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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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One Capitals player reveals the key to the hit food cart he started in college

One Capitals player reveals the key to the hit food cart he started in college

On the ice, Garnet Hathaway is known for being an enforcer who isn’t afraid to rack up the penalty minutes for getting into fights. Outside the arena, however, he’s made a name for himself as an entrepreneur.

When he was a student-athlete at Brown University in 2012, Hathaway dipped into the family business of selling lobster. Alongside teammate Mike Juola, he hitched the Lazyman Lobster Stand around Rhode Island during his summer breaks to make a few extra bucks in between hockey practices.

“Mike Juola and I got an old sausage cart that was in Fenway [Park], kinda transformed it a little bit…cleaned it a lot,” Hathaway told Capitals teammate Nic Dowd on Monumental Sports’ Level with Me segment. “But I’d drive up to Maine every week, get the meat, bring it back down and sell lobster rolls.”

They hit their fair share of road bumps along the way, with a significant portion of their earnings going right back into buying the lobster from Hathaway’s father—especially at first. But the experience also taught Hathaway the value of learning from mistakes.

The Capitals signed the 28-year-old to a four-year, $6 million contract in July after he spent the first four seasons of his career with the Calgary Flames. Hathaway, who signed with Calgary as an undrafted free agent, didn’t earn consistent playing time until his third season. He turned in a career year in 2018-19, scoring 11 goals with eight assists in 76 games.

Once he got to D.C., it didn’t take long for Capitals fans to catch on to his shellfish-selling past.

Three games into the season, a fan was spotted wearing a No. 21 jersey with “LOBSTAH” printed where Hathaway’s name should’ve been. For his birthday a month later, a young Capitals fan baked him a cake with a lobster on it.

The Hathaways’ passion for lobster runs deep, as Garnet’s father, John, owns a lobster shack in Kennebunkport, Maine. The young Hathaway was a business entrepreneurship major at Brown, so it was only natural that he spread the reach of the family business.

“I should’ve definitely [kept doing it],” Hathaway said. “I had no idea that we had to start an LLC, we had to get a health code—”

“That makes sense, you’re selling seafood,” Dowd cut in. “Not just hot dogs.”

As a full-time NHL player, Hathaway has fallen out of the lobster-selling business. But even after making stops in Calgary and Washington, miles away from his place of business in Rhode Island or hometown in Maine, the lobsters have continued to find him.

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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: What does the future hold for Ovechkin?

Capitals Mailbag Part 2: What does the future hold for Ovechkin?

It’s time for a new Capitals Mailbag! You can read Wednesday’s Part 1 here.

Check out Part 2 below.

Have a Caps question you want answered in the next mailbag? You can submit your questions here at the Capitals Mailbag submissions page on NBCSportsWashington.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Paul Trubits writes: I have a theory that the Caps picked up Ilya Kovalchuk to make Alex Ovechkin happy and to be a big brother to Evgeny Kuznetsov and the other Russians. Any thoughts?

I am sure that was a factor, but that is not why the Capitals ultimately brought him in. While the third line has played better of late, it just has not been able to provide enough offense this season. What's more, when the top-six has struggled, there really is no player for Todd Reirden to plug on the wings in order to shake things up like they had with Brett Connolly and Andre Burakovsky in the past. The addition of Kovalchuk gives this team a much deeper top-nine in terms of scoring depth. He steps in and has more goals (nine) than both Carl Hagelin and Richard Panik (seven each).

Kovalchuk's relationship with the team's Russians likely played a factor in terms of Brian MacLellan feeling confident he would be able to fit into the locker room well, but that ultimately is not why he was brought in.

Captain Obvious writes: With an obvious lack of team speed compared to others, why don't we mirror our most successful campaigns by playing "heavy" and taking away the fluidity of other teams?

That's exactly what they have been getting back to the last few games.

