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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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Prospect Joe Snively was cheering outside Capital One Arena when the Capitals won the Stanley Cup

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Prospect Joe Snively was cheering outside Capital One Arena when the Capitals won the Stanley Cup

There were many incredible aspects to the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup run, but one of the best was how fans took over the streets in the Stanley Cup Final. Little did we know that a future Cap was among the faithful outside of Capital One Arena.

Forward prospect and Herndon, Va. native Joe Snively was signed as a college free agent in March 2019. He is an alum of the Little Capitals local youth hockey program and, not surprisingly given his background, he grew up as a Caps fan.

For all Washington fans, June 7, 2018, is a day that will never be forgotten as it was the day the team won its first Stanley Cup. We all have our own story of where we were that day and how we watched. Snively is no different.

“I was downtown DC outside the arena watching on the big screen,” he told Mike Vogel in an interview at the team’s development camp.

“It was a great feeling,” Snively continued. “At that time I didn’t know I’d have the opportunity to sign with the Capitals and it was an amazing feeling. I’ve been a Caps fan ever since I started watching hockey and it was great to see them after all those years in the playoffs to win the Cup. It was amazing.”

The Alex Ovechkin era is important to Washington hockey not just because he brought the city a Cup, but because of the increased interest at the youth level. Interest early on should increase the sport and the team’s popularity. That, in turn, should lead to more youth participation which should lead to a more competitive youth program and homegrown talent entering professional hockey. The increased interest from that should further boost hockey in the region thus repeating the cycle.

Snively is just the first example.

It kind of makes you wonder how many other future Caps were in that crowd watching the team win the Cup.

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20 Burning Capitals Questions: Can the power play get back to an elite level?

20 Burning Capitals Questions: Can the power play get back to an elite level?

The long, endless summer is only halfway done. The Capitals last played a game on April 24 and will not play another one until Oct. 2. 

But with free agency and the NHL Draft behind them now, the 2019-2020 roster is almost set and it won’t be long until players begin trickling back onto the ice in Arlington for informal workouts.  

With that in mind, and given the roasting temperatures outside, for the next three weeks NBC Sports Washington will look at 20 burning questions facing the Capitals as they look to rebound from an early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs, keep alive their Metropolitan Division title streak and get back to their championship form of 2018.   

The list will look at potential individual milestones, roster questions, prospects who might help and star players with uncertain futures. Today we look at a power play that dipped out of the top 10 last season. Can a unit that has been so consistent for so long get back to that top level? 

This comes back to tactics more than personnel. The same players are back who have been part of this unit for years. Alex Ovechkin is the ultimate weapon in the left face-off circle, John Carlson mans the point, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov do their thing on the half wall and below the net and T.J. Oshie is the trigger man in the slot. 

Those five players all had 227 minutes of power-play time last year or more. Ovechkin had 17 goals which is about standard for the best ever. Kuznetsov came next with eight goals and 13 assists. Backstrom had four goals, but 17 assists. Carlson had two goals and 27 assists. 

Oshie missed 13 games so his numbers are a little down, but in the games he did play he still hit six goals and eight assists. Tom Wilson was Oshie’s primary replacement in that bumper position and he had three goals. 

Not too bad for Blaine Forsythe’s group. He’s the assistant coach who has run the power play the past five years. You can’t argue with the track record. Unfortunately, the expectations for Washington’s power play are massive given that talent level and it’s fair to say it fell short at 12thoverall in the NHL at 20.8 percent.

Again, 49-for-236 isn’t bad. It’s just the talent level says it should be better. The Capitals were seventh in 2017-18 (22.5 percent), fourth in 2016-17 (23.1 percent), fifth in 2015-16 (21.9 percent), first in 2014-15 (25.3 percent), tied for first in 2013-14 (23.4 percent) and first again in 2012-13 (26.8 percent). The last time Washington finished outside the top 10 on the power play was in 2011-12 when it cratered to 18th (16.7 percent). 

There are a few issues that could be tweaked. The Capitals managed just 236 power-play chances. That tied for 16thin the league. To even break into the top 10 in that category they’d need 16 more penalties drawn. 

Only three times after Oct. 22 did they score two power-play goals in the same game and never more than that. How does that even happen? They had two or more power-play goals four times in the first eight games alone, including four on opening night. After that? It was one and done, 

Kuznetsov is one of the best in the game at getting the puck into the offensive zone. Fans loathe it, but the drop pass – or “the slingshot” – has become an effective way, when used properly, to get the puck into the offensive zone on the power play. It just didn’t seem to work all that well for Washington last year. 

One wonders if Forsythe will make some tweaks there. Kuznetsov was often the player on the receiving end of the drop passes, which can keep the penalty kill off balance, but can also waste precious seconds when it doesn’t work. Then you have to regroup and try again. 

It’s not going away, though – even for those who want to slingshot the drop pass to the moon. It’s used all over the league. Some teams like to use two players as options when coming up ice using the slingshot. That’s easier to defend in some ways, but it also gives your team a certain level of unpredictability. 

Maybe teams have just become better at defending the Capitals on the PK simply because they have had the same personnel and coaching for years now. Opposing coaching staffs have hours of video on this group to break down and analyze. 

But there’s no reason to change too much. That Ovechkin one-timer is the ultimate weapon and you don’t want to stifle the creativity of players like Backstrom or Kuznetsov.

Maybe quicker unit changes would help keep players fresh. Ovechkin is almost always going to be out there for the full two minutes and it would be silly to take that shot off the ice. But developing a more reliable second group might help, too. 

Last year’s “second” unit by ice time was Lars Eller, Jakub Vrana, Wilson, Brett Connolly and Dmitry Orlov/Matt Niskanen. Connolly is gone via free agency. Niskanen is gone via trade. One wonders why Andre Burakovsky was hardly used (18:25), but he’s gone, too, in a trade. 

Will be interesting to see if Forsythe can come up with a more reliable second group centered around Ovechkin, Eller and Vrana, who deserves more power-play time even if he’s buried on this roster, and Wilson as the big body in the middle. Richard Panik was fifth on the Arizona Coyotes in power-play minutes last season (146:16) so maybe he has a role there. 

The very best Washington power plays in recent years had secondary players like Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams around before the salary cap cleaved that depth. The Capitals were still a very good power play in 2018-19, but they could use more of that. These are minor changes that could get them back toward the very top of the league and helps take pressure off its 5-on-5 play. 

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