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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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Want the Stanley Cup? Five ways the Caps can beat the Golden Knights

Want the Stanley Cup? Five ways the Caps can beat the Golden Knights

The Caps stand just four wins away from winning their first Stanley Cup. To get those four wins, however, they will have to beat the Vegas Golden Knights.

Here are the keys to the series that will give the Caps the win.

Figure out how to beat Marc-Andre Fleury

No player has been as important to his team this postseason as Fleury is to the Golden Knights. He is reason No. 1, 2 and 3 why they have made their improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final in the team’s inaugural season.

Fleury’s personal numbers are staggering. Through 15 games, he has a .947 save percentage and has recorded four shutouts.

Vegas has been a middle of the pack team in terms of offense this postseason scoring 2.87 goals per game. They have lost only three playoff games thus far, but, as dominant as they have been, they certainly are not blowing away the competition. Of their 12 wins, ten of them have come with a margin of victory of two goals or less.

This shows you just how important Fleury is to their success. They are not scoring opponents into submission, rather they are relying on Fleury to keep opponents at bay.

Fleury is the absolute key to the Golden Knights’ success. It’s easier said than done, but if the Caps find a way to beat him consistently, Vegas becomes exponentially more beatable.

Win the neutral zone battle

Much of this series will be determined between the blue lines. The Golden Knights are an incredibly fast team.

Just to get to this point, the Caps had to beat two other speedy teams in the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning. They did it primarily by slowing down the offense in the neutral zone with a 1-3-1 trap. With so many bodies defending in the neutral zone, opponents have struggled to break the puck cleanly into the Caps’ defensive zone. The Caps are cutting off passing and skating lanes, creating turnovers and generating odd-man breaks in the other direction by catching opponents’ defensemen playing too aggressively on the rush.

As fast as the Penguins and Lightning were, however, the Golden Knights are even faster. Will the trap be as effective against Vegas?

Limit obstruction penalties

When playing against a team with speed, penalties often become a major issue. When trying to defend against fast players, if you get caught flat-footed or out of position, this tends to lead to obstruction penalties like tripping and hooking. When a player realizes he’s been beat, he does everything he can to prevent that from costing his team, leading to those type of penalties.

Vegas’ power play has not been lights out by any means with a success rate of only 17.6-percent this postseason, but you cannot continually give the opposition chances to score by frequently having a player sent to the penalty box.

Positioning is going to make all the difference in the world in this series to make sure a player is not forced into taking an obstruction penalty just to slow down the Golden Knights.

Get off to good starts

Vegas is 10-1 in the postseason when scoring first. Their secret to success is a mix between goaltending and speed.

Fleury has been phenomenal in net and the Golden Knights are a quick breakout team. It is very hard to get much sustained offensive pressure against them because once they get the puck, they are going down the ice at a million miles an hour.

Having to play from behind against a team like Vegas is not a recipe for success. Just getting the puck and keeping up with them is exhausting. Having to then find a way to then beat Fleury when he has a lead to protect is all the more daunting.

Strong starts will be vital to ensuring the Caps are not frequently having to play from behind.

Depth scoring

Vegas head coach Gerard Gallant likes to roll his four lines. It makes sense since there drop-off between his top line and fourth line is not as dramatic as it is on most NHL teams.

Consider how this team was constructed. The expansion draft did not give Vegas access to superstar players, but they also did not have to take any fringe NHL/healthy scratch players to fill the fourth line either. They filled their roster with the best players available to them which gives them four lines of much more comparative strength than most NHL teams.

While this means the Caps have a stronger top six, it also allows Vegas to roll four lines and take advantage of other teams’ bottom six.

You can never take a shift off against Vegas. There is no weak line to exploit. The Golden Knights come at you with four lines and relentless pressure and forecheck for 60 minutes.

Washington will probably get more production from its top six than Vegas will, or at the very least it will be a push. The question is what kind of production will each team get from the bottom six? If the Caps have the edge in depth production as well, they will be in good shape.

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Capitals Faceoff Podcast: What happens in Vegas....

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Capitals Faceoff Podcast: What happens in Vegas....

It's almost here.

After a lengthy break between the conference finals and the Stanley Cup Finals, the Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights are set to meet on Monday for Game 1.

Who will hoist Lord Stanley's Cup?

JJ Regan and Tarik El-Bashir give their keys to the series and their predictions for the Stanley Cup Final. Plus, JJ speaks with several member from the local media to get their insights and predictions.

Check out their latest episode in the player below or listen on the Capitals Faceoff Podcast page.