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Opinion: Why Nate Schmidt is still No. 7 among the Caps' defensemen

Opinion: Why Nate Schmidt is still No. 7 among the Caps' defensemen

Nate Schmidt has become a hot topic of conversation in recent weeks. The trade for Kevin Shattenkirk relegated the jovial defenseman to the seventh spot, but some wondered whether he was actually worthy of staying in the lineup. Barry Trotz said after Tuesday’s win over Minnesota that Schmidt’s play was “making our decisions tough” in terms of whether to keep him in the lineup. And yet, at Thursday’s morning skate Trotz declared that Schmidt remained the team’s No. 7 and many are asking why?

For context on why many are arguing Schmidt should be in the lineup, check out Peter Hassett’s article on the blog Russian Machine Never Breaks. It is a very compelling, in-depth view of how well Schmidt has played this season.

The argument in favor of Schmidt centers mostly on advance analytics. Schmidt’s numbers are tremendous. What Hasset found is that Schmidt ranks no lower than 7th in the NHL in shot attempts, scoring chances, expected goals and goals leading Hassett to conclude that Schmidt is “probably among the seven best defensemen in the entire league this season.”

When it comes to advanced analytics, people seem to either love them or hate them. Advanced analytics are an incredible tool that can help quantify a player’s impact, but by themself, advanced analytics offer only an incomplete view of a player. That is evident in Schmidt.

For all those people who hate advanced analytics, just as many people hate the eye test. It is a completely subjective evaluation of a player based on nothing by one’s own opinion. But what the eye test is good for is preventing one from drawing conclusions from numbers that we can see are not true.

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There is not a coach or scout in the NHL who would tell you that as of right now, Schmidt is one of the top seven defenseman in the league. Period. Either you can assume everyone whose job it is to evaluate players for a living is wrong or you can accept the fact that the numbers do not paint a complete picture. That’s not to say the advanced analytics don’t matter or are inaccurate and I’m certainly not suggesting that Schmidt hasn’t played well. I am merely pointing out if we can concede the point that Schmidt is not yet an elite caliber defenseman, we can concede that advanced analytics should not be the only determining factor when it comes to evaluating his play. The bottom line is that Schmidt is not among the elite NHL defensemen yet.

Why not?

First, possession stats and shot attempts are not the only means of determining a player’s defensive worth. For example, Schmidt’s score adjusted shots for percentage is 52.94-percent. Coming in just behind him is forward Evgeny Kuznetsov at 52.85-percent. No one would mistake Kuznetsov for a “shutdown” forward. Schmidt’s Corsi percentage is 55.01-percent. That’s good, but it’s not as good as Andre Burakovsky’s 56.21-percent. Again, not a forward that is particularly known for his defensive prowess.

There are also issues that are not quantifiable that advanced analytics don’t take into account. What you don’t see in Schmidt’s Corsi numbers or shot attempts are the defensive breakdowns. You don’t see the instances in which he has jumped into the offense at the end of his shift leaving the Caps’ exposed defensively on the ensuing rush as he tries to hurry his tired legs to the bench for a late shift change.

But, if you need numbers, here are a few.

The NHL credits Schmidt with 39 giveaways this season. That’s a rate of .696 per game, the fourth highest on the team. He is also playing the most protected minutes of any defenseman on the Caps. Schmidt has the lowest percentage of defensive zone faceoffs of any of the team’s defenseman (25.4-percent) and one of the lowest on the team. That’s even lower than Alex Ovechkin’s (26.4-percent). That means he is being put on the ice primarily when the puck is in the offensive zone. His offensive zone faceoff percentage (38.5-percent) is the highest not just among his fellow blue liners, it’s the highest on the team. This demonstrates a concerted effort by the coaches to keep him from getting tougher minutes in the defensive zone.

When the coaches don’t have much faith in a defenseman to play defense, that’s an issue. It also shows us why his possession numbers are so high.

It’s easier to get positive numbers when it comes to shot attempts, scoring chances, expected goals and goals when the majority of your playing time comes with the puck in the offensive zone.

But while we can see that Schmidt may not be as elite as the advanced stats indicate, that does not explain why among the eight blueliners on the roster, he is considered No. 7.

I’m not going to go through and rank each defenseman 1 through 8, this post is already long enough and whatever stats, arguments or observations I make, they all have counters. There is simply no way to make a definitive ranking. Instead, I will try to explain why of the eight defensemen, there is no one I would currently take out for Schmidt.

The majority of us can agree that Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson need to be in the lineup, right? There is no way those three players are not among the Caps’ top six defensemen. That leaves us with Shattenkirk, Orpik and Alzner.

