughout the playoffs."

Holtby is now just the seventh goalie in NHL history to record his first shutout of the season in a game in which his team faced elimination.

Holtby, however, was not concerned with the stats or the shutout.

"The only reason it’s good is we won," Holtby said of his shutout performance. "Aside from that, it’s just good for [the media], I guess you can write about it. But for us it’s just that W."

Vasilevskiy made a number of jaw-dropping saves, especially in the first period, but Holtby matched him save for save as both teams battled for the first goal. With the score knotted at zero, Holtby made a toe save on Anthony Cirelli on a 2-on-1 opportunity to keep the Lightning off the board. He really upped his game in the third period as Tampa Bay made a late push to tie it. He turned aside 10 shots that frame including a nifty snag on Nikita Kucherov and a glorious glove save on Ondrej Palat.

Holtby's performance ensured the Caps would live to fight another day...for now.

As the series shifts back to Tampa Bay, Washington will again be facing elimination. This time, however, so will their opponents.

Anything can happen in a Game 7. In a winner-take-all game, it may come down to who has the better goalie on Wednesday and Holtby seems to be picking a good time to up his game.

"Braden has been the backbone of our hockey club," Barry Trotz said. "You can’t go anywhere without goaltending and he’s been solid. ... Braden is a true pro, he works on his game, he finds ways to make a difference and he does."

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5 reasons the Caps beat the Lightning in Game 6

5 reasons the Caps beat the Lightning in Game 6

After losing three straight, the Capitals battled back in Game 6 on Monday. With their 3-0 win, Washington forced the Eastern Conference Final into a decisive Game 7 on Wednesday.

Here is how the Caps did it.

1. Braden Holtby matched Andrei Vasilevskiy save for save

Andrei Vasilevskiy was just as great in this game as he was in the three previous, but one of the major differences in this one was that Holtby was just as good. He may not have been tested as much (Vasilevskiy made 32 saves, Holtby 24), but he was big when the team needed.

In the second period with the scored tied at 0, Holtby made one of the most critical saves perhaps of the entire season when he denied Anthony Cirelli with the toe on a 2-on-1. When the Caps took the lead, Holtby really shut the door in the third period with 10 saves to cap off what was his fifth career playoff shutout and first shutout of the entire season.

2. T.J. Oshie’s timely goal

Over halfway into the game, it looked like it was just going to be one of those nights. Caps fans know it well by now. Washington outplays their opponent, they get chance after chance and develop a whopping advantage in shots, but they run into a hot goalie and a random play suddenly turns into a goal for the other team, game and season over.

Vasilevskiy was on his way to having perhaps his best performance of the series. Considering how he played in the three games prior to Game 6, that’s saying something. The Caps were doing everything right, but he continued to make save after save. Then on the power play in the second period, John Carlson struck the inside of the post, the horn went off and the roar of the crowd gave way to dismay as the referee waved his arms to indicate there was no goal and play continued. Just seconds later, T.J. Oshie gave the Caps the 1-0 lead.

You have to wonder if doubt was starting to creep into the back of the minds of the players when that puck struck the post as they wondered what else they had to do to beat Vasilevskiy. Luckily, that feeling didn’t last long.

3. Special teams

Braydon Coburn’s tripping penalty in the second period gave Washington its only power play of the night and its first since the second period of Game 4. They had to make it count given how well Vasilveskiy was playing and they did.

Washington now has a power play goal in each of their three wins against the Lightning and no power play goals in their three losses. So yeah, it’s significant.

Tampa Bay had two opportunities of their own, but Washington managed to kill off both power plays in the penalty kill’s best performance of the series.

4. Washington’s physical game plan

On paper, the Lightning are better than the Caps in most categories. One area in which Washington has the edge, however, is physical play and it was clear very early that they intended to use that to their advantage in Game 6. Tampa Bay was pushed around and they seemed to struggle to recover.

Ovechkin was a one-man wrecking ball out there hitting everything that moved. The energy he brought with every hit was palpable and both the team and the crowd fed on it.

Washington was credited with 39 hits on the night compared to Tampa Bay’s 19. Ovechkin had four of those as did Nicklas Backstrom while Devante Smith-Pelly contributed five and Tom Wilson and Brooks Orpik each led the team with six.

5. Fourth line dagger

Tampa Bay’s fourth line was the story of Game 5, but Washington’s fourth line sealed the deal on Monday with its third period goal.

Chandler Stephenson beat out an icing call, forcing Braydon Coburn to play the puck along the wall. Jay Beagle picked it up, fed back to Stephenson who backhanded a pass for the perfect setup for Devante Smith-Pelly.

Smith-Pelly scored seven goals in the regular season. He now has four in the playoffs.

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