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Will Nate Schmidt's play keep him in the Caps' lineup?

Will Nate Schmidt's play keep him in the Caps' lineup?

Karl Alzner skated for a second straight day on Thursday, though it remains unclear when the Capitals defenseman will be ready to return to the lineup.

He’s missed the last two games with an upper body injury.

“Day to day,” Trotz when asked about Alzner’s recovery.

Alzner took a twirl at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, but there was no contact involved. He was joined on the ice by only a handful of teammates.

RELATED: Trotz surprised by disallowed goal after Andersen grabbed Backstrom

If there is a silver lining to losing a big-minute blue liner in the postseason, it's this: thanks to Nate Schmidt's outstanding play the past two games, the Caps have the luxury of allowing Alzner all the time he needs.

Since entering the lineup in Game 3, Schmidt has been on the ice for five of the Capitals’ eight goals. Conversely, he’s only been on the ice for one Leafs’ goal—and the puck hit him in the visor before going to Auston Matthews in Monday’s game. 

Schmidt's plus-4 rating leads the Caps.

In addition, Schmidt has two assists, which is tied for the most among the Caps’ blue liners (in half the games). He also skated 45 seconds on the critical 5-on-3 penalty kill to start the third period in Game 4.

It's a small sample size and Alzner has been a big part of the Caps for a long time. But it begs the question: If Schmidt continues to play well, will he put the Caps’ coaching staff in a tough spot when Alzner is healthy?

Trotz wasn’t ready to go there on Thursday.

“We’ll see when he’s ready to play what our status on defense is,” is all the coach would offer up

Check out the latest edition of the Capitals Faceoff Podcast!

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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Why is Vrana on the third line?

Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Why is Vrana on the third line?

It’s time for a new Capitals mailbag! Check out Part 1 below.

Have a Caps question you want answered in the next mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Benjamin C. writes: Carl Hagelin was great on Sunday but why is he on the second line over Jakub Vrana still? I don’t think Vrana and Evgeny Kuznetsov have good chemistry so shouldn’t Vrana move to 2nd and Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom try switching, like the Cup run?

@sports_god1 on Twitter writes: How is Jakub Vrana expected to score his 30+ goals if Todd Reirden is going to punish him on the third line? Everybody knows he’s a top 6 forward.

Sometimes as hockey fans we can have very black and white opinions on personnel moves. This player is better than that player, so they should be on the higher line. In reality, it’s not that simple.

Phil Kessel is a top-six player. In fact, he is more than that, he’s a superstar. But if you turn the clocks back to 2016, Kessel was playing on the third line for the Pittsburgh Penguins and you know what? It proved to be instrumental in them winning the Cup.

There are two things at play here. First, Vrana is a young player who is still developing. Second, the Caps need more production from the third line.

Let’s tackle the first part. Young players are going to catch the ire of coaches more than veterans for their mistakes. It is expected they will make mistakes and the coaches have to correct them. If Backstrom turns the puck over, you know he knows better and you move on. The younger players though need more coaching.

You can quibble with the notion that there are other ways to coach than benching a player, but let's be real, none of the early mistakes we have seen from Vrana are new. The fact of the matter is that these games matter and any mistake can cost a team two points. A younger player would probably get more leeway in the AHL, but this is the NHL and coaches care more about winning than anything else.

The issue I see with Vrana’s game in the early going is that he does not contribute much of anything when he’s not producing. Alex Ovechkin can still have a positive impact on a game without a point, as can Backstrom, Tom Wilson, T.J. Oshie, etc. If you’re going to be a top-six forward, you have to contribute more than just points.

That may sound odd, but it’s true. Patrik Laine may be the next great goal scorer, but he just got a bridge “prove it” deal from the Jets because if he’s not scoring, he is essentially a non-factor. The same can be said of Vrana at the start of this season.

You accept that from a bottom-six guy. Brett Connolly did not do much else other than score, but if you can do that on limited third-line minutes, you take it.  The reason Hagelin was promoted despite a low offensive ceiling is because he is a player who knows how to affect the game in numerous positive ways not limited to just the scoresheet.

Vrana absolutely has top-six skill, but he needs to learn there is more to the game than points. You can see it in his body language that frustration when he doesn’t score affects his game. That’s a problem. Tuesday’s game was encouraging though because of the play he made on Wilson’s goal, driving hard to the net to clear the passing lane open for Wilson to get the puck. Vrana did not get a point on the play, but he completely set it up.