Shattenkirk is clearly still adjusting to the team and we’re definitely seeing some growing pains to be sure, but Shattenkirk showed his potential in St. Louis and we’ve seen flashes of it with the team. From a practical standpoint, he’s someone who needs to be in the lineup so he can continue adjusting. But if you’re looking for who to put into the lineup in a Game 7, do-or-die situation and you just need your six best defensemen on the ice, I am taking Shattenkirk over Schmidt. Like Schmidt, he is a skilled-puck mover but he is a stronger defensive player who plays with a more physical edge and is about 15 pounds bigger.

Shattenkirk has four assists in seven games with Washington despite not playing particularly well. If that’s what he’s like when he’s struggling, clearly he will be even more of an asset when he finally adjusts to his new team.

Orpik has played extremely well this season, thanks in large part to being partnered with Schmidt. But how much of that has to do with Schmidt and how much of that has to do with the fact that he is getting the lowest percentage of defensive zone faceoff starts since the 2011-12 season and the highest percentage of offensive zone faceoffs ever in his career? That certainly helps quite a bit. Orpik’s renaissance season is the result of his changing role with the team, not solely on the fact that he has played alongside Schmidt.

Orpik also brings intangibles that are not quantifiable. There is a leadership and respect factor that matters to the players. Consider what happened Tuesday when he took a hit from Minnesota’s Ryan White. Tom Wilson was on top of White before he even knew he was in a fight. Wilson was there so fast, in fact, that he received an additional minor penalty for instigating and a 10-minute misconduct.

And yet, when asked about it after the game, Trotz said, “I’ll take those all day long. We thought it was a little bit of a high hit, especially one of your more respected guys on your team. I think that says a lot about Brooks as a leader and what he means to everybody.”

I also talked to Wilson about it at Friday’s practice and he made a point of calling Orpik “one of our very respected guys in this locker room.”

That matters to players. You saw it from how Wilson reacted. Now imagine telling Orpik and the rest of the team that he’s going to be scratched in favor of Schmidt. Why? Well, because his advanced analytics are pretty good. That would not sit well.

Which brings us to Alzner. Alzner is the polar opposite of Schmidt in that he gets tougher minutes—he has the lowest percentage of offensive zone faceoff starts among the team’s defensemen—and really bad analytics. His numbers are so bad, in fact, that some have speculated that perhaps he is still feeling the effects of sports hernia surgery that he underwent in the offseason.

First, if Alzner is not back to 100-percent yet, the training staff and the team is well aware. Second, let me tell you about the competitiveness of Trotz. Trotz is so secretive about his gameplan, he will not reveal who his starting goalie during the media availability two hours before puck drop. If the training staff believed Alzner’s health was a detriment to the team, Trotz would not be relying on him so much defensively. Because of that, I have to assume that he is healthy enough to remain in the lineup.

Is he the stalwart defenseman he has been in years past? Clearly not. Am I re-signing him over Shattenkirk or T.J. Oshie this offseason? Not a chance. But the fact remains, he is one of the best defensive players on the team. That’s inarguable. I would rank him just behind Niskanen. If you take Alzner out of the lineup you are losing a top defensive player and penalty killer. Schmidt cannot make up for that loss because he is a very different type of player.

If I am constructing a defensive lineup for the Caps, I’m putting in my two best defensive players in (Niskanen, Alzner), my three best puck movers who I also trust in the defensive zone (Orlov, Carlson, Shattenkirk) and the team leader who is enjoying a renaissance season (Orpik). That leaves Schmidt as No. 7.

And that’s not a bad thing.

Schmidt has enjoyed a tremendous season and was fantastic in his two games back during Shattenkirks’ suspension. I want a player I can trus to play well if I need to plug him into the lineup. Schmidt certainly fits the bill.

The one caveat to all of this is that while I have Schmidt No. 7, I would not hesitate to put him in the lineup in the playoffs if I believed the team needed a spark. He has earned that with his play and Trotz should feel comfortable using him if needed.

But what he has not earned is a regular spot in the lineup every night. At least not yet.

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Injuries hit Capitals hard in 3-1 loss to Winnipeg

Injuries hit Capitals hard in 3-1 loss to Winnipeg

The Capitals were already facing one of the toughest back-to-back challenges in the NHL. Then they found out their starting goalie would not play and less than nine minutes into the game lost their No. 1 center. 

That about summed up a 3-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday. The last time an NHL team swept a back-to-back set of games against the Jets and Minnesota Wild was 2012. 

Washington played well enough taking a 1-0 lead on a Jakub Vrana goal in the first period and the game was tied until 12:51 of the third period when a shot by Ben Chiarot skipped past goalie Pheonix Copley. The Jets added an empty-net goal to seal the win. 

The loss is one thing. Winnipeg is a tough place to play and maybe the favorite to come out of the Western Conference. But injuries have begun to mount and that’s the big takeaway. 

Holtby showed up to the rink Wednesday morning and it was assumed he’d play after Copley won the game in St. Paul against the Wild. Instead, Holtby was ruled out with an upper-body injury and the Capitals had to sign an emergency goalie – Gavin McHale, a 31-year-old assistant coach for a local women’s college hockey team in Winnipeg. That is less than ideal. 