There is a portion of the Caps' fanbase that seems to believe the Caps are "soft." They're not. This is a very heavy team that likes to play a physical style of game. The problem is that it is very hard to do that for 82 games, which is why it's not all that surprising to see the team struggle in January and February. The fact that their "slump" went on for as long as it did was surprising, but I always expected the team to take a step back at some point from the blistering pace it set at the start of the season. It's a lot easier to make those physical plays at the start of the season than it is for a Monday game in February. Because you can't play physically for 82 games, people will watch a random game in which they just don't bring the body that night and declare the team as being soft despite the fact that five of the top 22 hitters in the NHL play for Washington. Watch the two games the Caps have played against the Pittsburgh Penguins. There was clearly an emphasis on physical play, and as a result, the Caps outscored Pittsburgh 6-2 in the third period.

Granted, you have to take "hits" as a stat with a grain of salt because the way hits are measured from arena to arena varies wildly, but make no mistake, this team is a big-bodied team that considers physical play a big part of its identity.

Tim K. writes: How much of the Capitals' faceoff problems come from the centers and how much from the support guys? Philadelphia has strong and quick centers, but it seems that the wings are also really good at collapsing and helping to capture the puck. Is this fixable or a reality the Caps have learned to live with?

This is a great point and something Reirden has talked about before. Winning faceoffs is not just about the centers, it is about the wingers coming in to support. When the faceoff is coming on the left side of the offensive zone, for example, the Caps routinely run a play in which Alex Ovechkin immediately cuts off the wall for the center. If the puck is loose behind the center, he picks it up and shoots. In that sense, it works to the Caps' favor. But there are a lot of losses in the offensive zone, especially when the team is focused on running a play and not coming in to support the center. Overall, I think this contributes to the problem because I don't think the Caps' wingers do enough to support on the faceoffs.

Brett Eppley writes: In the previous mailbag, you brought up Evgeny Kuznetsov's faceoff percentage as 43% this year. Do you think switching him to a winger, a position which would free him of defensive and faceoff responsibilities of being a center, would help get his point production up?

There's more to being a center than faceoffs and defense. Kuznetsov's skating and playmaking ability are ideal for the center position. He is also very good on zone entry. Putting him on the wing would mean involving him in more board battles and the forecheck which would not suit his game well. I get the defensive deficiencies can be frustrating, but Kuznetsov is one of the top offensive centers in the NHL and his skillset dictates that's where he should be. Also, it's a lot harder to find a top-six center than it is a top-six winger. You move Kuznetsov and you've created a gigantic hole in Washington's lineup.

Craig Boden writes: Alex Ovechkin has 700 now, he's 35 in September. What does his next contract look like? And can he get close to 894 goals?

After Ovechkin scored 700 I wrote on whether he could catch Wayne Gretzky's record. I don't know if he will ultimately get there, but the thing fans should be excited about is that the math is becoming more and more realistic.

As for his next contract, my guess is that he goes no more than four years. His next contract will not begin until he is 36 years old. He is going to stay in the NHL as long as he continues playing at a high level, but I can't see him being content as a third-line player scoring 10-15 goals a year. Even when his play eventually drops off -- which, as unbelievable as it may seem, it will at some point -- he can still walk into the KHL and be a top player. I think he re-signs for three or four years and then re-evaluates when that contract ends how close he is to the record and whether he thinks he can get it. As for the price, I don't see him trying to break the bank. Nicklas Backstrom's new deal gives him a cap hit just under what Ovechkin makes now. I think he signs somewhere in the $9.5 to 10.5 million range, but no higher than that.

Justin Cade writes: How would you rank Brian MacLellan’s offseason priorities? Do you see the Caps making an effort to retain Brenden Dillon among trying to secure Jakub Vrána and working out a new deal for Alex Ovechkin?

In terms of priority and not what I think will happen first, Alex Ovechkin's new deal is No. 1, 2 and 3. He can't re-sign until July 1, but I would be shocked if it does not get done by then. The decision on Braden Holtby would be second, though I think the decision is pretty much made at this point. It does not make sense for either side for him to stay in Washington. Assuming he does not re-sign, signing a replacement to be the backup quickly becomes high on the list of priorities as I do not think we are going to see an Ilya Samsonov and either Vitek Vanecek or Pheonix Copley tandem next season unless there are no other viable options.