As for the second part, it is not enough in this day and age to rely solely on your top-six for production. Teams need a top-nine that can score. That third line has not been up to snuff thus far. I have long advocated for Oshie to move to that line in part because having a scorer like him would make that line more dangerous. I suspect putting Vrana on that line is in part due to his mistakes but also partly because Reirden is hosting Vrana can coax more offense out of that line.

As for the last bit about switching Backstrom with Kuznetsov, I am surprised we did not see that more last year given how good the Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Wilson line was in the playoffs in the Cup run. Kuznetsov's inconsistencies may be preventing this for now, but I would not be surprised to see it soon.

Doug F. writes: When Michal Kempny returns I see Tyler Lewington getting the scratch. He's had 17 PIM in his first four games this season and 0 points. Would you see Lewington getting sent down or do you think I'm overlooking something and is there a reason they would keep him up over another defenseman?

Obviously Doug wrote this before Kempny returned.

You were right about Lewington getting the scratch. In terms of whether he will stay in Washington, you are overlooking something and that is the salary cap.

Lewington has the lowest cap hit in the organization at $675,000. The house of cards that is Washington's salary cap likely falls apart without him as the No. 7. With the team as tight against the cap as it is, I do not believe they are close to banking enough space to replacing him.

To be fair, all 17 of Lewington’s penalty minutes came against the Colorado Avalanche when he was named the instigator in his fight against Valeri Nichushkin. He was given a two-minute minor, a five-minute major and a 10-minute misconduct all for that one fight so don’t look at those 17 PIM and think it’s because Lewington can’t stay out of the box. He has not taken another penalty other than that one instance.

Lewington’s ceiling in the NHL is a No. 7 defenseman. I know people saw him score the Gordie Howe hat trick last season, but that's not ultimately what you can expect night in and night out. He’s a high-end AHL player, but not someone an NHL team should have playing an every-day role. He’s essentially the new Taylor Chorney in that he’s someone the team can park as a healthy scratch for much of the season without any worry about what it will do for his development. We already know what he is.

At some point, the team will be able to bank enough space for a player like Martin Fehervary or Alex Alexeyev, but neither player should be called up unless the Caps intend to use them. If all the Caps need is a cheap No. 7, then Lewington is their guy.

@BRose_bro on Twitter writes: Thoughts on Garnet Hathaway so far?

He’s fantastic.

The type of player he is can be summed up in what he did against the New York Rangers. Hathaway was knocked out of the game in the second period with a broken nose, came back in the third, drew a cross-check, fought Brendan Smith (again, with a broken nose), the Caps scored on the resulting power play and Hathaway finished off the game with an empty-netter.

There are a lot of players like Hathway who, on any given night, can prove to be as much of a liability as they are an asset. Hathway was visibly pissed when he returned after his nose was broken and he wanted to fight somebody, but he didn’t put his team in a bad position by taking a dumb penalty because he was mad. He actually drew a penalty before throwing down and it proved to be the pivotal moment of the game.

The fact that he has been able to produce somewhat after getting bumped up to the third line is encouraging too. He ultimately should be a fourth-line player and you hope Reirden doesn’t get too enamored with him and he keeps him on the third line than he should. But otherwise Hathaway looks like a total home run.

@sports_god1 on Twitter writes: Where would you rank the Caps’ fourth line among the NHL fourth lines as it’s pretty strong?

It’s a bit too early in the season for rankings (check out my weekly Power Rankings here!), especially given that the trio has moved around a bit with Nic Dowd in and out of the lineup, Hathaway playing on the third and Richard Panik’s brief stint on the fourth before going on LTIR. Having said that, the fourth line has been brilliant and has proven to be a huge asset for the team thus far. The best most teams can hope for from their fourth line is that it doesn’t hurt the team when it’s on the ice. The Caps don’t have to worry about that.

Thanks for all your questions! Part 2 of the mailbag will be coming on Thursday. If you have a question you want to be answered in the next mailbag, send it to or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.


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A more aggressive Caps team is looking for more offense from the defense

A more aggressive Caps team is looking for more offense from the defense

In the 2017-18 season, the Washington Capitals finished dead last in the NHL in shots on goal. While the modern wave of analytics stressed possession as measured by shot attempts, the Caps bucked that trend and elected to focus more on generating high-quality shots even if it meant shooting less. The result was a lot of frustrated fans, but 3.12 goals per game -- good for 9th in the NHL -- and a Stanley Cup.