Holtby’s injury might not be a big deal. You’ll know if Washington recalls top prospect Ilya Samsonov from AHL Hershey for Friday’s game in Denver against the Colorado Avalanche. 

“That was this morning. [Holtby] came over with our goalie coach and did a skate this morning and was not able to back up tonight or play,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. “So he was kind of a game-time decision and he wasn’t able to participate tonight.”

Holtby will be re-evaluated Thursday after he gets continuing treatment for his injury. There has to be concern about Kuznetsov, who took an elbow to the face at 8:52 of the first period from Jets forward Brandon Tanev. Kuznetsov left the game and did not return. 

That left the Caps shorthanded most of the night with Lars Eller playing center alongside Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson on the top line. Ovechkin ended up playing 24:21. Eller played 18:48 and Backstrom 21:41. Not having Kuznetsov would be an issue. He’s not a player they can replace for long. 

“Was more precautionary,” Reirden said. “Obviously a blow to the head. We had to continue to evaluate him tomorrow, but we needed to make sure he didn’t return to the game.”

Washington, of course, could look to last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs when they missed Backstrom for Game 6 during the second round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins with a hand injury and the first three games against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final.

Oshie was the final blow. He was slammed to the ice by Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey and the back of his head hit the ice. Reirden compared the play to a hit by Florida Panthers defenseman Michael Matheson on Vancouver Canucks rookie Elias Pettersson. He was suspended two games on Oct. 15.  

Oshie certainly didn’t look right. He had to stay on the ice as the Caps pushed for the tying goal with the net empty down 2-1. But it took a while for him to get back to his skates and then he wasn’t able to jump on a loose puck in the slot moments before Winnipeg put the game away at the other end of the ice with an empty-net goal. 

The result is one thing for the Capitals (8-7-3), who are still struggling to generate multiple wins in a row. The status of their three key players is more important after a 1-1-0 start to a four-game road trip. 

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5 reasons the Caps lost to the Jets

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5 reasons the Caps lost to the Jets

A shorthanded Caps team entered Wednesday's game, lost Evgeny Kuznetsov midway through the first period and lost the game midway through the third period.

After playing a tight game for two periods, the Jets finally broke the tie in the third period and added an empty-net goal for the 3-1 win.

Here are five reasons the Caps lost:

So many injuries

Braden Holtby was a surprise scratch with an upper-body injury, Michal Kempny was out with an illness and midway through the first period, Kuznetsov took an elbow to the head from Brandon Tanev and had to leave the game for an upper-body injury.

Not having your starting goalie, your top line center or a top-four defenseman makes it hard for any team to win, especially against an opponent as good as Winnipeg.

The second period

With no Braden Holtby and no Michal Kempny, the Caps came out ready to play and completely dominated Winnipeg in the opening frame. Washington took a 1-0 lead in the first and outshot the Jets 10-2.

Things completely flipped in the second period.

Winnipeg took to the Caps in the middle frame as they outshot Washington 14-10, drew two penalties and scored a power play goal to tie the game at one.

The first period was about as perfect a game as a shorthanded Caps team could play. The second period, however, allowed the Jets to climb back into it.

Seven seconds on the power play

The Jets utilize a very similar power play to that of the Caps and it’s about as effective. In fact, Winnipeg is the only team with a better power play this season than Washington. That was on the display in the second period when it took just seven seconds for Winnipeg to carve up the penalty kill and score the game-tying goal.

Mark Scheifele was lined up in the T.J. Oshie spot in the slot ready to take the goal line pass from Kyle Connor and he buried it home just seven seconds into the power play.

A Backstrom shot that somehow did not go in

With the scored tied at 1 in the third, Nicklas Backstrom had a chance to give the Caps the lead. It looked like he did just that, but the puck just would not trickle over the line. Backstrom beat Connor Hellebuyck up high but the puck hit the crossbar. It did not go in. It trickled on the goal line before Hellebuyck swept it off with this stick. It did not go in. Hellebuyck could not control it and the puck trickled back on the line again before getting swept out by Dustin Byfuglien. Once again, It. Did. Not. Go. In.

Three different times it looked like the Caps had taken the lead and all three times the puck somehow did not go in.

One tough goal

Give Copley all the credit in the world. He was given the tough assignment of playing in Winnipeg on the back end of a back-to-back after playing the night before. For the most part, he was brilliant Wednesday.

Unfortunately, in a game that was as close as this one was, Copley’s lone mistake proved costly.

Ben Chiarot carried the puck over the blue line and fired a slap shot from distance that somehow got past the glove of Copley.

The puck was knuckling a bit and may have deflected slightly off the stick of John Carlson – it was not clear from the replay – but in a 1-1 game in the third period, Copley needs to save a shot like that. It was harder than it looked, but the Caps really needed that save.

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