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Capitals' playoff opponent watch: Battling Brooklyn

Capitals' playoff opponent watch: Battling Brooklyn

In the final stretch of the season, it’s time to start projecting possible first round matchups for the Caps.

As of March 8, Washington holds a five-point lead over Columbus for first place in the Metropolitan Division and an 11-point lead over Montreal for first place in the Eastern Conference. That means we need to look at teams that could finish in the second wild card spot for possible opponents.

As of right now the Caps would be playing: New York Islanders (73 points)

Caps’ record vs. Islanders this season: 2-3-0

The Islanders have been a tough out for the Caps this season and have also been on a roll under interim coach Doug Weight who took over for Jack Capuano in January. Washington has only played New York once since Weight took over, a 3-2 loss on Jan. 31. If you’re worried about the Islanders, however, the good news is that they are not likely to stay in this spot through the rest of the season.  Every game is going to matter down the stretch and  the Islanders have a four-game road trip in April and close out the season with a back-to-back with New Jersey on April 8 and Ottawa 23 hours later on April 9.

RELATED: Capitals ink two college free agents

Other possible playoff opponents

Boston Bruins (74 points)

Caps’ record vs. Bruins this season: 2-0-0 (1 game remaining on April 8)

Boston currently sits in third place in the Atlantic. For them to slide into the second wild card spot, another team from the Atlantic will have to overtake them and bump them out of the top three. Like the Islanders, Boston is thriving after a mid-season coaching change. Former Capitals coach Bruce Cassidy is now the interim coach of the Bruins and they have gone 8-3-0 under his watch thus far. If they can keep that pace up, they will remain in the top three and avoid that matchup with the Caps.

Toronto Maple Leafs (72 points)

Caps’ record vs. Leafs this season: 1-1-0 (1 game remaining on April 4)

This is a team that Washington simply has not played well against this season. The Caps’ one win came on Jan. 3 in a game in which they allowed five goals and Braden Holtby was pulled after the first period. The Leafs are way ahead of schedule with their rebuild and have a very good chance of sneaking into the playoffs in that last wild card spot. Because of their youth and inexperience, a Washington-Toronto series is one the Caps should win, but playoff matchups against a Mike Babcock-coached team are best avoided.

Philadelphia Flyers (70 points)

Caps’ record vs. Flyers this season: 3-0-1

After a 10-game win streak earlier in the season, being three points out of the playoffs is not where Philadelphia expected to be at this point. The Flyers have essentially been swooning ever since that streak and have not come close to that level of play. The only issue a series with Philadelphia would likely pose for the Caps is a risk of injury considering how physical the Flyers play. Otherwise, this would likely be an easily winnable series for Washington.

Tampa Bay Lightning (69 points)

Caps’ record vs. Lighting this season: 1-0-1 (1 game remaining on March 18)

This is a matchup you should hope the Caps avoid. Yes, they are 1-0-1 against Tampa, but this Lightning team has grossly underachieved all season and has only recently begun to heat up. Tampa went to the Stanley Cup Finals two years ago and made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals last season, forcing seven games out of the eventual Stanley Cup champion Penguins. But Tampa is without Steven Stamkos, you say? Do you know how many games the Lightning got out of Steven Stamkos in the playoffs last year? Just one and they still came within one game of repeating as Eastern Conference champs. What’s more is Stamkos is skating with the team again and is nearing a return from a knee injury that has kept him out since November. Tampa is far better than a second wild card team and that’s without Stamkos. Add him to the mix and this is a matchup you really don’t want to see for the Caps in the first round.

Florida Panthers (69 points)

Caps’ record vs. Panthers this season: 2-0-0 (1 game remaining on April 9)

The Panthers are another team that elected to make a midseason coaching change, but they did not seem to get the same sort of spark from the move as Boston or New York. Tom Rowe took over behind the bench when Gerard Gallant was unexpectedly fired in November. Since then, Florida hovered around mediocrity until Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov returned to the lineup in February prompting a surge in the standings. After sweeping a five-game road trip, however, Florida has lost six of their last seven and are in danger of soon falling out of the playoff race completely.

MORE CAPITALS: Burakovsky won't travel with Caps, after all

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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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MacLellan releases statement on Schmidt, says Caps have prospects 'ready to make the jump'

MacLellan releases statement on Schmidt, says Caps have prospects 'ready to make the jump'

Nate Schmidt is headed to Vegas and now the Caps are left to pick up the pieces and plug the hole they suddenly find in the top-four of their defense.

How do the Caps plan to plug that hole? General manager Brian MacLellan sounds pretty confident the team has internal candidates ready to step up.

RELATED: Vegas swipes Schmidt from Caps in expansion draft

MacLellan released the following statement on Tuesday:

We want to thank Nate for his contributions to our organization the past four seasons and wish him all the best in Vegas. 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.

Prospects Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos are expected to compete for spots on the Capitals' roster this season, but is either one of them ready to step into a top-four role right away? As confident as MacLellan may sound, he may have to look outside of the club in order to replace Schmidt next season.

MORE CAPITALS: Holtby falls short of claiming second Vezina