The blue line will also be a high priority for MacLellan. Dillon just got here but I could see the team trying to re-sign him depending on the level of concern over Michal Kempny's play. Dillon fits the mold of the type of player Brian MacLellan covets, a big physical player who is also mobile and opponents hate to play against. With a glut of left defensemen in the pipeline, however, I believe MacLellan is going to have to make a choice between Dillon and Dmitry Orlov. If Dillon is interested in returning, I am not sure it makes sense to have both signed for long-term because that will make it very difficult for Jonas Siegenthaler, Alex Alexeyev and Martin Fehervary to work their way in.

The mess on the right also has to be figured out. This team needs a second-pair right defenseman and I cannot fathom any way in which they head into next season convincing themselves that Nick Jensen or Orlov can do it. I don't know how much more evidence you need at this point.

As for other players in need of new deals, the team will have to re-sign Jonas Siegenthaler and, as you noted, I would not be surprised if there is some movement to re-sign Vrana. He will have one year left on his contract, but his next deal is not going to get any cheaper. With 24 even-strength goals, he is tied for seventh in the NHL with Jack Eichel and Leon Draisaitl.

John Massey writes: During Ovechkin's five-game goal drought, every time a whistle stopped play and Alex went to the bench, the camera showed him tearing the tape off his stick and re-tapping. It just seemed like he was doing it way more than in the past. I don't understand that dynamic of doing it frequently during stoppages instead of intermissions. Can you explain?

This is a matter of preference. Ovechkin always does this very frequently. Some players are so particular about the tape that if it gets scuffed for rips a little, they take it off and do it all over. Like I said, it's a matter of preference.

Tape affects the sticks' grip of the puck when stickhandling and shooting. For a sniper like Ovechkin, he wants the tape to be just right or he feels his shot will be off. When you are one of only eight players to score 700 goals, you let him tape that stick as often as he wants.

Micah Reed writes: I saw that former Capitals prospect Chase Priskie was dealt by the Carolina Hurricanes to the Florida Panthers in a package for Vincent Trochek. With the way the right side of the Caps’ defense has played out this year and Priskie's decent performance in the AHL, do you think Priskie would have been given a shot with the Caps had he chose to sign here?

Knowing the state of the right side of the defense, I believe Priskie would have been watched carefully in training camp and in Hershey. I do not doubt he would have had a chance in Washington this year. After all, there's a reason the team recalled Martin Fehervary and plugged him into the top four for three games. Priskie would have had a decent shot at being that call-up.

Priskie's decision not to sign with the Caps continues to puzzle me. He left the Caps' organization for a team with a more crowded blue line and was traded away in less than a year. He had every right to do what he did, the rules allowed for him to become a free agent, but I have yet to hear an explanation that makes sense. I tried to interview while he was with Charlotte, but he declined.

Mike Doyle writes: I was born in the DC area but now live in Connecticut so everything I get to see with the Caps is on TV. It seems to me like the arena is not as loud as it used to be. Do you think our fans are not as into the regular season games as other team’s fans or is my TV just not picking it up?

If you are going off of recent games, the arena has been full of trepidation during the team's recent skid. The Caps' fanbase is nothing if not pessimistic. Otherwise, the arena has been just as boisterous as ever.

Cory Goodwin writes: I come from a country where hockey is not so prevalent which makes it hard to learn. So, I was wondering how the players know to change lines? Is it just instinct, or the coaches, or something else?

The coaches will tell the players when to change lines or players on the ice will head over for a change. When teams change on the fly, players will always go in for their corresponding position to avoid too many players going on too soon and getting a too-many men penalty. Also, during a stoppage in play, teams have to wait for the referee to say they can change. The visiting team always has to change first during a stoppage. This gives the home team an advantage of seeing who is on the ice and matching up accordingly.

By all means, feel free to send in your hockey 101 question! It can be a complicated sport sometimes and there are plenty of games where I find myself looking through the rule book.

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want to be answered in the next mailbag, you can submit it here at the Capitals Mailbag submissions page on NBCSportsWashington.com.

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