Since the 2017-18 season, however, the offensive mindset in Washington has changed and that is evident by how much the defense has been involved in the offense this season.

“When you get more pucks on net, it's more chances you're going to get to score,” Dmitry Orlov said.

That represents a significant mindset change from the team just one year ago.

“It doesn't make a ton of sense for me to take a wrist shot from the blue line if there's not a screen,” Matt Niskanen said in October 2018. “Maybe one out of 300, 400 is going in, especially with my shot. You can shoot to create if there's traffic around and stuff, but just in general, shooting just to shoot isn't a good philosophy I don't think. That kind of gets lost in the analytics crowd. It just doesn't make a whole lot of sense to just waste it."

But an offensive philosophy that places such a high degree of emphasis on high-danger opportunities limits the offensive role of the defense since defensemen are much less likely to find themselves in those high-danger areas of the ice. Most shots from defensemen are going to be the type Niskanen was referring to.

The team has gradually softened its stance since then which has led to more involvement from the defense and more shots.

In the 2017-18 season, Washington ranked 30th in the NHL with 3,607 shot attempts at 5-on-5. In 2018-19, the team improved to 17th with 3,713 5-on-5 shot attempts. It may be a small sample size just 11 games into the season, but the Caps currently rank 16th in the league in 5-on-5 shot attempts per game (38.3).

One difference is more perimeter shots including from the blue line.

"We're switching more to shooting the puck whenever you have a chance or a lane," Jonas Siegenthaler said. "A couple years ago, you were always looking for the next play or a green shot."

While Niskanen seemed not to be a fan, the defensemen seem to enjoy the opportunity to try to contribute offensively.

"I like that more, personally," Siegenthaler said. "Pretty sure the guys like it too. If the D gets the puck up on the blue line, if he sees the lane he shoots, we have two guys in front of the net. I think the forwards they like that too. It's never a bad play."

But the main tweak to the offense this season is the emphasis on the defensemen to pinch in the offensive zone. Basically the defensemen are encouraged to move up deeper into the zone and join the attack if they have an opening to do so.

"Our style of defense is taking time and space, be hard on people," Michal Kempny said. "You can now short in on the short side, like pinching. It's kind of a little change instead of least season, but I think we are getting more and more comfortable every game and just keep it up."

This change led to Kempny, a player who previously had scored only 11 goals in his NHL career, scoring a goal in his first game after returning from injury. It also is a factor in John Carlson’s offensive surge to start the season. Even a player like Siegenthaler can often be found deep in the zone joining the attack.

"The whole system is more aggressive," Siegenthaler said. "I think somehow it kind of translates to the D-men. You're always moving so you're not afraid to join the rush or go up to the play with the forwards."

"It's a little bit of our aggressive mindset that you've heard me discuss from the beginning of the year," head coach Todd Reirden said at practice Saturday. "As opposed to major, major systematic adjustments, a lot of it's been our mindset. Yeah, there's been some tweaks and some different things there, but it's something that we're able to do this year. ... I think we've kept pucks alive a lot more in the offensive zone and our D are in a spot where they're able to help with keeping those pucks alive."

This philosophy is not without risk. Whenever a defenseman moves up it can leave the team more vulnerable to a quick breakout or counter attack. The players have to be in constant communication so the forwards know when someone has to move back to the blue line in order to compensate for a defenseman moving up.

"We have to have a forward back to cover for them," Reirden said. "I think our forwards have done a really good job of, when our D have been active, of covering for them. It's not perfect yet, but it's something that we're working on. We've obviously given up a couple goals along the way through the learning process of trying to be a little bit more aggressive in that way, but I think the benefits for me outweigh the negatives right now."

The Caps’ began to shift their philosophy last season with more shots on goal. This year, they incorporated a larger offensive role for the defense, one that meshes well with the team’s more aggressive mindset.

Just 11 games into the season, it seems to be working.

Washington ranks third in the league with 3.73 goals per game while Carlson leads the entire NHL with 20 points.

"We're really playing on our toes more, we're using our skating to be more of a factor keeping pucks alive in the offensive zone," Reirden said, "And then whenever we're able to convert on them, that's always a bonus."